MAP is Disruptive – Part 1

Ryan Davis

My first article on MAP testing tried to focus the conversation at a policy level, asking where authority for teaching and learning decisions should ultimately lie.  While that lens might be the most appropriate for discussing a system level decision, it is certainly not the most significant reason to talk about MAP testing.  We have to talk about MAP testing because it affects our students. And, I am becoming increasingly worried that required MAP testing is disruptive and damaging to their experience of school and to their learning. 

For some students, MAP testing provides further verification that school concerns itself more with counting, sorting, and ranking them than actually knowing or valuing them – it’s just another in a long line of irrelevant experiences.  For others, the impact can be much worse. Standardized testing brings with it increased stress and anxiety. Unfortunately, the increased use of words like ‘stress’ and ‘anxiety’ tends to dilute their meaning rather than emphasize the ever-growing pressure and pain our students face.  As a standardized test, MAP will more likely to contribute to the strain our students feel than it will offer edifying and empowering experiences.     

Standardized tests like MAP also impact how students see themselves as learners.  Teachers and parents are all too familiar with the stigma and self-labeling that accompany a low score.  In this regard, MAP actively works against our goal of growing student independence and confidence. Students develop an identity that school is not for them and/or that they are not capable. The more low scores a student receives the more potential confirmation of a negative self-concept — students take a MAP test six times each year.  

As educators, we may not put too much stock in standardized scores as a full measure of our students’ capacities.  But, negative messages from an “official” assessment, as opposed to a teacher created assessment, often speak more loudly to students.  The resulting low self-concept that students develop around school and learning functions more as obstacle that must be overcome than it does as a motivator to inspire self-improvement. Or, as one student more directly characterized MAP testing, “this is just another way to make us look dumb.”  

Some might assert that our response should be to convenience students to value MAP testing by using MAP data to hone in on their weaknesses, then delivering targeted instruction…which then may result in growth…which then can be celebrated…which then may build student confidence.  The contingencies and assumptions in that chain of reasoning form a slippery slope argument that runs uphill. More significantly though, such an approach to teaching and learning becomes more about proving that MAP has value than about finding and elevating what actually is of value to our students. In short, if our focus is centered on MAP, it is not centered on the student.  

Moreover, not all growth is growth that matters.  As with any standardized assessment, MAP encourages a more skills based view of learning as opposed to view that valorizes critical thought, collaboration, cultural awareness, etc…  If we isolate the skills desired by MAP then rehearse and rehearse expressing those skills in a standardized format, have we done something that ultimately serves students? Some of those developed skills may transfer to other areas, but such work more easily becomes a cyclical game that distracts from the more important work that should be happening with students.  In other words, we often reject the ways other standardized assessments force a narrowing of our curriculum and a reduction of our students. As a standardized test, MAP ultimately exerts that same influence over the experiences and expectations of students.   

Lastly, I should address the fact that questioning the value a system centered on improving standardized test scores often provokes a specious criticism: you must not believe that all children can learn.  Such a response oversimplifies and overgeneralizes – it acts as a bully strawman that invokes power dynamics, deflects from engagement, and truncates the meaning of learning. Believing that all students can learn and grow and flourish is not the same as believing they all can do so in the same timeframe, in the same ways, in light of their current contexts and realities… and, especially when it comes to standardized testing, that their learning will be expressed in the same way.  Asserting that MAP growth is a meaningful or appropriate aim for all students requires more faith in MAP itself than it does actual commitment to children.

Of course, there may teachers who desire to use MAP and feel they have mitigated the negative side-effects mentioned above.  Decisions in one classroom do not necessarily apply to other classrooms that have their own contexts and cultures. In fact, mandated standardized testing increases the likelihood that it will harm students in the ways described above because it is inherently something done to them.   

MAP testing is not a measurement like drawing blood that may pinch for a quick second, leaving only a small mark, and yielding valuable information.   Measurement by standardized testing may inflict real damage to the student and then encourage a treatment that harms them even more (a future article will talk more about how MAP affects our view of teaching).  For the good of students, we must remove any top-down requirements and pressure for MAP testing and let assessment and instruction decisions be initiated and driven within their classrooms.  

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