On Testing and Reconciliation

I’m not against standardized testing.

Standardized testing makes me want to curse.

I can’t reconcile these things in my brain.


Starting this week, my amazingly talented 8th graders will be tested. They’ll answer multiple choice questions; they’ll construct responses to short stories and maybe even a recipe or two (that’s right there were recipes on the last two PSSAs). The information that the tests give me will sort of help their teachers next year to know what they know, and it will sort of help teachers in the state of Pennsylvania to see where our kids strengths and weaknesses lay, and that’s not a bad thing.

But, if you only look at what the tests say about you . . . you being: teachers, public, parents, and most importantly my students—If you only look at whatever that test says about you, you miss it the point.

My kids read. Probably more than you do. I’m just saying . . . they have favorite authors. Some of them have read their favorite 300 page novel upwards of four times, and they’re fourteen people. When they hear a line they love in their book, it’s not uncommon for them to write it on a post-it, whisper is to a friend, or write it on a facebook wall.

Sometimes my kids don’t read a book that is “just right” for them. Sometimes they read a really easy book, because they love the familiar call of friendship in Charlotte’s Web when they read,

“Why did you do all this for me?” he asked. “I don’t deserve it. I’ve never done anything for you.”

“You have been my friend,” replied Charlotte. “That in itself is a tremendous thing.”

And sometimes they reach up to read Pride and Prejudice and they misinterpret and get confused, but somehow they fall for the language and the grown up love story they’re dying to call their own.

And yet, these same kids might mess up the PSSA this year; they might take the PSSA the same week they have to put that Charlotte’s Web quote to work and be a friend in a crazy tough situation. Or better yet, their first love story could end minutes before they take the reading part of this test. My kids . . . aren’t test scores . . . they’re my kids . . . and I’ll fight you for them.

I’ll fight you for every ounce of their self-worth that you steal from them when you send them a result that says “Basic”, because not one student in my room is “Basic”; it’s not possible.

At the end of the day, statistically, I think I usually have about ten kids that will end up basic and the rest will pass with proficient or advanced. I don’t care. I want them to be good test takers; I want them to know all the skills; I want them to kick butt on this test. But if they don’t (and even if they do), I want them to know multiple choice and constructed response questions are a lame way to talk about literature (if you can call a prompt literature), a lame way to talk about life. What really matters to me is that they’re reading and living and taking from these books things that will work for their life, their dreams, their heart.

Dear students,
I like using these tests to learn about you.
I know you better than these tests.
I don’t care or need to reconcile this in my heart.



My kids started the writing PSSA on Monday with a little love from our friend Evan. Here’s the e-mail he sent them.

Hey Rachel, can you pass on to the kids I’m throwing all my luck at them today.  It’s amazing to see how far they have come this year, and if they keep in mind everything we did this year and write from their hearts, there is no reason why they all won’t destroy this little test!

Can’t wait to come back in the bear future! Yarrrr.


I read them the e-mail in the midst of testing silence. I glanced up while I was reading, and I could see a glimmer in their eyes. Then in a moment that seemed surreal, even to an 8th grade teacher, I read the last line and the kids shouted out in unison, “Yarrrr!!”


I felt as though I as was leading my team into the championships and we were huddled up close shouting some secret phrase only we knew. In truth they were spread out with state mandated tests and sharpened number two pencils, but it was a bonding moment all the same.


Regardless of how they do on the test, I’m so proud of them. And maybe I’m thinking, this isn’t the championships after all, maybe this is just a victory lap, because in my eyes (and I’m thinking theirs too) they’ve already won.


Snow Day #2

Today is snow day #2 for our school district. Aside from doing crafts, playing countless boardgames, and refereeing fights with my three kids I found time to begin rereading Hidden Gems by Katherine Bomer. The fifth and sixth grade language arts teachers in my school will be reading this book in a book study group and I am facilitating the group so this time I picked it up to read through the lense of a classroom teacher reading it for the first time. This book is amazing and a must read for all teachers who spend time around student writers of any age. As I was reading, the on-demand writing samples that are sitting in my bag waiting to be scored kept popping into my head. I have to admit I have been carrying these last few papers around with me for more than a few days. They are the papers that did not get scored by the teacher teams during an afternoon of scoring, and I am supposed to read them, determine their score in five domains, and give them back to the teachers. Catherine Bomer reminded me why I feel so reluctant to do this. What can I really communicate to the teacher and most importantly the student writer about thier writing through a set of scores from a rubric? Who am I to determine if the style of this piece of writing is proficeint or basic?
Scoring a writing piece is inevitable, eventually everyone needs a score to track growth and report to “higher ups” (administrators, states, and most impotantly parents) but the work that comes before the score is what really matters. I have so many questions I want to ask about each paper: how does this student see themselves as a writer, what have they been working on, what do they think of the piece? I feel some consolation becasue I know in my school many of those questions are beginning to be asked by teachers.
As I begin to tackle the pile of student writing I am going to keep Katherine Bomer in my head and ‘notice’ what the students are able to do, celebrate the passion they bring to their writing, and plan some teaching demonstrations to model the type of feedback our student writers need to grow.
Before you read another piece of student writing read or re-read Writing Gems, it will convince you that you ‘have the best job on the earth.’