The Fruits of Testing

My children recently came home with their Iowa Assessments. As usual, both were concerned that their ‘bold, black lines’ didn’t go into the 90th percentile like many of their friends. Commence questioning, “I guess I’m not very smart.” “I’m sorry that I’m not good enough, mom.” “I wonder what questions I missed.” “See I told you I wasn’t very good at math, here is the proof.”

I wanted to scream. I wanted to rip those ridiculous pieces of paper into a million, zillion pieces. I wanted to yell “These bold lines DO NOT show your worth or value as a child.” Instead, I went to the basement. I found my own ITBS (Iowa Tests of Basic Skills) scores from the mid-1980’s (yes…my mom saved these along with my report cards and ‘Nikki can cut a straight line’ awards). They were shocked. I felt like I was in a time warp. As I looked at my own bold, black lines I was reminded of how I felt in 4th grade. I felt the same. I had that feeling in my gut, the feeling of ‘unworth.’ Yuck. Turns out these tests showed that I wasn’t very smart. Not at all.

My children didn’t understand – how could their mother, now a college Professor have only scored in the 40th percentile, in the 60th percentile, in the 80th percentile? This was the PERFECT time to really talk about learning and education and ‘worth.’

I shared with them that I am not (nor ever was) a good test taker. Tests make me nervous. I overthink everything. I told them I flunked my Driver’s Test. Laugh, because it is funny. On the test was a picture of a stop sign. The question was, “What do you do when you see this sign?” My children said, “You stop.” I told them I got the question wrong – commence hysterical laughter. Then I said to them, “I didn’t answer stop. I answered slow down. Because I could be two blocks away from the stop sign. I could see it 1/2 mile away. I’m not going to stop when I see it. I’ll stop when I arrive to the foot of the sign.”

Now they think I should take the ‘Driver’s Test’ people to court because their test was wrong and I was right.

Let me underscore this posting with the fact that I don’t have a better answer and I know the purpose of testing. I get it, I really do. We need standards. We must evaluate our students to understand what they do and do not know. For some occupations and curricular areas, testing makes perfect sense. This is really more of a rant about the purpose of education in general – a call for balance, a call for recognizing fireflies as much as we recognize superstars.

What are fireflies? A recent blog post from HandsFreeMama moved me in several ways. The post is about children who shine from within, not children who shine on a piece of paper. I felt a strong connection to this post, because I was that child – and I am raising those children. My question is, is there a way that we can recognize the ‘soft skills’ in the same way we recognize the quantifiable skills?

I despise giving grades. Really, it is the absolute worst part of teaching. I honestly wish that we lived in an environment that would reward students for learning, because they want to learn. I wish I could spend my time being a curriculum coach. Coaching each student through a self-discovery of ideas. Supporting their creative thought and exploration. I would guess that many of my colleagues feel the same.

A test tells me nothing. A test tells me that a student can memorize some stuff and spit it out on paper. A test doesn’t tell me what they are able to do, it tells me that are able to simply recall information. My students know this. I simply don’t test. An October, 2013 Forbes article lists the top ten skills that employers are looking for in 20-somethings.
1. Ability to work in a team
2. Ability to make decisions and solve problems
3. Ability to plan, organize and prioritize work
4. Ability to communicate verbally with people inside and outside an organization
5. Ability to obtain and process information
6. Ability to analyze quantitative data
7. Technical knowledge related to the job
8. Proficiency with computer software programs
9. Ability to create and/or edit written reports
10. Ability to sell and influence others

It seems to me that skills one through four, nine, and ten cannot be evaluated by a test. So, 60% of the skills that employers are looking for are ‘non-testable.’ Yet, our students feel their intellectual worth is designated by a bold, black line. This identification of intellectual worth begins early as evidenced by my 30 return to the gut-wrenching “I’m not smart enough” feeling.

So, what changed in me? How did I finally feel good enough? I went to college. When I went to college I realized that my ‘soft skills’ excelled. Thank goodness I had that opportunity, thank goodness I finally felt ‘good enough.’

How do we talk to our students about these ideas? I do it, I do it directly. I constantly remind them that their worth is not their grade – their worth is their journey. Their worth is how much they tried, did they do their best? Learning is not about the destination, it is about the journey. This spring my I had a heart to heart with my class. It was three days before their ‘big paper’ was due. I gave them a handout with the famous John Wooden quote, “Success is peace of mind which is a direct result of self-satisfaction in knowing you did your best to become the best you are capable of becoming.” Did you do your best? Did you take the feedback you’ve received throughout the semester and do something with it? Did you reach out? Did you revise? Did you participate? If so, then you have done the best you can do – and that’s all you can do.

Your final grade is a piece of what you learned…but it is not the be all and end all.
1. You have learned to work in a team by participating in group feeedback sessions – along with that, you have learned humility in accepting feedback. You have learned how to use kind, yet constructive language in telling your peers your reactions to their work.
2. You have made decisions and solved problems while writing. Maybe your topic was too big? Too small? Maybe you had to choose between sources, whatever it was – you were constantly decision-making and problem solving.
3. You worked at planning your paper throughout the semester. This strengthened your time-management abilities. You learned to organize your paper in logical form and prioritize the writing and revising of your drafts.
4. You communicated verbally with people inside and outside of the classroom about the topic and your paper. You asked your parents, friends, coaches, aunts, uncles, brothers, sisters, Pastors, and ‘old’ teachers for feedback. You put yourself out there – you allowed yourself to be criticized.
5. You obtained and processes information. You found pieces of evidence. While your peers found ‘holes’ in your arguments, you searched to restore credibility.
6. You analyzed quantitative data, as well as qualitative data. You made sense of information. You practiced incorporating this data into your own ideas and writing.
7. You created and edited a piece of original writing.
8. You sold your ideas to me. You influenced others to care. How? By clearly articulating your ideas and arguments.

These eight ideas support 80% of the skills that future employers are looking for. They are not looking to see that you received an A in this course, they will interview you for the skills mentioned above.

So, shine. Shine from within. Shine in the process. Know that your worth is not a bold, black line. It is not a final grade. Your worth is about your growth and your ability and willingness to learn. I can’t quantity that, I cannot test those skills. The real test in life is not a grade, the real test in life is your ability to learn, grow, and change.

That is what I told my children. Your worth is not in this bold, black line. Sure, your math shows 47%. You know what’s at 100%? Your generosity in your willingness to give your $1 winnings to a charity (true story), your ability to share how you are feeling, your kindness in helping a friend, your willingness to experience new things, your worth is in life…not a quantifiable mark on a piece of paper.

So, your test in life? The test that truly matters? The test that should matter to you? The one from Galatians, “But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. Against such things there is no law.” There may not be a test to measure these things…but they are the most important.

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