Testing Students: It’s Practice, Not Failure

The arena of education maintains a few diverse phenomena that only exist in the confines of the school. For instance, the ways classrooms are set up really do not reflect any work atmosphere and social setting. The buzzers and insistence on walking to and from places seem to be more reminiscent of an era of yesteryear, or prophetic of some robotic future. They just don’t seem right in the here and now. But perhaps the biggest incongruence between how we school our children and the way society works can be found specifically in the elementary math class and the ways we are testing students.

The challenge comes from the way the curriculum is handed down and, subsequently, the way teachers think they ought to teach. The problems arise in math class, not from explicit teaching, but from an inadvertent sense that is fostered through the idea of math and all that it entails. The most notable schism between the math class and the real world comes from the way we test and assess students.

The math test seems to have been around since the inception of school. Let me stop for a second and clarify one thing before I continue…It’s not the math test’s fault. There is nothing wrong with testing students in math. The problem is how our assessments are used to create a stigma about math as well as espouse a fixed mindset in our children.

The constant use of the math test creates immediate self-perceptions within the student. The use and importance of the test inadvertently creates a paradigm where students judge their academic standing based on a score. Teachers, despite their best interests, judge the students based on their test grades as well. It becomes a culture of fixed mentalities. No space for the idea that people’s intellectual abilities can grow, change, and develop. The math test becomes the ultimate Super Bowl, and you either win or lose. Either way, the season is over after the game.

Trouble is, this mentality doesn’t even stand in sports. Yes, there is a winner and loser, but there is always a next game or season. When a child first learns how to shoot a jump shot, he may miss more than he makes it. He may make 3 out of 20 when he first starts and maybe improve to 7 out of 20 after a few weeks. Is he consistently failing? Has he failed two straight “tests”? No, see in sports, like most other walks of life, he is practicing! What school calls failure, the real world calls practice.

Then, it becomes a challenge to shift the mentality regarding tests like the ones a student may receive a 7 out of 20 on in math class. When a kid shoots 7 out of 20 in a basketball game, he doesn’t feel anywhere close to as defeated as a kid who gets a test back that he scored 7 out of 20 on. Reason why? Because the mentality in those two environments is completely opposite. To save words, the basketball game epitomizes the idea of a growth mindset; the math class represents a fixed mentality.

What’s more, that kid who shot 7 out of 20 in the game still scored 14 points! He still did something positive, very positive actually. With traditional assessment, the only thing that kid in math class scored was an F on the top of his paper. Failure versus practice. Closed self-perceptions versus opportunities to see yourself capable of growing.

No answers here on how we change the culture. But it is evident that we do need to encourage more students to see themselves as proficient in mathematics. Perhaps one way to do this stems from the way we teach and test: more coaching the practices and less refereeing the final game may be a solution.


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Matthew R. Morris

Educator, Speaker, Writer

Matthew R. Morris is a writer, speaker, and elementary educator in Toronto. He has an M.A. in Social Justice Education from OISE at the University of Toronto and is the author of the forthcoming book, Black Boys Like Me. 

Matthew R. Morris

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