“Best Right Answer”

Testing Anxiety
An all-too-common sight for teachers looking out at students taking high stakes tests/exams.

Friend and fellow educator Michelle Hamlyn returns with another timely guest post about what it is like to silently sit in a room with over-tested teens who are anxious and stressed about earning a certain number / grade on their semester exams. If you didn’t catch any of Michelle’s previous guest pieces, Why We’re Here and I’m Angry are highly suggested. For now, please read and share her latest reflection on what education has become…

As I sit here for the third day in a row, watching my twelve- and thirteen-year olds take their sixth semester exam, I am once again reminded how far public education has gone off course. Some of them sit and stare like zombies. Some of them have at least one body part perpetually in motion – a foot tapping, fingers drumming, a leg bouncing up and down. Some of them just sit with the most resigned, discouraged looks on their faces. And we expect them to be able to sit and be quiet for almost two solid hours. I know successful adults who can’t manage that.

It didn’t used to be like this. Learning used to be enjoyable and interesting. Students used to be able to feel wonder and curiosity and success. But now, it’s just about finding the “best right answer.” Although I’d like to claim that phrase, I can’t. It’s been used in more than one professional development course I’ve taken.

How exactly is a twelve-year old, who can’t remember to bring their PE uniform home to be washed and back again, supposed to pick the “best right answer?” These are the people whose interests change more often than the latest technology. The people who today are “going out with” Bubba, but tomorrow find Earl more attractive. The people who think armpit “fart” noises are hysterical. (All of which is developmentally appropriate for this age group, unlike a two-hour semester exam in seven subjects over three and a half days.)

What does it do to your spirit when over the course of four days, you take seven nearly two-hour exams in which you have to find the “best right answer?” How does any of that feel rewarding? How does it show your intelligence?

More importantly, what has happened to teaching children to think for themselves? To know that there is more than one way to do things and that sometimes there is more than one answer?

With all the posturing over test scores and a push for creativity, you’d think that someone in charge would understand that the more rigid the answers become, the less children ask questions. The less they enjoy learning. The less they are, in fact, learning.

I hear all the reformers and legislators talking about kids being college and career ready. Those terms didn’t even exist back when they were children. And they shouldn’t exist now. That’s a fine goal for high school students. But it has no place in our dialogue about kindergarten through eighth grade.

I wonder how many of the reformers and legislators were college and career ready in elementary school or middle school. Those are places where you are supposed to learn, not just your numbers and letters, but also who you are and how to manage learning. They are not places where you only learn one thing or the “best right answer.” They are places where you explore, you make mistakes, and you learn from those mistakes.

But today’s students don’t want to make mistakes. They can’t afford to. Because their scores depend on it. Sadly, they’ve been taught to believe these scores actually define them.

And parents have bought into this narrative. Your child MUST take this standardized test to prove they’ve learned. To prove their value. To show that they can handle the next level. That they are college and career ready.

Even if they are just twelve- and thirteen-year olds. Taking seven two-hour exams where they have to find the “best right answer.”

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