We start state testing in two weeks, and I’ve just begun to have conversations with students about them (you can see my previous posts about these tests at My Best Posts On How To Prepare For Standardized Tests (And Why They’re Bad)).

I began on Friday after being inspired by an online survey Alice Mercer did with her students. She’ll be writing her own post analyzing the survey results. (By the way, I think doing surveys in classrooms where relationships exist, students will share their responses with each other, and then the whole class talks about it, are fine. In community organizing, we always felt that a survey was only good if it was used as an excuse to start people talking. Outside of that relational context, I’m less convinced of their usefulness because I think people will tend to answer what they think they should, rather than what they really think.)

I wrote this question on the board as part of our regular Friday reflection:

Do you think it’s important to try your best on your test? If so, why? If not, why not?

I’m pretty confident that students are pretty honest in their responses to these kinds of questions — we’ve been able to develop that kind of classroom culture. Because it was a shortened day, we didn’t really have time to discuss their answers, but will tomorrow. Here are some of them:

Yes, it’s important because it’ll decide the placement of classes you will take next year.

Yes, because if you don’t do your best then you will be in a stupid class.

Yes, because if you don’t try you won’t get a good education.

It is important because if you don’t try the people will think that you are dumb and put you in dumb classes.

I’ve been thinking very carefully about the points I want to make in my conversations with them. I don’t want to communicate to them that the tests are going to measure how smart they are. And I don’t want to communicate a message like “You should always try your best” because, let’s face it, as the old community organizing saying goes: “Not all things are worth doing well.” All tasks are not made equal.

A colleague and I were talking today about how sad it is that we have to spend so much energy trying to think of a true reason it’s in the genuine self-interest of our students to try their best on these tests. We don’t have that problem with anything else we teach during the year!

This is what I finally concluded:

As part of the class discussion, one point I’m going to make is that the test results, along with their grades, are going to be the first impressions that teachers are going to have of them — before they actually meet them face-to-face. And first impressions can last awhile. I will tell them that even though I question whether these tests are an accurate measure of their ability, even I find myself making pre-judgments on students before I meet them after looking at their grades and test scores. The test scores will have some impact on classes they’ll be entering in the future, but less so here are our school because I and other teacher will be making recommendations based on what we know about them. However, they know that students can move, and that many students do. When that happens, no teacher or administrator will know them at their new schools, and their class placement will pretty much just be based on grades and test scores.

In addition, I’d like them to remember that it’s always best to make decisions that keep options open instead of closing them. Doing the best on the tests will do that for them.

I’ve printed out individual bar graphs comparing how they’ve done in their previous two years. On the computer, they’re color-coded to show at which level each student scored — Far below basic, Below basic, Basic, Proficient, Advanced. In my print-outs, they’re black and white, so the level is not clear to the student. It seems to me that showing many of my students that they’re considered “far below basic” or “below basic” is not going to be very helpful. I’m planning on telling them the number they need to reach in order to reach the “next level” and asking them if they think they can do that; if they want to do that; and, if so, what can they do over the next couple of weeks to help them accomplish their goal. We’ve done a lot on goal-setting, and it’s worked well.

What do you think? I’m all ears to hear ideas on how to talk with students about these tests….