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The Data Doesn’t Matter

Pre-Halloween week looked a lot different this year in many classrooms. Zoom or Teams meetings buzzed with connectivity issues instead of classrooms infiltrated with excitement (and sugar). Reprimands for talking in class have been replaced by checking the chat box for irrelevant conversations and emojis. Missing assignments are no longer hidden in the haunted corners of messy desks or lockers, but vanish like a ghost in the great virtual beyond. There are plenty of masks, but of a different, more sterile, kind - protecting us from something truly to be feared.

Standardized testing? That’s largely remained the same.

In many school districts, despite remote learning, hybrid learning, or a greatly altered face-to-face learning environment, benchmark testing and preparation for yearly standardized assessments is proceeding as usual. High-stakes testing has always been my least favorite part of a profession that has made me whole. I have often felt over the last 18 years of a fulfilling teaching career that the experiences and relationships I have formed with my students are what has motivated them to improve themselves and continue their learning outside of the classroom, not their test scores. The limited snapshot of students’ statistical mastery levels that standardized testing provides has never inspired me or my students. Teachers contend with the pressures and demands of preparing students for a range of different assessments with fluctuating metrics during a “normal,” pre-pandemic school year besought with its own share of challenges.

In a year where a real terror in the form of COVID-19 has upended lives and changed the scope of learning for teachers, students, and families, high stakes testing has the desired appeal of year-old candy corn.

And yet, students are logging online not only to connect with their classrooms, but to demonstrate their level of mastery in the midst of unprecedented instructional chaos. Here are three reasons why this year, standardized testing is unnecessary:

  1. Trauma. The stress of 2020 has been insurmountable for many families. Lives and jobs have been lost. Normalcy has vanished. The abrupt end to school as we knew it back in the spring disrupted the one constant many students could rely on, regardless of what is occurring at home. Crisis situations such as the one we find ourselves in today impair brain development, cognition, and can lead to anxiety and depression. This is not just true for children, but for adults that are responsible for nurturing and teaching them as well. No one - students, parents, caregivers, and teachers - is functioning normally right now, because nothing right now is normal. Mental health and attending to Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs needs to be the priority standard. Nothing we teach this year will matter as much as how we are doing and who we are once this is over - and no assessment will cover that.
  2. Inequality. Many students learning remotely have parents or caregivers working during the day who cannot ensure their children are completing their work to the best of their ability. Technology may be readily available to students in some school districts, and not to others. Some home environments are not conducive to learning without distractions, if there is a home at all. Connectivity issues abound in classrooms and homes, making online meetings times where students can learn directly from the teacher hit-or-miss. Teachers have a varying level of comfort and expertise when it comes to using technology to present lessons, prepare digital materials, or perform on camera. Inequality has alway existed in education; now it’s just on a high octane level for already disadvantaged students. We are all operating in uncharted territory that is not going to present a clear picture of what students know or how well teachers are able to deliver instruction. The validity of any assessment measure during these circumstances should be brought into question.
  3. Misuse of class time. March 12th was my last “normal” day of teaching 5th grade. This year, I assumed a new position at my school. Looking back on last school year, I have a million things I would have done differently had I known how the year and my time teaching 5th graders was to end. I think back to all the time in class we spent taking benchmark tests, doing progress monitoring, quarterly assessments, and practice items for a standardized test that never happened. Wasted hours that could have been spent building relationships and learning memorably, doing engaging activities that my students could have thought back to when the world imploded. The time teachers and students have with one another this year - either through a plexiglass shield or a computer screen - needs to be spent making connections to learning and each other. The extra screen time our students consume taking assessments that have become a cornerstone in education has no place and no grace in this school year.

The pandemic has further illuminated to me what really matters in education - and what really doesn’t. This past week is one of many altered times of the year that will painfully contrast with years in the past. Accountability in the age of COVID-19 and in the form of standardized assessment requires a different perspective, one that I hope transcends this current crisis. We don’t need benchmark tests that eat away at class time like a kid returning from trick-or-treating with a bag full of Snickers. This is a time to focus on healing, nurturing, and connecting - not percentiles and subgroups. We are all broken people in a broken system that has for too long emphasized the wrong things. Students and teachers need us to view their progress in terms of resilience and survival in the face of adversity. They always have, and always will.

The data doesn’t matter. It never really did.


Erin Sponaugle is a National Board Certified Teacher, NNSTOY member, and children’s book author-illustrator. She has taught for 18 years and is the 2014 West Virginia Teacher of the Year. Erin currently teaches art at Tomahawk Intermediate School in Hedgesville, West Virginia. You can follow her on Twitter @erin_sponaugle, Instagram @nextchapterpress, and read her blog at www.erinsponaugle.com





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