Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Beyond the Retest

Teacher names come and go.  There are some that make me cringe at the thought of their names, others I have no memory of at all and a select few that landed a special place in my heart.  In 1985, my fifth grade teacher, Mrs. Downing, was one of those rare teachers that made such a profound impact on my life that 30 years later I feel inspired by her to write this post.

It was a social studies test and I failed it miserably.  However, it wasn't the failing of the test that makes me recall this memory, it was what Mrs. Downing did after I failed that made the impact.  You see,  Mrs. Downing was 30 years ahead of her time, she encouraged me to take the test again.  She studied with me after school.  She also sent home a review for my mom to study with me.  In the midst of the retake she recognized that it was not my lack of understanding the content, but self-doubt that sabotaged my learning.  I truly believed that for every obvious answer there was that it was a trick being played on me.  I believed that I could not possibly know the answer so, for every answer that seemed like the right answer, I would then choose a different answer.

I used this absurd thought process again on my retake.  As I stood on the other side of the her desk, I watched her grade my retake.  I could see that I missed the same answers again.  I remember hanging my head in defeat.  Mrs. Downing turned my test face down and asked me to look at her.  She then gave me words of encouragement.  She told me she believed I knew the correct answers and that she thought I was letting my brain get in the way.

She told me to stop overthinking and to go with the first answer that came to mind.  Mrs. Downing then asked me the test questions aloud and I answered all but two of them correctly.  She flipped my test over and changed the grade to reflect what we did out loud.

That oral assessment with Mrs. Downing was more revealing than any paper pencil test.  I think of that moment today as I reassess student understanding.  There is not only great power in releasing the "one and done" mentality for testing, but also in embracing multiple ways to assess understanding.

You see, like Mrs. Downing, we each have the choice to move beyond the retest. When we look at student data, we sure as heck better be looking at our instructional strategies.  We need to be open to talking with colleagues about what works, abandoning what doesn't work and embracing new ideas.

If you are a teacher that retests, consider branching out beyond the paper pencil test to embrace conversations and/or try quick whiteboard assessments.  If you are a teacher that does not believe in retests, consider the value in student teacher conversations about the assessments.  Even if you do not retest, you have the ability to connect with a struggling student through the conversations you have together.  Perhaps, through these conversations you will help students break through their fixed mindsets of self-doubt and turn their beliefs into growth mindsets.

Who knows, maybe you will be someone's Mrs. Downing some day.