A Round Peg in a Square Hole: Progressive Schools and Standardized Testing

Updated: May 11, 2018

Is your child soon to be facing high stakes standardized testing for admission to private secondary schools? Are you worried she may not be adequately prepared?

K through 8 progressive education has a long and complicated relationship with standardized testing. This is especially true with math, in part because progressive schools refine their math curriculum fairly frequently in response to ever-evolving research on best math teaching practices. Consider the currently in vogue CGI, or Cognitively Guided Instruction, a math philosophy in favor of conceptual understanding, number sense, inquiry, and discovery-based, hands-on learning. Dusty old math books don’t provide those opportunities for a deeper dive.

Thought leaders in math education like Stanford’s Jo Boaler extol the importance of fostering self-confidence and a love of math in students. Students can overcome math fear by rolling up their sleeves to wrestle with math problems, ideally leading to long-term, improved performance in higher levels of future math in high school, college and beyond. We’re talking about strategies and techniques to slow down, figure out what a question is asking, and think through each problem before arriving at a deeply understood solution.

Standardized testing, however, requires an additional, sometimes antithetical set of skills: short-term memorization, speedy algorithms and plenty of automaticity. Currently, standardized entrance exams remain a necessary evil in the admissions process for students applying into private middle and high schools. If only more educators could determine a better tool to objectively assess and compare students from different school environments (more on this later).

Even for students whose progressive education curriculums align reasonably well with the demands of standardized tests, challenges remain for this cohort of students. Many are unaccustomed to working under timed conditions, unfamiliar with a multiple-choice format, unaware of strict spelling and grammar standards, and less exposed to the stressors of quizzes and tests in general.

So now what? You’ve chosen a progressive education for your child for all the right reasons. But you’re at your kitchen table, surrounded by your child’s applications to that next great place, and you’re questioning the school choice you made years earlier.

Don’t despair. Remind yourself that your child has benefitted from her progressive education in all the ways you’d hoped. The authentic reasons you chose her progressive school are more important to remember than ever. Perhaps even harder, resist the temptation to “blame” your progressive school for not better preparing your child to perform beautifully on standardized tests.

You selected this type of school for sound reasons. I suspect in part because said school would not overly emphasize testing, so that your child would not crawl home with hours of mindless worksheets, and so your child would develop the critical and creative thinking skills that good progressive schools need time to teach. Then think of all you didn’t receive from your own schooling, the gifts your child has enjoyed in spades: art, music, science, technology and, perhaps most importantly, a strong sense of self in a deeply caring, interconnected environment.

No school can do it all and do it well.

Take comfort in knowing secondary schools are very familiar with the curricula at local elementary and K-8 schools. In recognition of the curricular differences between progressive and more traditional schools, they’ve developed informed, realistic expectations for your child’s standardized test scores. The test scores don’t always show it, but admissions experts are trained to look at all the beauty hidden in a child, just beneath the surface of those frozen test numbers (I promised I’d come back to this).

Some students are naturally good at standardized testing no matter where they’re enrolled. Lucky them…and can’t we resent those perfect test takers, just a little bit?

But what does this testing game mean for the rest of us with progressively educated kids who don’t yet speak the language of standardized tests? If you truly care about maximizing test results, your child may need to get an earlier jump on math enrichment and test prep than do most.

Which brings us to our …

Top 5 Recommendations for Emerging Test Takers

1. Learn to plow through long problem sets in shorter, well-paced bursts of time.

2. Simulate test taking conditions with multiple choice problems, bubble sheets and a timer.

3. Memorize basic math facts, even if your school curriculum does not enforce this.

4. Identify and fill any gaps in your child’s curriculum with online diagnostic tools and quality tutoring.

5. Write plenty of structured, multi-paragraph essays with a coherent thesis, evidence, and conclusion.

Even if you don’t feel remotely better after reading this, at least admissions seasons are finite. And then you won’t have to think about this again.

Not until you blink and it’s time for your child to prep for the SAT or ACT.

~Amy Hayutin-Contreras

Partner, Hayutin & Associates

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