Michelle Martin

Ready, set test

March 11, 2012

Get your No. 2 pencils ready. It’s test-taking season for schoolkids across Chicago. At our school, at least, the students have been counseled to not worry too much about the tests. They are to get a good night’s sleep, eat a nutritious breakfast and do their best.

Then again, they’ve also spent time over the last several weeks preparing for the tests, doing worksheets that mimic the style of standardized tests with multiple-choice questions and fill-in-thebubble answers. They have been instructed on how best to write the answers that are not multiple choice, up to and including using all the lines on the answer form. Apparently, a lot of lines mean the graders are expecting a longer answer, so students should make sure to give them one.

Parents are organizing to make sure each class has the opportunity for a healthy snack at their mid-morning break.

All of which goes against the idea of just doing your best and letting it go.

Frank asked me the other day why the Terra Nova tests matter so much. The real answer is that for him, in fifth grade, they don’t matter much at all. Sure, if there were a drastic change in his performance, teachers might wonder what was going on with him and rethink the groups he is placed in. But a few points either way? He won’t feel any effects.

Rather, his teachers and the school staff will use his scores and those of his classmates to evaluate what they know, to figure out if they need to adjust the curriculum in some way to better cover a particular topic or skill. If the school’s average scores are high enough, they might even do a bit of boasting.

Two years from now, that will be different. Then his individual scores will count for a lot when it comes time to plan for high school. If he wanted to go to one of the city’s selective enrollment public schools, anything other than the very best scores in seventh grade would dash his hopes. That’s why his school offers all seventhgraders an optional test-prep class before their Terra Novas, designed to help them use better test-taking strategy.

Catholic and competitive public high schools alike look at seventh-grade grades, seventh-grade test scores and entrance exams to make their decisions. Two out of the three legs of that structure are basically standardized tests.

I want my children to do well, because that offers them the most opportunities going forward. But I wonder. Is a student who was in the 99th percentile that much better than one in the 95th, or 75th, or 55th? Is he or she happier? Kinder? More generous or compassionate?

When do we get the test on those skills? Jesus told us in Chapter 25 of the Gospel of Matthew: “All the nations will be assembled before him. And he will separate them one from another, as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats” (Mt 25:32).

Maybe I should spend more time worrying about how they will do on that test.