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Swamped with assessments, the biggest lesson my students learn is how to give up

As a second grade teacher, I comfort crying children almost every day. But lately, I’ve been handling tears that are not the typical he-stole-my-snack or she-said-she’s-not-my friend tears. “I don’t know nothing,” one student, Gabriela, sobbed to me in the middle of a writing assessment last January. “My brain can’t do it.”

The assessment, given at the beginning of a new unit, asked students to demonstrate skills they hadn’t yet been taught. Gabriela has been struggling with the schoolwork all year, and assessments only further emphasize her feelings of inadequacy.

My co-teacher and I understand the value of data-driven instruction. However, we have spent so much instructional time assessing our students this year that we have not been able to effectively use the data we have collected. Second graders don’t take state exams, but the new Common Core aligned curricula that my school is using, combined with the requirements set out in the new teacher evaluation system, have dramatically increased the time we spend formally assessing our students in the classroom.

Every unit I teach this year has a pre-assessment, a post-assessment, and several smaller assessments along the way.

Gabriela was crying because we asked her to complete a pre-assessment for our new informational reading and writing unit. Over several days, she had to listen to informational texts, take notes using a graphic organizer, and then write an informational piece using as many text features as she could.

As her teacher, I knew the assessment would be too difficult for Gabriela before I handed it out. Given that it was a pre-assessment, we hadn’t yet taught her the skills she needed to complete the tasks.

Once the unit began, we scaffolded the instruction for struggling learners by working with them in small groups and teaching them how to use the illustrations that appear in many grade-level informational texts to help answer questions about the text. But during pre-assessments, we throw the kids into the deep end to see what they can do on their own. All too often, students like Gabriela feel as though they’re drowning.

I believe in giving students challenging assignments and allowing them to work through their frustrations. But when we constantly assess students on skills and strategies that they have not yet learned, they lose their willingness to persevere and begin to think that school is simply too hard for them. Whatever I learned from seeing how much of the assessment Gabriela could do on her own was outweighed by the damage it did to her self esteem.

In any classroom, but especially in one like mine where students with and without special needs learn side-by-side, the work is always going to be more challenging for some students than it is for others. Assessments like the one Gabriela was working on the morning she broke down end up accentuating those differences in ability levels.

After giving Gabriela a pep talk and telling her to get a drink of water, I sat down to scribe for her. Once I explained what the assessment was asking her to do, Gabriela was able to identify facts in the text that fit with her topic. I told her how proud I was of her and pointed out what great work she was able to do, but she didn’t seem to internalize any of that. The feelings of panic and incompetence she felt when she began the assignment were the ones that stuck with her.

A state law passed in April banned standardized tests for students in kindergarten through second grade. That’s a promising move, but it doesn’t prevent teachers from having to constantly administer other kinds of tests that harm students’ self-worth and ability to learn.

My co-teacher and I want to spend more of our time understanding what our students need and helping them develop the skills they lack, and less time forcing them to take tests we know will be too challenging.

By skills, I don’t mean only the ability to read and write and solve math problems. I also mean qualities such as confidence and perseverance that serve students in life and on tests, by giving them the wherewithal to stick with difficult problems and material. Administering constant assessments gets in the way of helping students develop the very qualities they need in order to excel.

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