Since the onset of federal requirements for end-of-year achievement testing, test score results have been a defining priority for schools and districts. They are the metrics by which schools and districts are deemed successful or not. They are used to evaluate educators’ performance and associated bonuses. They impact funding formulas and can threaten a school or district’s autonomy to govern. And at the individual level, they can deeply affect a student’s eligibility for programs, opportunities, and pathways.
In short, the unilateral focus on achievement testing often undermines a more holistic evaluation of students’ progress and growth. These scores neither recognize the full breadth and depth of the unique facets of each individual student nor illuminate the complicated set of variables that define a particular student’s set of strengths and needs.
Counselors and educators need to pause and remember that students are much more than a single test score in a testing season. And that a number of factors – well beyond simply academic learning–impact those scores. When students feel like they are defined by their scores, counselors can advocate for time to have conversations with students, build relationships, and utilize more balanced assessments of who a student is and how they are doing.
Discovering the Whole Child
So much of who a student is cannot show up in data. And genuinely understanding students can broaden and deepen nearly every facet of the learning cycle. When teachers know their students’ strengths, needs, and passions, they can better design instruction and strategize learning plans. Counselors who are in tune with their students are more likely to pick up on subtle changes in how a student is feeling–socially, emotionally, or academically–and can intervene early, before something becomes a crisis that requires more intensive external support. And all educators who know their students in a more holistic way can better interpret how they are mastering content and shift and change instruction in appropriate and meaningful ways.
Counselors can lead the way in modeling and embedding practices that allow the adults in a school building to truly get to know their students beyond test score data. Consider using these practices and strategies to prioritize relationship-building and whole-child thinking as central components of the learning dynamic:
Regularly check in with students. Be sure to ask questions that include information beyond grades and test scores. For example, you might ask, “What are you most proud of today?” or “What is something you worked hard on today?” Then,take time to listen to the responses. These conversations–for students of all ages, especially middle and high school students–help to create channels of communication for students to communicate other needs and concerns.
Utilize an asset-based approach to help students recognize their strengths and find ways to build on them. When there is an issue or area of concern with a student, work with a team of teachers to talk about what the child is doing well and how to leverage those strengths in other areas. By making a students’ assets central to the conversation, students and families are more likely to engage and work together to solve any problems.
Encourage all members of a school community to notice and spotlight students showing persistence, courage, big-picture thinking, resourcefulness, leadership, or compassion. In doing this, students begin to recognize in themselves that they are defined by much more than test scores and educators are reminded of the importance of these qualities. Consider sending a note to a student or family celebrating an admirable quality or acknowledging an act of kindness.
Model community-building activities. When classroom communities are strong, students feel comfortable sharing more about who they are, their aspirations, and any struggles as they emerge. Consider coordinating beginning and middle-of-the-year activities for students,such as a ropes course field trip or other team-building experiences. Model strategies for teachers that can be embedded throughout the school year, including periodic community or class meetings where students have a voice and share in facilitating the conversation.
Help create a balance in what is communicated about assessments and results among teachers, administrators, and all who support students. These staff conversations establish the mindset and school culture around testing. When educators understand that high stakes tests are only one piece of student data, they are more likely to convey gentler messages to students about testing and work to develop broader assessment practices and strategies to inform teaching and learning.
A focus on the whole child does not require the exclusion of testing. Instead, tests themselves need to be viewed holistically as one piece of a much larger puzzle. They need to be used cohesively and in conjunction with other parts of information to build a multidimensional understanding of who kids are along with their strengths and needs. This more complete data set can help to inform practice, guide decisions, enable planning for groups, and build connections with and among students–leading to better outcomes for all students.
When educators understand that high-stakes tests are only one piece of student data they are more likely to convey gentler messages to students about testing and work to develop broader assessment practices.