How To Find Your Way Through the Standardized Testing Dilemma (Part 2)

I hope you were able to read part one of this series on standardized testing: Anything But Standard: How Standardized Tests Diminish Learning. In part two, we’ll take a look at alternatives to standardized testing, as well as things that parents and teachers can do to either avoid standardized testing altogether, or at least find some benefit in the test results if testing is unavoidable.

Alternatives to Standardized Testing

A key effort undertaken in the first Children’s Houses involved keeping a portfolio for each child that recorded their work in the classroom. This record was kept for the use of the instructor, the attendant physician and the parents who could turn to it at any time to keep tabs on how a child was growing, both intellectually and physically.

One of the alternatives to standardized testing being advocated in public schools is for each child to have a portfolio much like the one used by Maria Montessori. For more info on recording work and building portfolios, please see the recent post The Secret of Successfully Recording a Child’s Work.

In today’s public school system, it often seems as if neither the child nor the parent, the teacher nor the administration, seems to be able to get a clear picture of how each child is progressing throughout his or her school career. Rather than publicly grading whole schools, the portfolio method attempts to follow the specific path of each child and see whether he or she is keeping up with an agreed upon rate of academic growth.

Optimally, this data could be used to alter the curriculum to better meet the needs of the individual student. Some of the criticisms of this method include the difficulties of storing all this data, and also, the hardship of getting the portfolio sent to appropriate parties if the child moves or changes schools. It seems to me that Internet technology could lighten the load significantly here.

If a portfolio is used in conjunction with regular parent-teacher conferences and opportunities for students to display their skills through the medium of performances of work such as science fairs, written essays, and other physical proofs of proficiency, at least the focus is moving more in the direction of the child and away from public standards. However, some schools may choose to incorporate some of the above methods along with report cards and proficiency exams and this brings us back to public grading and the potential for shame-based teaching.

What Can Teachers Do?

If you teach in a Montessori program in a public school, chances are the children are taking standardized tests because the law requires it. If you are required to give students a standardized test, you can use the information in a way that isn’t demeaning to the children. Rather than looking at an isolated picture of each child, you can look at the overall test scores to decide where the “gaps” are – concepts or information that you may not have presented to the children yet. In this way, the test is a guide for you, rather than being a reflection on the children and what they may or may not know.

While I do not believe that you should spend a lot of time teaching for the test, it can be helpful to go over the basic ideas with the children – how to fill in a bubble testing form, why it helps to mark an answer for each question, even if you have to guess, and how to use the process of elimination to enable better choices. A few years ago, I was asked to help train volunteers who tutor inner-city kids. They were looking for some ways to help the children better prepare for standardized tests. I came up with some general guidelines and put them in a PDF; you can find it here.

If your private Montessori school is attempting to decide whether or not standardized testing will be useful, the matter should be the decision of the parents, teachers, and administrators. Organize a meeting to discuss the issue, and in the spirit of Maria Montessori, why not let the children have a say? At the meeting, bring up the various alternatives, such as portfolios, self-assessments, and record keeping that are being used in place of standardized testing.

What Can Parents Do?

Concerned parents have held rallies, met with legislators and had their children boycott school on standardized testing days. Parents who would prefer their child not take standardized tests can research the various laws and regulations in their state or county – it’s possible that there’s a loophole that would allow a child not to take a standardized test.

If your child is tested, take the test results with a grain of salt. Many people would say that all the test results show is how well your child can take a test. Look at the results within the context of a bigger picture, including your child’s day to day work, interests, and extracurricular activities. Keep in mind that Montessori children are developing character traits that no test could measure: independence, self-sufficiency, respect for others, and curiosity among them. No child should ever feel shamed or embarrassed because of testing results.

Some parents may decide that they prefer their children not be tested at all. In this case, homeschooling becomes a very attractive option. The obvious benefits of this are that you don’t need a test to tell you how the children are progressing, and you can choose a pace of learning that fits your child’s needs and interests.

The Harmful Side Effects of Testing

In my own research of the standardized testing controversy, I have come to consider that it isn’t so much the testing itself that is a problem, but really, the whole system of the traditional schooling model where the child is neglected and overlooked while the adults deal with financial concerns, professional punishments and rewards.

What a contrast this picture presents to the Casa dei Bambini where the family, the instructor, the physician and the child lived together in a natural setting, sharing the lessons of becoming fully human. Maria Montessori believed that the purpose of education was to establish lasting peace. The political and institutional battles raging around public school methods of testing and teaching are anything but peaceful, and I’m sure the children are absorbing this.