General Leadership Instructional Leadership

Create a Positive Test Taking Culture in your school?

How do you create a positive test taking culture in your school?

Truly, how do you do it?

That was a question posed during a live meeting I attended in the past week.  How do you create a positive test taking culture in the school you are in?  Then part of the group discussed this topic.

I should say I had my mic and video off.  My family was in the house.  I did not say what first came to my mind.  Frankly, it was not positive nor uplifting.

That was a legitimate question discussed though.  Creating a positive test taking culture in a school in 2021.  How should we do it?  What should be in place?  How do we encourage students to have a positive attitude about test taking and high stakes test taking?  I shared this with another educator shortly afterwards and his response, get rid of high stakes test taking and students would be better off.  I fully agreed.

What is the purpose of high stakes test taking?  IB, AP, IGCSE, SAT, ACT, and all the other acronyms of tests that we require of students.  What is the point?  No truly.  What is the point of any of these high stakes tests in 2021 and why do we still allow this type of conversation to exist?

Many universities in North America and the world are not considering SAT and ACT as part of the formal application process anymore.  AP testing simply allows students to waive university level courses, so they get academic credit once they are allowed into the university if they score high enough on their assessment.  IB and IGCSE are most relevant to Europe and the British system, but not as much outside of those systems.  So, do they matter anymore?

If you are going to a specific system, then yes, some of the education programs do matter.  If one is going to Europe or the UK, then yes, a student is best served in the IB and IGCSE system based on what I know about them.  The high stakes testing do have an end goal and are perhaps a necessary evil inherent in the system.  But they have a point and a purpose as I understand.  If you apply to certain universities in the system, you know the score you are required to get for entry for example.

What about other assessments we so highly value?  What is their purpose?  Do they meet the needs of education today?  Truly, businesses repeatedly state that high school and university graduates are not completing their programs with the skills they need for their organizations to be successful.  If none of our programs are truly meeting the requirements for business, are we doing a good job with the high stakes assessments and classes we offer then test?

The question we have to ask, and honestly ask this not just the teacher meeting question of what do we think, is do we value high stakes testing and why?

Let us be brutally honest for a moment about education.  High stakes testing, if our students do well, makes the institution look very good.  We can waive our high-test scores in front of anyone looking and show them our academic success.  That success brings students to the school and puts backsides in seats.  In a private school, this is almost required.  In a public school, this is a flower in the cap of the school.

We will never get rid of high stakes academic testing in education.  No matter what we believe as educators, we will never get rid of it.  We need it as much as our students need it to demonstrate academic success for application to university.  It is our necessary evil.  It is here and it will remain in our programs.

How then do we have a discussion about a positive test taking culture in our school? 

It starts with an evaluation of your test-taking culture.  Let’s be brutally honest here, there are schools that are test-taking mills.  Their sole purpose is to get students to take as many high stakes tests as possible and pass with high marks.  Fortunately, those schools are a bit more of the outliers, but, that doesn’t mean it is not a prevailing attitude in schools.

I once heard a college counselor, who was wicked smart, tell a group of students that the correct answer to how many advanced courses and tests a student to take was simple.  Take as many as you can AND score top marks on everyone of them.  That was the only correct answer to that question he said. 

We may not be test mills, but we may very well believe that students should take a lot of tests and excel in order to make us, or our school, look good.  Where does your school fall in that continuum from no tests to as many as possible?  It is good to have that conversation and to identify why you believe that.  Then, discuss what impacts that attitude will have on the social and emotional wellness of students long-term.  Is that what you believe as a school?  Does that meet your vision and mission?

Be honest with your organization.  You must show success academically by your students.  Where they go to university matters.  Their academic success matters.  But that can look very different from one school to the next and frankly, the university admissions counselors know this.  Your clientele needs to see success from your students and the program.  Test results and scores matter, so does college admission.  At least be honest in the conversations around test-taking.

I worry when I hear comments about positive test-taking cultures though that we focus to much on academic success and taking tests.  It simply is not part of our work environment and we place too much emphasis on it for all students.  Yes, test scores on certain academic tests show an increased probability of success and earnings later in life.  But not every student needs to attend a 4 year university to be successful.

We miss the bigger picture if we focus on academic success only.  We miss the student sitting in the seat.  We miss the uniqueness of that individual.  We miss the creativity.  We miss the joy of learning if we push students towards academic success.  That is where we fail as institutions. 

Yes, we must have high stakes testing in some form at our institutions.  Those are not going away.  But be honest about why we do it in our school.  Also, do not forget that we are still teaching humans.  Let us not be so focused on creating a positive culture of testing that we forget that we have amazing musicians, poets, artists, writers and dreamers, tech wizards, creatives and those who will change the world in our midst.  They have skills that no test will evaluate and we may kill their creativity if we forget to acknowledge them.

I challenge you this year to consider, what is your test taking culture and why do you believe it?  Clearly define the purpose of your testing so you are able to articulate why it matters in your school.

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