It's that time of year again: Standardized tests return. While others are noting the change in the season and the lengthening days, It is part of a cycle that has been impressed on me since the days when I was a student and I nervously awaited those newsprint booklets and the bubble sheets that accompanied them. Learning was to be measured, and the best way to do that was to pen us all in and have us fill in those bubbles as best we could for a seemingly endless stretch and precious little took place aside from this silent activity. We were a school of test-takers, and when we came out the other side, we would be prepared to move on to the next grade, ready to spend a week filling in bubbles to prove what we knew. Some of us, with older siblings, were able to see where this path was leading: the PSAT. The ACT. The something-something-T. That stands for Test. And trouble, right here in River City.
Just like back then, there are still those students who look at us slack-jawed when we tell them that there is a test coming. We have done our best by immersing them in assessments throughout the year that mirror the experience to prepare for the Big One. Back in the day there was no need to reveal your thinking. Some of us took the time to eliminate the answers and make logical choices from A, B, C or D. "None of the above" was always a pretty good guess. Then there were those who were simply making patterns, attempting to beat the system by creating their own.
Not so much anymore. These days we ask kids to explain their thinking. We have included, along with a healthy amount of bubble filling, big boxes in which we hope students will fill with their ideas. Rationalize their process and explain their thinking. In anticipation of this experience, I have given our third, fourth and fifth graders practice tests that I hope will make the test-taking experience less fraught with anxiety. When they come to those boxes, they stop. They stare. And they ask me this question: "How much do I have to write?"
I give them a pretty standard teacher answer, "Enough to explain your answer."
Because there is no absolute. I would love to be able to tell them that if they write six lines they will get that question right. If they include a compound sentence that they will get extra credit. Spelling counts. Punctuation counts. Don't leave the CAPS LOCK button on and leave us all wondering why you are yelling. How much do they really have to write? I wish I didn't have to answer that question, so I mostly don't. I do what teachers have done for all time before mine: I try and get them to write as much as they can. The bubbles aren't enough. To be successful we need to see how those bubbles came to be filled in. Now they get to do it on a computer, so hopefully the strain on their number two pencil fingers will be spread out onto their clicking and typing digits.
And here's the other thing I can tell them: This too shall pass, and hopefully so will you.