In Context V by Melinda Tsapatsaris
When it was time to apply for graduate school, I made the decision that I wasn’t going to take the GRE to get in. At that point in my career, I was a young teacher who had already experienced the pitfalls of standardized testing. While a perfectly capable test taker myself, I harkened back to my first year teaching in a small rural high school in the foothills of the Appalachia mountains where I was tasked with supporting the 9thgraders who had failed the Ohio Proficiency Test (for which a high school diploma was contingent upon passing all four sections). I worked with 6 boys twice a week on the reading comprehension portion. I remember one session vividly. We were reviewing a passage on tennis, when one of the boys, frustrated, confused, eyes furrowed, said, “Wait, wait, wait…who’s in love with Ace?” Tennis, as you can imagine, isn’t a very popular sport in Appalachia, nor at a school where over 50 percent of the student population lives at or below the poverty level. This moment encapsulated the root of my frustration with the testing frenzy, that has only increased since the late nineties. I watched these boys struggle week to week.
I ranted to anyone who would listen. I railed against the big business money component of testing, the politics, the bias in the testing, the origins of that bias, and the negative impact on teachers. I ranted about the fact that tests didn’t capture the creativity, critical thinking, and intelligence that I saw my students demonstrating each day in my classes. And so I decided to walk a major walk and refuse to step into the test rat race for graduate school admissions. Instead of submitting my scores, I tallied up what the total cost of the GRE would be, went to K-Mart, and sponsored three children’s Christmas’s as part of my local fire station’s holiday program. I stapled the copies of the K-Mart receipts to each of my applications and wrote a position statement centered on my beliefs and why I’d rather spend my money on children than on a test. While most universities continuously and impersonally informed me that my application was incomplete, Brown University accepted my application and me. And my experience at Brown continued my trajectory as a progressive educator committed to inquiry- based learning, whole child education, and social justice. My education professors at Brown continued to raise my awareness (and my skepticism) about our country’s test craze—a craze that endures and flourishes.
And here I am today, almost 20 years later, lots in between. Where to begin?
I just finished Elena Ferrante’s sweeping four-part Neapolitan series over the Thanksgiving holiday and have been reflecting on the characters’ arcs. There are characters who were once steadfast and vigilant in their leftist politics in mid 20th century Italy, temper and mellow, and broaden their philosophies through decades of aging, experiences, and perspective gathering. Reading the fourth novel and reflecting on this piece I realize that in a way, I’m like those characters in regards to testing, especially in context of myself as an independent school educator. I’ve tempered, mellowed, crept towards the middle a bit, I admit. I’ve lost touch with my rebel heart. But recently a fire has been lit. My rebel heart is calling me. My annoyance over testing has been ignited.
A few weeks ago I was supporting 6th grade students as part of a ten-week Independent School Entrance Examination (ISEE) prep course. The ISEE is an entry exam that independent middle schools in town and across the nation use as part of their admissions process. I was conducting a practice exam of the reading comprehension section, and I noticed a student who was visibly freezing, nervous, and drifting away from the test, instead of engaging with it. I asked, “Do you want to work on this section with me outside?” as I thought it would be helpful to see her in action and find out what was going on. She immediately said yes. We first wrote three mantras at the top of the test: “1) Breathe. 2) I got this. 3) I am more than this test on this day.” Soon two other students joined.
Picture if you will the Middle Level ISEE reading comprehension section: two narrow, extremely small print columns of text with every line numbered. I immediately thought, “This doesn’t resemble the pleasure and delight of reading a book—at all. A textbook is literally a hundred time’s more aesthetically appealing than this.” Next, each question—every single one—is set up so that there are two throw-out answers. But then there are two answers that really could be right. One is definitely more right than the other, but what I observed the Westland students wanting to do was stay with the two answers that are close to each other and do what they have been brought up to do—and encouraged to do—since Group One. They wanted to debate, reconcile, unpack, enjoy deciphering B and C. They wanted to share their “ah ha” moments as they read the passage on the origins of medicine, “Willow Bark is actually aspirin? That’s so cool! What other medicine comes from nature?” If they could have, they would have started to research right then, I think. But the ISEE doesn’t invite research, debate, or deconstruction, or taking a bit of time to dig in. Time is intentionally, almost cruelly, limited. I heard myself barking to the girls joking-not-joking in a Tom Hanks “There’s no crying in baseball!” kind of way: “Stop it. You can’t enjoy this! Go for the jugular. They’re trying to trick you. Move quickly. Bubble in the best answer. Read the questions first then read the text. Most kids will get half of the questions correct, so aim for that and then some. Move quickly!” I felt a bit like a sellout and began to write this piece.
I decided to make a meeting with “the enemy,” both to think out loud with someone on the other side of the bridge of testing and just to learn more about what I deemed an “opposing” perspective. Andrew from Private Prep turned out to be my alleged enemy. He’s a really a nice, interesting, and sincere young man who got into his work for many of the same reasons I got into mine, because working with young people is really interesting, gratifying, and enjoyable. I found Andrew and his colleague Vanessa because he tutors several of our Westland students for the ISEE. When Andrew shared how he always starts working with his clients, I was taken in. He says to them: “I don’t care about the numbers, I care about you as a good person. If you’re a good person, you’re going to be okay in life, okay? I don’t care about the test, and I recognize that that you’ve brought me in to help you with the test. Success: let’s redefine it. Success doesn’t mean getting every question right. Success…is finding life skills from the test. In a math problem, recognizing the problem. What’s it asking? That is something you will do your whole life.” And so on. He tries to put relevancy into the test and boost up the children’s sense of self. All good stuff.
Andrew went on to explain to me that so much of the test is process oriented. If students can learn the skill of identifying a goal—overcoming something that’s frustrating and challenging—and then persevere, trust a process and then see the results, recognize how hard they worked, they can feel success. Their self-confidence will rise. After touring Andrew and Vanessa around campus, Andrew said, “Their skills are there, they just don’t recognize in that rote memorization way that schools coming from more traditional systems have. Your students definitely have the skills they need in order to be successful on the ISEE.”
And while I want to poke holes in a lot of what Andrew had to say (For example, I’d rather students develop perseverance and an appreciation for process with a really cool research project that serves a community), I appreciated my conversation with them. I am, however, mostly left with more questions, because the ISEE is a reality for most of our students who will enter independent secondary schools. And I want our students to feel confident and prepared. (Many, totally do from the get-go. They see the test as a puzzle, a game of sorts.) And while I’ll certainly continue with my 10-week ISEE prep course for all 6th graders each week, I am still grappling with how much to embrace the test versus problematizing it and even opposing it. What do I say when parents ask, “It seems like most students have an ISEE tutor, should we?” I guess by writing this blog I want to say that if it helps, I’ll keep worrying about these kinds of questions. I’ll keep asking, “What do we want Westland children to know and be able to do?” I’ll keep asking these questions and guiding people as best as possible when it comes to how well our students are prepared to take a test and tutoring (which is rampant in all independent schools in this town).
Through all of this reflection, I am left with one sure thought. Westland is countercultural. In regards to education, testing, and college admissions (because believe me, all of this frenzy leads to the college admissions process) our modern American culture is almost solely based on anxiety, fear, worry and competition. Westland, on the other hand, intentionally steps away from motivating children to learn through fear and competition. Westland steps away from rote memorization and learning test taking strategies for the sake of test taking strategies. (“A cow doesn’t get fatter by weighing it.”) In some ways, we are preparing Westland children better for graduate school than middle school! In some ways we’re preparing students better for life than a multiple-choice test. And I think we have to collectively ask ourselves: Are we okay with that? I am.
I’ll end with one more story that a kindergarten teacher in Southeastern Ohio told me in my first year of teaching. She was starting a new thematic unit on the four seasons and asked her 5 and 6-year-old students: “What do you know about the seasons? Do any of you know the four seasons?” One boy eagerly raised his hand, “YES! Deer hunting season, squirrel season, turkey season, and waterfowl season!” And while perhaps he didn’t answer the question “correctly” in the way, say, a test would want him to answer, he certainly demonstrated creativity, knowledge, passion, and out-of the-box-thinking. Ted Sizer succinctly writes that the purpose of education is to help people learn how to use their minds well. No doubt this boy was using his mind well. And no doubt Westland students know how to use their minds—and hearts—well too. Something a test can’t always test for.