Updated: Jan 9, 2020
While living in Washington State in the US, after having taught special education for many years, I had the pleasure of teaching 5th grade for three years. Fifth graders are my favorite. They are starting to come into their own sense of self, they are forming their own opinions, and they are beginning to ask deep questions. I especially loved teaching history to fifth graders because big connections started to form. Most are able to put themselves in the shoes of their historical counterparts and imagine what it might have been like for the first time. This meant profound questions about slavery and war among many other topics. It was an honor to go through this time of academic awakening for these students.
However, it is also the time when testing, standardized testing in particular, started to become a part of their vernacular and invade their thoughts. Premature conversations about college were starting which meant thinking about scores on admissions tests such as the ACT and SAT.
Standardized tests take place in the spring in Washington state. These tests were hyped for quite sometime before the testing week and teachers, parents, and students seemed rattled as they approached. It was no wonder there was so much worry and anxiety as weeks prior to the test were spent teaching test-taking-skills and giving practice tests. However the tides were changing, and as I was leaving the American public school teaching environment in 2013, more and more parents were opting their children out of these tests.
A quick internet search leads one to find many reasons for parents to opt their children out of standardized testing. Loss of classroom learning time, results provide no benefit to students or teachers, and they are seen as a breach of data privacy, just to name a few. There are even form letters that can be printed and only need a signature to elect not to take a test.
Here in Switzerland, our 8th grader just completed her first standardized test. If we were still living in the US, she would have nearly 6 or 7 under her belt. I haven’t thought about this type of testing much since moving to Switzerland six years ago. Watching her go through this process, I couldn’t help but notice some stark differences between the way US and Swiss students experience standardized tests.
1. The school atmosphere remains on an even keel
No extra recesses. No demeaning letters sent home describing how to make a healthy breakfast. No parent volunteers providing elaborate snacks complete with positive affirmation banners and mylar balloons. No class parent competition to see who can throw the most elaborate party at the end of the testing week.
2. School curriculum goes on as normal
No teaching to the test. No discussions about tips and tricks for how to take a standardized test. No practice tests. No special workbook which must be used at least 30 minutes a day to help prepare the students.
Students have regularly scheduled lessons and assessments during the week of the test. Families are asked to attend a one-hour parent night to explain the test format and its purpose and informed of the week they will be tested.
3. Results are immediate
No results showing up 3-6 months after the test. No waiting so long that students have forgotten that they even took a test.
Students take the test every morning for one week. Over the lunch break on Friday, the students bring their results home. The same day they complete the test!
4. Feedback is used to help direct a conversation about strengths and weaknesses
No results put into students’ files never to see the light of day. No results sent directly to parents to let them interpret on their own.
A joint parent and student meeting is scheduled within two weeks of the test to discuss what electives would best serve the student’s interests in 9th grade.
5. Results are not used to measure the success of a teacher or school
No pulling funds if the school doesn’t reach a certain point on the bell curve. No discussions with the principal if your class performed lower than their counterparts.
Results are not published and not used to make school funding decisions. They are seen as individual measures to make individual decisions.
The bottom line is that there are going to be standardized tests in a student’s life. Entrance into an elite school path, university entrance exams, and annual spot checks are all examples. But now that I’ve seen an example of how standardized tests are utilized in Switzerland, the methods and pomp that surround the tests in the US seem even more absurd.
Yes, put the test results to good use.
Yes, remove the link between test scores and school funding.
Yes, a standardized test is only a dipstick test for one point in time.
April Remfrey is an American special education consultant living and loving life in Switzerland. Please feel free to share this blog post by giving credit to the author and the website link: www.remfreyeducationalconsulting.com