Assessments vs. High Stakes Testing

What do we assess at Pine Cobble why? In what context? How much does it matter? Most important, how is it different from the high stakes testing that seems to drive so much of education these days?  Below is a Q&A with assistant head of school Jay Merselis that appeared in last year’s Cobblestone. At Pine Cobble, an occasional assessement is a chance to evaluate some aspects of our own curriculum…and we do it without defining students, adding pressure, or squeezing out the things that matter most.

Take it from one of our students:

At my old school, standardized tests took up so much classroom time – we spent hours and hours practicing for them. At Pine Cobble, we get to spend our time at school doing more interesting things. The tests were just a few mornings out of the year, and nobody seemed worried about them. It was just a lot more relaxed.

– Isla Lyons, Upper School student


On Assessments, Data, and Valuing Students

with Jay Merselis

Standardized tests are in the news a lot, often conjuring up different feelings for parents and kids. While testing doesn’t drive the curriculum at Pine Cobble, we do value the data that assessments provide. As a result, students in grades one to nine take the Stanford Achievement Tests annually. Other assessments, like DIBELS(Dynamic Indicators of Basic Early Literacy Skills) and the WrAP (Writing Assessment Program) occur at the beginning, middle, and end of the school year. DIBELS assesses the acquisition of early literacy and reading skills while the WrAP and our in-house writing assessment provide information about students’ writing skills and progress. 

Here, Jay Merselis shares more about what these tests can – and can’t – do for our students.
There’s a reason high-stakes testing is controversial.
I don’t know of anyone who believes that working with solid data is a bad thing. What people don’t like – including everyone at Pine Cobble – is the kind of high stakes testing that squeezes out the arts, wellness, and wonder; that stresses kids out; that doesn’t represent deep learning or critical thinking; and that ultimately does little to prepare kids for success. In too many schools, far too much depends on filling in bubbles.

Our testing is not high stakes…
No funding rests on the results of these tests. They don’t drive the curriculum. They don’t squeeze out creativity or wellness or free play or laughter. No classroom time is devoted to practicing for these tests. None.
… nor does it define our students.
Another difference between Pine Cobble’s testing and high stakes testing is this: at Pine Cobble, these tests are not taken in isolation. We have students who are brilliant big-picture thinkers, but who don’t take tests well, sitting next to students who score in the 99th percentile and are recognized by Johns Hopkins Center for Talented Youth. We have students who are wonderfully curious, who ask all the right questions; these students sometimes think through answers more slowly. We have incredibly creative, out-of-the-box learners whose skills are in direct opposition to filling in bubbles. Everyone here – teachers and administrators – already know this. We already value this. That’s why these tests don’t define our students – they’re just one piece of a much more important big picture.
Students are different from their test scores.
Standardized tests will never capture what’s most important about a person. A standardized test doesn’t measure a student’s leadership, for example – their ability to resolve conflict, speak in public, look someone in the eye. It can’t measure their values, their resilience, their tenacity, or their grit. It cannot measure their curiosity, sense of wonder, ability to think critically,  their sense of humor, compassion, courage, or creativity. It cannot measure them.

These snapshots can be helpful…
Assessments give us valuable data about the progress of a class, our curriculum as a whole, and children’s individual learning needs. The Stanfords, for example, allow us to see when an entire class has a huge leap in math percentiles from one year to the next: a great indicator of the success of our new math program, which we can build on. On the other hand, if an entire class struggles with a section of the test, we are able to use those results to help us teach and reinforce those skills with a different approach in the years ahead.
… but they don’t drive what we do.

Pine Cobble uses these tests as a single snapshot in time, as a small piece of data in a much bigger context. We’re here to help students be their best selves, to have an impact on this world. A standardized test is a piece of that … but it’s only one piece. Tests will never drive what we do or how we do it.

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