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A Week without Testing: A Whole Child Experience


During the week of November 28th through December 2nd, our school participated in our very own No Testing Week. I must admit that I hardly slept Sunday night because I was eager to see what teachers had planned. It's not that we are totally driven by data and have to test every day but it certainly does feel as though we are consumed by testing.

Testing and assessment are very different. We can assess students' understanding of concepts. Assessment is a powerful tool that all educators need to understand. Testing, however, is something different. It may have started as a powerful tool to help guide instruction but it has turned into a corporate driven top-down decision to prove that schools are failing.

In a time when all we seem to hear about in education is high stakes testing and that schools are failing, I wanted to take the opportunity to look at our students differently. It gave us the occasion to watch all of our students shine. No Testing Week was all about 21st century skills. They used their critical thinking skills, communicated with one another on many collaborative projects and they were very creative.

On Monday morning, I walked into our main lobby to find a several very energized parents tying up loose ends getting ready for our Scholastic Book Fair, which was one of the catalysts for doing a no testing week. Books are inspiring and the idea of being surrounded by high quality books with amazing illustrations is what inspired me to create a week that focused on creativity.

We kicked the week off with a reader's theatre about Matt McElligott's book Bean Thirteen. We had thirteen second graders help us out. The teachers read their parts and I stumbled through mine. Our librarian narrated. Although I don't think it was an Oscar worthy performance, the students seemed to enjoy it.

As I made my way down the hallways I came upon our third grade wing, and they had treasure chests outside of each of the three classrooms as well as pirate banners hanging from the wall. The whole idea for the pirate theme is that Matt McElligott, a children's author, was going to visit on Friday night. Matt writes about many things but his favorite subject is pirates. Friday was designated as "Dress Like a Pirate Day."

Our fourth grade teachers created a longhouse with their students in one of our hallways. It took them all week but it included math and social studies, not to mention inquiry-based as well as project-based learning. It took them a few weeks to plan out how this was going to work and they did an amazing job.

All six grade levels completed student-centered projects that were inquiry based in nature and provided the opportunity for students to work hands-on with one another. Whether I walked into kindergarten, first or second grades, they were all engaged in age appropriate activities. A first grader told me this was the "bestest" week he had ever had. It was exciting to walk around the school and see the students so eagerly engaged in their own learning.

Interesting Turn of Events
As the week went on I received an e-mail from the NY State Education Department (SED). It was sent to their listserv and focused on changes regarding the 3rd - 8th grade ELA and Math exams. The document that announced the changes stated that our students would have to take 4 exams in two days.

Two of the ELA exams to be taken were 70 minutes each which meant that our students would be taking exams for about two and ½ hours one day and almost two hours the next day. It almost seemed cruel to be sent these e-mails during a "No Testing Week." It also seemed cruel to think that we focus so much on movement and hands-on learning in schools that we would make students sit for hours taking a paper and pencil exam.

However, all of that quickly changed when all public school principals and superintendents in New York State received three e-mails over two days. The following is what we received.

"Dear Principal,
Please see the message below regarding the Grades 3-8 Testing Program. This message replaces the information you may be receiving as the system mails you an update from the Office of State Assessment. The information we have sent you is undergoing revision and is not accurate. Please wait for further information. Thank you and I apologize for the inconvenience"(SED).

As I read down, it all became rather clear why there was a clarification e-mail.

"Dear Colleagues - earlier today a guidance document on the 2012 3-8 testing program was released prematurely. Please disregard the email and associated documents as the Department is still reviewing time lines, content, and structure, and will seek field input on these issues prior to final release.

We apologize for any confusion that this may have caused"(SED).

To date we do not know if they realized the increase in testing time was borderline educational malpractice on our students, or they did not want us all to e-mail and call SED. What we do know is that David Abrams, the Assistant Commissioner of the Office of Assessment Policy, Development and Administration resigned the following day.

If it is true that SED plans to increase the testing time for our students who are as young as seven, then it is another symbol that our state education departments are going in the opposite direction of where schools need to go. High stakes testing does not look at the whole child (ASCD). It only helps us understand one type of learner.

It is up to our state and federal education departments to decide whether they want to continue down these dark days of education or move to the enlightenment where we are less focused on high stakes testing, the wealthy publishers who create the tests and the textbooks that go with them. We can only be driven by reliable data if we are truly going to help our students. Forcing our students to sit for two hours and ½ hours to take an exam is not good data.

In the End
For one week it felt like we won. Students and teachers were engaged in real learning, where every moment that surrounded them was an educational opportunity. They saw themselves in a different light. Our staff provided the freedom to have a week without testing where they got in touch with their creative side. I am extremely proud to work with a staff that created so many great learning experiences for kids.

No Testing Week was a time to reflect on why we teach children and get a better understanding of what truly matters in education. Teaching all learners, regardless of whether they are a 1,2,3 or 4 on a high stakes test, is why we entered the profession in the first place.

I encourage you to try a week without testing. In addition, if you have not already done so, I encourage you to read the letter written by New York principals regarding their concerns about teacher and administrator evaluation, which at some point could be your concern if states across the country adopt a system that links performance on high stakes testing to evaluation. Please consider signing your name with the hundreds of educators who have already signed.

Follow Peter on Twitter.


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