October is Ending – School Can Finally Begin!

This month of October that is just about to end was given over to standardized testing in many schools in Maine. Testing sessions impacted students in very powerful ways. New material could not be taught. Students had to tread water in terms of tackling new concepts and skills. Schools were focused on producing data about students’ prior learning.

I think spending the month of October on testing was questionable. We should look to successful models when we make decisions about how to spend our time in schools. In Finland a tiny sampling of students in each school participates in standardized testing just once every four years. Apparently this produces enough data to create a world-class school system. Finland has rocked the education world with its academic successes for over a decade. How do they do it? They hire top academic students to become teachers and then they give them free training, a respectful environment in which to work, and  autonomy to plan instruction. They certainly do not spend one of the first months of the school year asking a generation of students to fill in bubbles on tests.

Testing wrecks havoc on school life. Schools need routines to be successful. Routines are the backbone of a productive classroom.  Without established routines much time is wasted organizing students to be ready to learn. Generally the first months of school see the building of these routines. Yet nothing is as usual during school testing season. Students do not follow their usual schedule. Special Education students do not receive their usual services.  Instead they join in with other classes so teachers can be freed up to accommodate individual testing needs. This means that student groupings change for everyone during testing weeks. Seating plans can’t be made – new, visiting students are liable to show up in classes they don’t usually attend during testing weeks. Those students most likely to take advantage of a break in routines go hog-wild during testing season. The presence of temporary students in the mix, and the irregularity of class sessions, says ‘party time’ for those students most at risk. For teachers just learning who their new students are, the changing groupings, and changing schedules, during testing season complicates really getting to know their new students.

I would never say that standardized tests are worthless and should be completely trashed. Let’s look to successful models, though, and see how they are best used. We don’t have to stir around endlessly in our own mud pile, trying to figure out the best approach to testing all by ourselves. Why not look to the rock star countries of the education world and learn moderation? A small sampling of students once every four years … sounds good to me.

Meanwhile, on to November. Time to really settle in. Teachers are breathing a sigh of relief.   School is finally beginning!

Kathreen Harrison

About Kathreen Harrison

Kathreen Harrison is a public school teacher in Maine. She has a master’s degree from Bank Street College of Education and a bachelor’s degree from Harvard College. She has worked in a variety of schools in New York and Maine in a number of capacities – French teacher, gifted and talented teacher, elementary school teacher, and curriculum coordinator for island schools. She has lived in Maine for 20 years and has a particular interest in school reform.