Working together to help children learn and grow in a complex world
Dec. 11, 2020
The gifts of low-stakes testing
By Marisol Lopez, 3rd Grade Teacher
In this season of giving, one of Canterbury School’s biggest gifts is a whole-child culture that isn’t centered around high-stakes student testing.
I came to Canterbury four years ago from local public schools. Although I chose to teach 1st and 2nd grades to avoid the heavy emphasis on standardized testing that begins in 3rd, there was no escaping the testing culture that permeated my schools. Even I felt pressure to build up my younger students to be able to succeed at the EOGs by the end of 3rd grade.
As my hardworking and dedicated colleagues started each school year with initial assessments and ended the year with practice tests leading up to the big one, I felt that instead of knowing each child as an individual, the schools’ focus was on each of them as a test score.
In contrast, the culture at Canterbury is what I was looking for when I entered the teaching profession. Here, standardized testing is a teacher tool, and it’s a useful one to help our students grow.
Each January, Canterbury’s 3rd-8th grade students take nationally standardized ERB tests, starting with just a few sections at first and building up to a more complex test by middle school. Our 4th-8th graders also take a standardized writing test each May.
But at Canterbury, the tests are low stakes, meaning that they’re just one of many ways students are assessed.
This testing approach gives both students and teachers the gift of time, in a number of ways.
1. Testing in January gives classroom teachers like me, administrators, and our learning specialist time to take a careful look at the results as a diagnostic tool. If a student or a class shows deficits in a certain area, there’s time for individual or whole-class review. Likewise, if a class knocked a part of the test out of the park, we look at how it was taught and whether that approach can be shared with other teachers.
2. The tests measure skills that were taught in the previous grade, so 3rd grade ERBs test 2nd grade skills and knowledge. Based on their age and developmental level, some students may need a little more time to grasp and apply a concept they learned in the previous year. The way Canterbury tests gives us time to make sure students who haven’t achieved mastery by the following January can do so before moving on to the next grade.
3. While we certainly make sure our students are ready for the tests and encourage them to do their best, this preparation takes hours or days, rather than weeks or months. The result is so much more freedom for teachers to teach a broad range of subjects in depth and to mold our curriculum to what’s best for the children. This doesn’t mean we’re making up curriculum off the cuff; far from it. But it does allow us to fit in units throughout the year to enrich the curriculum in ways that aren’t possible for our colleagues who are racing toward the tests.
For example, Canterbury’s 3rd grade students grow immeasurably from taking part in the annual production of “Snew White,” an integral part of our academic program. Students study vocabulary and cultural references found in the play; practice their reading expression and fluency in read-throughs; stretch their memory skills by learning their lines and those of others; write cast biographies; and visit with the playwright to learn about the art of writing. But the benefits are not just academic; students also gain self-confidence, cooperation, and communication skills.
The value of a Canterbury education is just this: a culture that is centered on children’s mental, physical, and emotional growth and well-being. And that’s a gift for teachers, students, and their parents alike.