The Anxiety of Belief

A day of benchmark testing has left me nauseated.

But not necessarily with the test. Today students took their final benchmark test.  They take four of them over the course of the school year (roughly one per quarter). Like most benchmarks, the test is meant to be a formative assessment. The district expects teachers to use the data from the benchmark to inform classroom instruction. As far as privatized education goes, the situation is pretty standard. A Pearson company creates our benchmark exams. They give us the exam schedule. Teachers are instructed to use the schedule to plan the curriculum. So, if we know the first benchmark will test students on main idea, author’s purpose, and figurative language, we would do well to make sure we cover those standards before the first benchmark.

In order to access the test results we login to the provider’s website. The website offers a dizzying array of options. We can mess around with cut scores, sort students by gap group (students with disabilities, African American, English Language Learner, etc.), and check test progress over time. Teachers then transfer the scores into various spreadsheets for grouping, analyzing, reteaching, etc. Did a big chunk of students miss the two cause and effect questions? Then we’ll spend class time on cause and effect. Although the specifics might vary depending on the district and the school, this is the general flow of things.

I’m opposed to testing. As a general rule, I’m not interested in efficiency, standardization, or managerialism. I find most discourse on standards, grading policies, and data-based accountability semi-repellant. I’ve uncovered and nurtured these beliefs during the last year or so. My pedagogy, a direct outgrowth of my beliefs, parallels my shifting values. I do not teach testing strategies. I do not ‘do’ test prep. I am grateful to work in a public school that allows me to enact a pedagogy that agrees with my personal values.

But that’s not what this brief post is about. This post is about the white-knuckle terror that accompanies the benchmarks and the end of year exam. At the beginning of the year the price of my belief is quite inconsequential. It’s not until everyone returns from Winter Break that a feeling of dissonance begins to brew. This internal static becomes almost overwhelming after Spring Break; this is when ‘testing season’ begins. Data is watched. Meetings are monitored. Conversations are held.

To doubt this method of schooling in September is one thing. But the closer I get to the big test the harder it is to see my students as anything other than a percentage, a point on a number line that must not be allowed to sink below the cut score. So today, while my kids took their benchmark, I stared at my laptop. The website colors every score below 70% in red. Every student who fell into the red felt like some sort of indictment on how I choose to run my class. Have I failed them by not hewing to what is now the standard approach? Shame and disgust rocketed through me. I sat at the end of the day with my head in my hands, wondering if my urge to resist the status quo in order to forge my own path had sabotaged 90 students.

My anxiety over scores is certainly nothing new. At my old school, the benchmark provider would release the scores the second day after the exam at approximately 4:30 AM. I would wake up around 4 (no alarm needed) to mash Control-R until the webpage updated. But back then I could at least fall back on my drill-and-kill instructional methods. I knew I would dissect each wrong answer for clues about what happened. What were the distractors in the answers? What was the genre of the passage? What key terms might the students have misunderstood? Where did the question fall in the overall arc of the entire exam? And so forth.

But I’ve sworn off the tools of the technocrat, and I cannot go back. For what is my conviction worth if it folds under duress, no matter how great the pressure?


  1. littledigitalschoolhouse

    I feel that many people outside of education have no idea how testing influences the whole culture of a school. Even though the benchmark tests are really stressful I love the tests Renaissance Learning provides. The tests are only meant to inform my teaching. They closely correlate with standard state testing and can be given at any time. The kids can retake the test any time they feel like it. Do you have Accelerated Reader and Math at your school?


      • littledigitalschoolhouse

        I just use them to get their reading level. They are the ones that have comprehension and vocabulary tests for pretty much every book there is. It really helps me to keep track of the kids reading and they love it! I teach first grade and anything that encourages the kids is a good thing in my book. I really feel there can be a place for meaningful assessment. I think the problem with most benchmark assessments is that they are meant to keep track of teachers. That is why they are stressful. The student isn’t in trouble for missing the benchmark. They probably couldn’t care less. I really appreciate your blog. There is not a lot of open discussion about this.

        Liked by 1 person

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