Opting out of tests and into learning that matters

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This week at school, my nine-year old son will be working on a project that he is passionate about: an in-depth look at the Greek god Poseidon. He will be researching Poseidon, trying to figure out how to accurately and artistically draw a trident, and otherwise putting the finishing touches on his project, which will then be shared with his classmates next week.

While he is working on this, most of the other students in his class will be down the hall in the school’s only computer lab, taking the state mandated MCA tests for reading and math. We have opted him out of these tests. When I asked his teacher how she felt about that she said, “I wish no one was taking these tests.” She then told me he would have time to work on his project while the other kids were taking the tests.

My son is passionate about Poseidon and the Greek gods. He knows a lot more about them than I ever did. He has read all of the popular Rick Riordan novels about Percy Jackson, the boy whose father is Poseidon. I am not worried about his reading level; I do not need MCA test scores to know my son loves to read. Neither does his teacher, who helped fuel his passion by reading one of Riordan’s novels out loud to the class last fall.

I know he can write, too, even though the MCA test does not measure that. I have let misspellings and grammatical errors go as he learns to edit his own writing, which he will gladly do when he is engaged in the topic. Having a perfect product, as a 3rd grader, is not as important as learning how to stick with an assignment and practice reflection and revision.

I have seen his math work and talked to his teacher about where he is with his math skills. I know he is not a big fan of math, so I trust her to push him when necessary and let it go when he needs a break. I do not need MCA test scores, which will come months after he has taken the test, to tell me what his skills are. Because she is responsive, knowledgeable, and good at putting things in perspective, I trust his teacher to tell me how he is doing.

I am grateful that my son will be spending time this week engaged in a project he finds exciting. He has been talking about it for weeks now, and his enthusiasm and passion is inspiring. Even if we had allowed him to take the MCA tests, those online, multiple-choice tests would never be able to capture the light in his eyes or the animation in his voice when he tells us all about why Poseidon would beat Zeus in an epic battle.

My son is not unique, but his learning environment might be. His school is, so far, not narrowly obsessed with test scores. His teacher is experienced and believes in hands-on, active learning for all students. She knows that having to share what you know with others is a great way to learn, and is a much more profound measure of success and achievement than a score on a standardized test. Now, what can we do to ensure all children have access to such a positive, inspiring learning environment?

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