A Silent Testing Environment

Amethyst Hinton Sainz Assessment, Current Affairs, Education Policy, Literacy

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The bright spot of my morning yesterday was when Kylie asked to use a highlighter to mark up her test booklet.

Yesterday, my sophomore Reading Strategies students gathered in my classroom to take the Reading portion of the Arizona Instrument to Measure Standards.  As far as anyone can tell, this will be the last year Arizona will be using the test, except to re-test students who do not pass.  It is the class of 2016’s graduation requirement. My Reading Strategies students have reading scores at least three grades below where they should be. Becoming their test proctor made me feel a bit like Effie Trinket on Reaping Day in The Hunger Games, with my offerings of donut holes and peanut butter crackers on the one hand and my bubbly words of encouragement on the other.  I proctored them to likely doom, and a return trip to the arena next year.

a-silent-testing-environmentWhen Kylie asked for a highlighter, I gave her one, and joyfully offered them to the rest of the class as well. They used the highlighters as they diligently tackled what seemed to me to be an inordinate number of densely formatted pages of readings (though it certainly would be illegal for me to examine the test to determine exactly how much or what nature of reading).

Kylie had a desire to interact critically with her test, via pink highlighter, to do her best; Kylie talked back to the text. She owned it.  She embraced the challenge and thought outside the box by asking for more than just a sharpened number two pencil.  Her request opened up options for the whole class.

It wasn’t exactly Katniss offering Peeta poison berries, but this is what we want of students.  That spark of resistance that opens up options for everyone.

I would argue that this is what we need of teachers, too.  Teachers need to talk back to these tests. Class of 2017 will have their own assessment to pass.  It won’t be AIMS. Most folks assume it will be the PARCC, but as far as I know it hasn’t officially been adopted, yet. And sample items are only sparsely available, and in draft form.

Although AIMS is almost history, I would love to talk back to that test, and talk forward to the future assessments, converse with colleagues about specific choices of readings, or the way the questions are constructed. To think about ways we can achieve authentic teaching and yet help students feel confident on a multiple choice exam or a more complex exam structure such as they may face with PARCC. To slump with melancholy over the pain we put our lower readers and ELL’s through on test day.  But I can’t really do that, because legally I can’t examine the test.  And I definitely can’t talk to anyone about what I might see if I did look at the test. There will be no collaborative work in this area. As in The Hunger Games, the “districts” are, for all official purposes, isolated from one another.  Students, at least, can discuss the test day and night once it’s finished, but teachers, no.

    The nature of our standards, curriculum and standardized assessments reaches farther into the classroom now than it ever did in the past 18 years of teaching since I’ve been around, and even the concept of teacher autonomy is beginning to feel a bit radical.  Yet when it comes to critically examining the examinations, we are silenced.

Kylie’s request for a highlighter was really the only bright spot of my morning.  The students were dutifully silent.  I will remain dutifully silent.  But where does that get us?


Amethyst Hinton Sainz is National Board Certified Teacher in Adolescent and Young Adult English Language Arts, and is constantly trying to live up to that standard! This year she will begin teaching at Westwood High School in Mesa, Arizona as an interventionist. She has taught junior high ELD and high school English in Arizona for 25 years. She has been a Stories from School blogger since 2012. Amethyst’s alma maters are Blue Ridge High School, the University of Arizona and the Bread Loaf School of English at Middlebury College. Her bachelor’s degree in Creative Writing and Philosophy led her toward the College of Education, and she soon realized that the creative challenges of teaching would fuel her throughout her career. Her love of language, literature, and culture led her to Bread Loaf for her master's in English Literature. She is a fellow with the Southern Arizona Writing Project, and that professional development along with, later, the National Board process, has been the most influential and transformative learning for her. As a board member of the Mesa NBCT Network, she works with other NBCT’s to promote this powerful process throughout the district. She supports candidates for National Board Certification, and loves seeing teachers realize and articulate their teaching and leadership power! She enjoys teaching students across the spectrum of academic abilities, and keeping up with new possibilities for technology in education. Last year she had the privilege of running our school garden, and will really miss that this year. She is currently learning more about social and racial justice and is striving to be an antiracist educator. She lives in Mesa, Arizona with her family. She enjoys time with them, as well as with her vegetable garden, backyard chickens, and the two dogs. She also enjoys reading, writing, cooking (but not doing dishes), kayaking, camping, and travel, among other things.

Comments 2

  1. Greg Broberg

    Amethyst — I love the way you refer to teachers “talking back” to tests. There are many issues with assessment that need to considered — especially in terms of the implications for student outcomes. One thing that I have really focused attention on is the way we talk about test results in terms of students. Do we discuss these results in terms of the “deficits” that we notice, or the strengths and opportunities that we see. This conversation is one that all schools and teachers should discuss regularly.

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