In this, the era of standardized assessment, students and parents everywhere feel that collective knot in the stomach that can only mean one thing: Testing season is coming around again.
As teachers, when we think about our students and what success or failure on these tests might mean for their future, there’s no other choice but to steel ourselves for the daunting task of making sure they’re ready to pass them.
It’s a part of our job — not the most important, by a long shot, but a part nonetheless — so there’s no point in complaining about it. We just do our very best to ensure that these tests don’t become a barrier to their success in life, either through the diminishing of personal confidence or, worse, their graduation.
The infatuation with testing has attained a much more personal relevance as my own children face a decade or more of ISTEP, End-of-Course Assessments, AP exams and college-entrance exams such as the SAT and ACT.
I can’t help but feel a bit more than that pragmatic, roll-up-the-sleeves approach that my colleagues and I face at school; for my own kids, it’s a sadness and dread that I feel as they face the uncertainty and inequality which is standardized testing.
But we’ve decided to assume a different philosophy about the tests, being the reality that they are: They provide an opportunity to practice and prepare for something where some unknowns exist.
My colleague and friend Josh Giebel referred readers in a column earlier this school year to the work of educational psychologist Carol Dweck. Her work has been personally inspiring since my first exposure to it. She articulated a framework for thinking about our learning habits known as mindset.
According to this framework, people have tendencies with respect to several criteria of thought, such as how they view challenges, setbacks and failures.
People who have more of a fixed mindset tend to dread the fear of failure, tend to avoid challenges and are derailed by setbacks.
Conversely, people with growth mindsets seek out and embrace challenges, view failure as an essential component of personal growth and learning, and don’t let setbacks steer them away from their goals.
According to Dweck, a major factor in people’s success is their attitude about intelligence. A fixed-mindset point of view is that a person’s intelligence is a fixed quantity and can’t be changed. Thus, they tend to avoid work that is challenging.
The growth mindset approach to intelligence is that a person can become smarter and develop certain skills with, you guessed it, practice.
Now, while that doesn’t seem particularly revolutionary to some, consider the implications for what have historically been referred to as left-brained and right-brained people. Some of us claim to “not be math people” or “not be book people” or “not be (insert your category here) people.”
Math seems to be one of those areas where fixed mindsets prevail in American society.
Dweck’s research suggests that we can all become functional at computation and mathematical reasoning, regardless how we perceive our abilities in the realm.
Much to my children’s initial dismay, we decided that in light of the prominent role that standardized testing will occupy in their lives in their public education, we were going to make regular extra math practice a part of their routine.
My sixth-grader is getting a head start on learning algebra, and my third-grader is making large gains with fractions and decimals.
The same goes for reading; it is an expectation that reading will happen daily in our house. At first, it was a struggle; now, they routinely read the newspaper without prompting and will ask to download books on their tablets.
We also regularly sit down and write letters to loved ones on Sundays. While they might occasionally complain to their friends about this, they’ve come to accept the value — or at least the reality — of the extra practice.
Take a second to ask yourself the extent to which you’ve saddled yourself and your potential based on having fixed mindsets about what you can and can’t do. Now think about your willingness to practice those things.
While I feel confident that my kids will do fine on their yearly high-stakes, “pressure-cooker tests,” it saddens me when I hear people, especially adults, declare their inabilities — usually in a funny, self-deprecating way — in various realms of real life.
Don’t get me wrong about the reasons why we do the extra practice at home.
Yes, the tests matter a great deal in terms of their progression through their education.
But ultimately, we want our kids to see the role of practice in developing a growth mindset so that, as adults, they’ll be well-equipped to handle other real-life challenges.
Andrew Larson teaches at Columbus Signature Academy New Tech High School.