The assessing never stops at The Redeemer’s School. For anyone who has ever heard me talk about our nation’s culture of testing and the detrimental impact it’s having on our most vulnerable students, this may come across as a contradiction. However, the idea of monitoring our students’ progress and gains is very much a foundational value of our school. Let’s start with this: What is the purpose and benefit of an educational assessment? Goal setting and progress monitoring are essential to tracking student growth. Academic assessments are important as we set standards and goals for our students; and it is essential for both teacher practice and student growth to be able to quantify these benchmarks. But how important are such tests?

Our societies’ general (or rather official) disposition towards testing is a result of a push to create equitable and effective schools across the country. A persistent and pronounced gap has existed in this country that shows disturbing trends in student performance and outcomes. And so, to overcome academic struggles and combat some of the issues faced by communities riddled with problems and scarce resources, an overarching emphasis was put on “high-stakes” testing to ensure more students received a high-quality education. The thinking was that if schools were to be held accountable for this very specific (and limited) aspect of the educational process, you could strategically make them better. However, by many significant measures, that has not been the case. Instead, we have gotten schools that are forced into building student educational environments and experiences around these high stakes tests and the reality that they will often be defined in relation to them.

A Different Culture

One of the things about culture is that whether you acknowledge it or not, it exists. People, communities, societies, and organizations develop collective norms, and they are as real and tangible as flesh and bone. In the context of education and schooling, I once heard someone describe culture as the way you act and respond when there are not clear or precise directions in place. When I say a culture of testing, it speaks to the pressure that exists when it is communicated to child, parent, teacher, administrator, and community that at the end of the day our institutions exist and are essentially defined by their performance under a testing program. So, what does this look like? When a curriculum is planned and developed, what is your core desire? From a strictly academic perspective, we’ve seen curricular options and emphasis narrow, as schools tend to focus on the specific subjects that students will be tested on. This is not a plug for extra-curricular (more to come on that later); this pertains to the fact that we’ve seen things like the humanities and more social aspects of the education of our children diminish as they are not as emphasized in most testing programs. And as for extracurriculars, when schools find themselves serving students who are struggling in one of these areas, the prevailing approach is to view things like the arts as pieces to trade in the hopes that you can boost test scores. Not only does this ignore the educational value the arts possess in helping students practice much needed abstract and creative critical thinking skills; but it also brings me much sadness that we have students who are artistically gifted in classrooms all over the country being told “the way you learn, thrive, and see the world isn’t really valued here.”  And if all that isn’t enough, what surfaces as my biggest concern is “what are we telling our students matters the most at the end of the day.”

Closing the Gap

One of the main realities that’s lost in this culture of testing, is that we’re not just trying to fix a testing gap. We’re devoted and committed to addressing life gaps. Those failing scores are crumbling legs of broken tables that make up the structures and communities meant to lift up many of our most vulnerable children. When I sit down with a struggling student, in most instances their test scores are symptoms and fruits of hardships, not the main problems in and of themselves. We’ve made it clear as part of our culture at TRS that when you’re not sure what to do, here is what fills in and informs the gaps.

  1. Regardless of what you look like, where you come from, and how you did on that last test, you are fearfully and wonderfully made in the image of God. This is how we are to see ourselves and others in all that we do.
  2. We place a high value on stewardship. You don’t work hard to earn dignity and the love of those who have asked these things of you. You do so because every second of the day and gift and talent you have is a precious gift from God that we treasure through faithfully living lives of purpose and passion.
  3. We’re most concerned with future life outcomes. We want to see our students thrive in their households, communities, afterschool, during the summer, and for many years once they’ve left our campus.
  4. We recognize the most positive outcome to be had for all of us, is to find peace and rest in the arms of Jesus and so we preach and live the gospel of Jesus Christ every day to our students.

And with this being the culture of our school, seeing our students grow and gain takes on a new value.  It brings me great joy that I can not only celebrate and encourage students who have shown gains in reading comprehension, but I also get to make a big (bigger) deal out of the fact that we’ve seen them grow in graciousness. We regularly stop and zoom in on a child who’s shown a level of self-restraint, care, or kindness that is an obvious sign of growth. And this also presents a tremendous opportunity for praise. We know that the kinds of things that we see happening in our students are not simply academic gains, but the wonderful works of an almighty and loving God.

And I am sure of this, that he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ.” Philippians 1:5–6

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