How Bailey Reimer’s kindergartners came to love testing

Bailey Reimer

Bailey Reimer

“We have another math test today! It’s the last one,” I announce to my 30 kindergartners, who are still except for swinging legs that don’t touch the floor.

I hear groans. “Charles, what’s wrong?” I ask.

“But I love math tests!” he says. “I just want to keep showing what I know.”

As the class nods in agreement, I’m reminded of how much my kindergartners love tests. They love the uninterrupted work time and comparing their new score to their old one. They love the easier questions that give them confidence and the harder ones that give them a challenge. In my class, testing is one of the best tools to get students excited about how much they are learning.

In the dawning era of the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), which Congress just passed by a wide margin, we will still see federally-mandated yearly testing for grades 3 and up, and tests will still play a role in holding schools accountable. Many schools, like mine, opt to start preparing students as early as kindergarten. This way they can make sure that students and teachers take full advantage of the benefits of testing.

To get to a point where my students appreciate and understand testing, I had to first appreciate it myself. I love tests that give me relevant, timely information about how my students are doing, from how many letter names they know to how many words per minute they read. According to reports by the Annie E. Casey Foundation, children who read proficiently by the end of 3rd grade are four times more likely to graduate from high school.

With testing information in hand, I can plan lessons to the smallest detail — from which letter sounds students still need to learn to which students are having trouble answering questions about book characters, and why. If my students are to read proficiently by 3rd grade, and be on track for college, I have no time to waste.

Of course, 5-year-olds don’t come to school automatically loving testing. As educators, it’s our job to build that appreciation and understanding. First, we must teach students what to expect on tests and why they take them. In my class, I tell students that tests are “fun, serious and important” and that they give each student an opportunity to show teachers and the world how much they’ve learned.

Next, teachers can and should allow their youngest learners to practice for tests, but never with boring paper-and-pencil exercises. In my class, test prep means sitting on a rainbow rug in teams.  I read a sample question: “Which of these things could you find in a city? Hmm, let me think about the answers: a building, a barn or cows in a field.” Nearly every hand is swaying in the air.

“It’s a building!” Maria says confidently. “I know because I looked at the poster on the wall about the city and the country,” The rest of the class gives thumbs up to show they agree and we give Maria a special cheer. Score one point for her team — and also a point for building test-taking confidence and strategies.

Finally, teachers must find innovative ways to share test results with their students. The back wall of my room is covered in flowers. Every time a student meets a new benchmark (in this case a reading level), he or she peels off their flower and re-sticks it a level up. For a kindergartner, seeing the literal growth of their progress is all-important.

As our class’s flowers climb up the wall, my students are not just becoming better readers but they are more aware of and interested in their progress. As soon as students see other flowers starting to move up, the most frequently asked question in the room is, “Can we do my test yet?”

The Every Student Succeeds Act affirms the value of collecting test data as a way to look at student progress. As teachers, we have a chance to build a culture around testing that allows students to understand its value and the opportunities that come with it. That way, when it is time to announce an upcoming test, students can look like mine: smiles wide, fully attentive, delighted to show what they can do.

Bailey Reimer is a kindergarten teacher at Chicago’s CICS Basil Elementary and a Teach Plus Teaching Policy Fellow.