I Hate Tests

I hate using tests and I don’t know what to do about it.

There, I said it. I hate tests. I am not just referring to the standardized tests, which have their place, blah, blah, blah…or so we are told.

My least favorite question ever is, “Dr. Polak “Is this going to be on the test?”

My disdain for that question is not because I do not understand the anxiety. I too suffered from test anxiety, not the type where I would freeze up and my mind would go blank, but it was just as paralyzing in other ways. Like so many of my students, I was grade obsessed. If I didn’t receive a 100%, I felt like a failure. This was regardless of the subject. This obsession continued through my doctorate studies and exists to this day. In fact, every year I am required to take the Blood Borne Pathogens test and I feel the anxiety there too!

I know I am not alone. This is a very common extrinsic pressure for the students (and adults) in our country. One can almost equate it to an addiction. When you achieve a high score you feel so great and relieved and proud, but before you know it, you are right back distressing about the next test. You study even harder, you sleep even less, practice more and achieve another high score, but it is not enough. The last stellar grade is never enough.

Even though most teachers, me included, are mandated by their school district to give specific assessments and score them a certain way, it doesn’t mean we feel great about giving them or think that we should. The cycle of grade obsession is just one of the reasons for my guilty conscience; the deeper reason is what it does to those students when they do not achieve that top score. Time and time again, students deem themselves stupid or as failures the second they receive a low score. The result for many students is that they stop trying.  Year after year I witness students who tell me or show me that they no longer feel motivation to learn. They have suffered trauma from these low scores and they believe there is no reason to try because they will just fail anyway.

Although I considered myself a math brain type of a student (even though I have since learned it is not as black and white as we all believe), like so many other students, I reached a point where I felt stupid in math class. When I was in High School in the Freshman Geometry Fast track class, I might as well have worn a dunce cap. Like so many students, girls especially, I did not understand concepts as quickly as my classmates. Speed and accuracy in procedures were all that mattered. Achieving a deep conceptual understanding and connections within the mathematics field was not a goal. We were all just learning algorithms, memorizing steps, and moving on to the next scenario.

I don’t want to recreate that in my class. I have spent this year creating and adapting lessons that truly offer students the options to ask questions, think deeply, wonder, and, have a little fun. And yet during many of these adventures students ask first and foremost, “Is this going to be on the test?”

Sigh.

I want students to focus on the excitement, intricacies and fascination of math. If math class was designed to inspire problem solving and questioning, it would be done right. Students should be intrinsically motivated to look for patterns and make connections with numbers and shapes. The interconnectedness between numeric topics is something they should see based on classroom tasks. Assessment, in my perfect world, would be conversations and feedback of what is working, what isn’t working.

I know, I know, students are going to enter the “real world” where they will be tested.  There are many times in life that it does matter to get things right the first time. If someone is performing surgery for example, I don’t want the mentality of, oh, if I take out the wrong person’s appendix, I can just make sure I get the right person the next time.” Not everything in life has a re-do option, but not everything in life has to be perfect the first time without revision options either. I ask, what is the most important aspect of student learning? Do we want students to strive for perfection, or for perpetual self-improvement?

 

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11 thoughts on “I Hate Tests

    1. I don’t have the autonomy to do that, but still, even if I did, the psychology of students being more concerned with test facts than with learning the math would not be altered to an amount that would change attitudes and shift mindsets about learning.

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  1. Ironically, I’ve had conversations with other educators about making math class conversational. Someone asked me what gives me goosebumps when being in a teacher’s classroom and it didn’t take me long to respond with, “Students talking math.”

    Your comment, “Assessment, in my perfect world, would be conversations and feedback of what is working, what isn’t working.” is spot on.

    I was most proud of my students, my teaching, and my classroom environment when math was a conversation, similar to a conversation with friends on the weekend. Summative tests can suck the life out of conversations.

    Sounds like there are some built-in restrictions. I’m not sure how it is in Connecticut, but in California, the penal code allows public school teachers to assign any grade they deem appropriate. Essentially, this translates to having the freedom to assess your students how you see fit. When you mention your school district, I would dig a little deeper into the rights you have as a teacher in Connecticut. I understand common assessments to a certain point. However, there are more effective ways to assess student mathematical thinking than a paper and pencil test; problem-solving tasks, project-based activities, etc.

    Chris Shore has inspired me to encourage students to think and communicate mathematically. Again, this goes back to my passion for making math classes (and learning) conversational. Do your current district assessments do that? If not, how can your district (or you) take small steps to experiment with alternative assessments that allow students to think and communicate.

    I’d like to hear from Chris on this too.

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  2. Andrew,
    Thanks for bringing me into this conversation. If I inspired you in any way, I have only returned the favor.

    Dr Polak,
    I agree with Mr. Stadel… my number one form of formative assessment and descriptive feedback is classroom/group conversations. Getting students to stop asking “Will this be on the test?” has more to do with grading policies and classroom practices than with tests themselves.

    Classroom Practices First
    In most high school classes and middle school “honors” courses, both teachers and students expect the majority of learning to be done outside of class. Class time is simply about finding out what needs to be studied at home. Therefore, the “Will this be on the test?” question makes a great deal of sense. If the daily instructional practices (math conversations as Mr Stadel favors, to mention only one) promote the goal of learning IN CLASS to think and communicate, then the that irritating question becomes irrelevant. You can make it irrelevant without eliminating tests.

    Grading Policies Next
    In most grading systems for math, tests make up 60% or more of the grade, for which much of the success on a mere handful of said tests is based on how well a student studies the night immediately before the exam. If that is the case, then students are wise to ask that ultimate question.

    Even though you shared that you do not have autonomy, that classroom culture can be changed by a few means:
    1) Have more frequent smaller tests, so no one test solicits anxiety.
    2) Have other types of assessments besides “tests,” but be careful not to create a large homework/ effort category that inflates grades by having students push paper.
    3) Consider a standards-based or claims-based grading system so that “tests” are not such a heavy focus.
    4) Allow retakes.

    Most importantly, remember that ALL grading policies are value-based policies. If Tests are the largest portion of the grade, then you are communicating to your students that you love tests, even though you communicate to the rest of us that you hate them.

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    1. At the start of this past school year, we were all presented with our course prospectuses. Included, were percent breakdowns of assessments, homework, etc. In addition, we have been instructed to give the same tests across the district to ensure that all students are essentially assessed the same, regardless of the teacher. I must adhere to the policy of my district. If I had autonomy, I would emphasize the testing less and it certainly would not be weighted as it currently is where students are receiving the message I don’t want to send. Fortunately, retakes (only 1) are part of the policy, but there has been a great deal of pushback there as well. I agree with everything you stated, have communicated this desire, and dearly hope for change. Thank you for your insight and suggestions.

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      1. Indeed, I am in a similar environment. We have Common District Tests, also. My kids don’t notice them as much, because I have many other assessments and a claims-based grading system. We have grading autonomy, however, each course team at each site (Geometry for me) is encouraged (pressed) to align grading policies. This is a good thing, because it limits inequities, as long as the common policies are good practices. That is the rub. If you don’t have autonomy, you need to fight the good fight. Keep your dukes up!

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  3. Your post really resonates with me. Over my teaching career, I’ve come to pretty much the same place. However, I’m in a private school, and am lucky to have pretty much complete autonomy over my grading. As a result, I’ve been transitioning to fewer and fewer pencil and paper tests, and more project based assessments, presentations, and debates. I’ve also moved towards giving my students more resources (formulas, etc.) when I do give pencil and paper tests, so that they can focus more on doing the real math, and not on memorizing and regurgitating what they’ve seen me doing in class. Many of the students in my school are there precisely because they have severe anxiety and didn’t do well in high stress public schools in Silicon Valley. I’ve also taken to giving weekly 1-2 question open note quizzes, because the regularity of these quizzes helps with addressing their anxiety as well as helps them to prepare for whatever class comes after mine, where they are likely to have a more traditional class format. Since my class sizes are small, I don’t have enough data to form any statistically significant results, but many former students regularly give feedback that they enjoy math after my classes, have less anxiety, and are successful in their college classes.

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    1. Your changes are very positive and I thank you for sharing them with us. Maybe you can form a longitudinal study by surveying your students at the beginning and end of each year. Statistics are more convincing with a greater sample, you can build one! Just food for thought.

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  4. Wow! I’m inspired too! Dr Polak, thanks for asking such brilliant questions and framing them so well. The passion on this thread feels good. Warning: This is really long. I have the day off and have wanted to write about this for a while so I kinda went all out. I’m thinking of this being a draft for a blog post. I share it because (1) I want you all to know how inspired I am by this thread and (2) I hope it helps further the dialogue here.

    As a PD provider and with the school year winding down, I think about the reflection conversations that need to happen to help facilitate their thinking about classroom culture and have them (re)calibrate their classroom (non-instructional) norms (like rules, working agreements, grading, notetaking, etc). Often times there’s some dissonance between what they envision for a healthy classroom culture focused on inquiry and discourse and the practices they choose. From here, planning conversations can happen about the start of the school year and finding ways to align vision with practice. Because I agree with Chris: Classroom practices first.

    And it sounds like school/district policies are forcing you to choose an action (testing) that isn’t in line with what you envision in your classroom (“is this on the test?” mindset). I agree with what others have said about focusing only where you have some influence. I recognize that I have an overzealous streak of subversive disobedience in the name of student empowerment, but I’m wondering if there are ways that you can follow the letter of their law (testing/grading) and the spirit of your law (grades are attached to learning and inquiry?).

    Reading the thread also makes me feel grateful for the freedom I did have when I was teaching. I spent the last 5 (of 12) years in the classroom working for an independent charter school in Lawndale, CA. So I had some freedom and nimbleness to try to find that balance between grading culture and learning culture. And even with that freedom, it took me a long time to dial in what worked for me (and there was still much to refine!).

    You’re frustration “Will this be on the test?” strongly resonated with me. It made me so pissed when a student asked this. Partly because it was feedback to me that I had not yet succeeded in persuading this young adult about the value and joy and self-empowerment found in learning for learning’s sake. And partly because the student had a point. “I’ll be the first to go to college in my family. I want to go to UCLA. I need an A. I have to have a 4.0. I need to ace your tests. And I have a lot of tests in other classes I need to ace too. So if this isn’t on your test, I don’t want to waste my time. It’s not personal.” It’s not an invalid argument, especially for a 17 year old. The “problem” for me (and I’m sure for all of us) is that teaching is personal. So when they say that, I can’t not take it personally. I’m getting pissed just thinking about it. Which is probably why this comment is so long. That and coffee.

    Reflecting back, here are some practices that I ended up finding some success with. Quick details: 10th, 11th, 12th. AP Calculus. Precalculus (which had a blend of struggling seniors trying to prepare for the college ELM and stronger juniors trying to prepare for the AP). And Algebra 2. I got to teach some students for three years. 4 other teachers in the math department.

    I began my class with a lot of activities (not formal math activities although some were mathematical) and discussion about norms and why we were all there. It was an opportunity for them express about how they felt for about math. Some said they didn’t want to be there and that they hated math but they had to take it to graduate or go to college. Good stuff to know. Some said they loved math and wanted to be engineers. Also good stuff to know. I explained to them that I had two reasons for being there: 1. I never wanted math to be an obstacle to their goals. We talked a lot about the math hurdles that they may face, namely the college math placement tests at CA community colleges and CSUs and UCs and succeeding in math classes if they needed to take them for their major. This meant we had to openly march toward that goal together, collaboratively, and transparently. And this meant grading. (More on this below.) 2. I told them that speaking the math of math tests can be really boring and that I felt joy in the classroom as an instructor when I saw my students inspired. And we talked about the joy of mathematics and that the mathematics of school often sucks the life out of math. I told them my goal was to help them see that they are all math nerds. That regardless of grades, they all had math ability and the potential to ask really interesting mathematical questions and seek creative solutions and new understandings.

    I wanted to pull back the curtain about my dilemma with my students. We have to prepare for tests. And we need to maximize every opportunity to keep math inspiring while we do. And I invited them to help me resolve that dilemma together.

    I felt that energy spent on meaningful feedback and assessment was always well spent but energy spent on grading was not only a waste, it was eroding the psyches and well-being of my students. It sounds extreme, but I remember asking: At what point is grading students child abuse?

    I hated grading. Since I wanted to focus on creating math nerds and not grade grubbers, here’s what I did to make sure I minimized grading energy and maximize classroom culture for learning.

    At the beginning of a unit, I handed out a “Mock Test”. Essentially, it was a version of the test they would see at the end of the unit. And each question was aligned to the homework problems in the textbook (DOK1) or to problems I had created and pasted in to their notes (DOK2). (All questions where aligned to standards too, but I didn’t list that on their copy.) At the end of most lessons, we looked at the Mock Test and found the problems we had learned to solve and connected our learning to the assessment. Then we looked at the homework problems quickly and talked about how they could be good practice for the test. I would also show some problems that were a little harder and more DOK2/3. If they felt that the practice problems were too easy, they could do those instead. They would be “bonuses” on the test and a great way to boost their grade. (Bonuses weren’t on the Mock Test.)

    I provided all answers to homework whenever possible. (Why do textbooks hide the even answers?!?!) At the beginning of the year, we spent a lot of time talking about the purpose of homework and getting familiar with a homework rubric that I used and had revised over the years. Happy to share that, but basically to get full credit for homework, it had to be corrected and mistakes had to be identified and they had to be ready for class with questions to ask. They usually had the first 3-5 minutes of every class to talk to their teams about their questions and I floated around the room and tried to get a feel for how they were progressing and evidence of interesting learning and common mistakes. I usually referred them to the review section of the textbook chapter and showed them other problems they could do if they felt like they needed more practice. Or they could come after school. (We had “Math Lab” available every day after school. Students could earn community service hours by volunteering in the after school math program as tutors. Some just used the Math Lab to do their homework and have human to human interactions if they had a question.)

    On the back of my classroom wall was a photocopy of a gradebook. They were responsible for self-assessing their homework and keeping track. Every two weeks or so, they would add up their scores and I would enter them in. This was 25% of their final grade.

    This sparked many valuable conversations at the beginning of the year. “What if I just lie and give myself credit?” Now that’s a question worth discussing in a classroom. We would unpack that from a variety of angles. In the end, their reasoning was wonderful. And my point was clear: You can cheat the system. You can never do homework, learn everything from classwork, never “study” and pass the tests. And I’m ok enough with that that I won’t spend energy fighting that battle. I’d rather spend that energy creating more interesting learning opportunities for them and improving my instruction.

    At the end of a unit, I’d give them a fresh copy of the Mock Test and they tried it out quickly (20 minutes?). (Sometimes the Mock Test was slightly different from the previous copy because I had changed my instruction a bit or student learning took us in an unexpected direction.) They could work alone if they wanted to use this as a practice test. They could ask questions if they wanted or collaborate with others, but they knew that the test would be taken solo. Then we looked at answers and corrected them together. Then each student set a focused review plan for the next day or two. Most used problems from the review section of the text. Stronger students explored interesting extensions. (These would also be bonuses on the test.)

    Then the test. I would grade them accurately and quickly and simply with minimal descriptive feedback. And I would get them back to them the next day. Every time. Sometimes we would look at the whole class data and ask “How’d we do?” Before handing them out, I would remind them that testing is about hurdles. And that if they failed this hurdle, it meant they had more work to do on their own and afterschool. It did not mean that they were failures. And then I would repeat our mantra “We learn more from our failures than we do from our successes.” Sometimes I would call out students who did exceptional work, especially those showing perseverance. After handing them out, the learning did not stop. I encouraged peer tutoring and error analysis. Those who had not shown enough learning for credit failed the test and were working to understand their mistakes and they had to then use the Mock Test to find homework problems they could do for further practice or come after school. Before taking a retake, these students had to do some error analysis on their mistakes and I had to see evidence that they could perform these skills. I would also try to ask them some questions to make sure that there was (at least) some conceptual understanding there too. Students could retake the test and get a 80% at most. I reconciled this by the fact that if the student does all their homework, their grade will mathematically raise to an A. Students who earned a C had to do some error analysis work, find some homework problems. Show me they could do them and I would change their grade to an 80% when they did. And some students needed a conversation after they received their tests to establish the human connection because grading is very, well, degrading sometimes. And that prevents us from loving learning.

    Anyway, this is way too long. My apologies. But I wanted to do some writing today and your topic was way better than mine. So thank you all!

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    1. I love this community because we take turns inspiring each other! I appreciate the length and detail of your comment, thank you. The check in system for your homework system is something that resonates with me and I may have to steal that procedure from you. I could go on and on about your post, but my daughters won’t let me. So let me just say, I have a poster in my room I made that reads, “Failure does not mean the game is over. It means try again with experience. Replace the word fail with the word learn.” We are on the same wave length!

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