What are you really testing?

I still remember the fear that came over me when my 9th grade Honors English teacher held up a handwritten in-class essay and waved it around the room, dark red circles around all the misspelled words.

I have always been a terrible speller. My 1st and 2nd grade teacher who was amazingly supported offered to take me out to ice cream if I got an A on a spelling test, it happened once. It just doesn’t come naturally to me. I look at my younger brother who by first grade was better at spelling than I was at 5th. In 4th grade I started typing up everything single assignment I did at home so I wouldn’t have to worry about spelling mistakes.

I am actually great at spelling on a keyboard (even without using the spellchecker), there’s a different set of skills to remember how to type words than to spell them.

My 8th grade English teacher was a long term sub while the regular teacher was out for cancer treatment. She made us do all of our spelling tests in cursive. If there is one thing I am worse at than spelling it is handwriting (and cursive). Undoubtedly on every test there would be a world I would get wrong because my a’s were not closed on top or my t’s had loops instead of a single line, regardless of how unlikely it was I meant the other letter. (Would anyone really spell “wait” “wuil”?) But if you didn’t close the ‘a’ it was a ‘u’ and if you looped the line on a ‘t’ it was an ‘l’ even if your crossed it. Why was our spelling test also measuring cursive skills at the expense of getting answers correct?

In English in 9th grade we had weekly quizzes on word “stems” and “roots”. It was finally something about English I loved. And then, somewhere around mid-year we had the root “lith”. Our vocab list defined lith as meaning stone, but I on the test I remembered it as rock so I got the answer wrong. I even debated it to the teacher after class, but she refused to budge. Right or wrong it took me from loving the activity, to dreading slightly flipping the definitions. My scores plummeted from the worry of a little mistake. Why would such a small change in meaning matter enough to consider it completely wrong?

Which brings me back to that in-class essay. As she waved around that paper I locked eyes with a friend across. We both knew we were the worse spellers in the class and knew the paper must be one of ours. The teacher’s fingers shifted and the name she was covering came into view. It wasn’t mine that time. I can’t even begin to tell you the relief I felt.

I will admit, I wasn’t the best essay writer in her class. I had strong opinions and often refused to budge off of them (I still believe Huck Finn did not truly change by the end of the book – her only comment on that paper about “Did Huck Finn change by the end of the book?” was “He did change, C-“). But more than that my essays suffered from my anxiety while writing them. I would agonize over every word much longer than 6 letters wondering, did I spell it right? Does ‘agonize’ have one ‘n’ or two?  My papers were full of crossed out words and sentences as I reworked things to replace words I wasn’t sure I was spelling right.

I left her class looking forward, fearful for the rest of my high school English classes and college beyond. She put me in college prep English for 10th grade where I had a fabulous teacher who helped me improve my writing. I went onto AP English the next year where I managed A’s on most essays even though he sometimes disagreed with my arguments and occasionally marked words I misspelled (I still remember the paper about A Dolls House where he remarked, “Well your conclusion is technically wrong, but you did a fabulous job arguing for it – A” . I went onto Humanities (a two period IB course with English, Philosophy, Civics, and Art History) my senior year where me, the terrible writer, was singled out as having one of the top 3 essays for our essay about Truth (I took the controversial stand of it being absolute). Seriously, me above the straight A kids and the valedictorians.

I was still afraid of hand written essay finals at the start of college where I would fanatically write to fill up a blue book during the 3 hour finals that was worth 70% of your grade. Then I realized that none of those TA’s or Professors gave a damn that I spelled things incorrectly during those essays, and I know I spelled things wrong.

As an alternative I think about my 3rd grade teacher who gave us timed multiplication tests, I was always great at math, but would freeze up under the pressure. She told my mom, “I’m not going to time her because it is making her too anxious, so make sure she knows she can have as long as she needs.” I’m not sure it ever took me longer than the minute or so the rest of the class had to finish, but knowing there wasn’t that pressure was all I needed. Instead of bombing the multiplication tests as I was before, I was doing great.

It can be hard when you are a teacher and there are skills you value and care about that some of your students don’t have. You want to push them to develop those skills, to care about them. But when we give tests and assignments we have to ask what skills should we really be testing. And we have to consider that maybe the pressure over a skill they don’t yet have is causing them to fail something else. If I didn’t have teachers who valued my interest in math over my pace in listing multiplication facts, that didn’t see my skills in writing over my spelling errors, I would not be where I am today.

When we evaluate our students we have to ask ourselves, what are we really testing and why?



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