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Giving Students a Voice in the Testing Debate

Darnell Fine

"We've been swimming with the alligators too long; it's time to drain the swamp."

I picked up this quotation from another teacher while discussing the murky waters of education. When educators begin to function in ethically questionable ways, we must reformulate the objectives of public schools. For years, testing has stifled our teaching in the name of adequate yearly progress. But maybe we, the educators, aren't the ones flailing our arms around in the swamp. Maybe we are just alligators along with the businessmen, administrators, and other authority figures clamping their mouths around conversations about testing.

When an 8th grader writing in the in the Washington Post mocks the very nature of cookie-cutter assessments, I can't help but think of the persistent divide between my own students and standardized tests. This divide becomes even more apparent when culturally biased and culturally irrelevant tests don't respond to the lived experiences of low-income students of color.

If students weren't routinely excluded from conversations about testing, what criticisms and advice might they offer on what matters in teaching and learning? Given that students are the daily observers of us educators, how might they propose measuring and assessing the effectiveness of their teachers? If students were given the choice, what means of assessment would they select to show what they know and what they are able to do?

Teachers complain about the top-down mandates of standardized testing, but imagine how the students feel. Let's demystify the conversations around assessments and gather some input from students. Let's give them the opportunity to brainstorm learning activities that could help them meet skill objectives on student-constructed rubrics and authentic performance tasks. Allow them autonomy to select topics they wish to explore and to develop essential questions that facilitate life-long learning relevant to their lives.

Most of all, let's give students a voice in the decision-making processes of school. Let's give them the opportunity to raise questions about testing and teacher effectiveness that may very well challenge age-old practices in education. Maybe it's the students who need to speak up about draining the proverbial swamps that breed activities like teacher cheating.

Darnell Fine teaches 6th and 7th grade humanities at an Atlanta middle school and facilitates creative writing seminars and social justice workshops across the country. He is a recipient of Teaching Tolerance's 2012 Award for Excellence in Culturally Responsive Teaching.

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