Montessori Education & Standardized Testing

If you were to create a list of how a Montessori elementary classroom is run verses a traditional elementary classroom (public or other private options), the list would be long.  Somewhere pretty high on the list, maybe just past the sitting-in-desks difference, would have to come the topic of testing. Authentic Montessori programs take a very different approach to testing than other methods. As our current Elementary class has just recently completed their testing,  it seems like the perfect time to talk with the community about this topic.

Before we get too far, there are a few important facts to know:

  •  Private Schools are not required to administer tests nor report scores.

  • Montessori curriculum does not include testing.

  • White Bear Montessori administers standardized tests annually in the spring starting in the 3rd grade.

  • Test records dating back as far as 2005 through present day show that our students perform well  (generally this is an understatement).

I thought the best way to tackle this topic was for Darin, our Elementary Guide, and me to answer some questions we've heard from parents over the years.

Why isn't testing a part of the Montessori curriculum?

Darin:

Montessorians, and many researchers such as Alfie Kohn, believe that Standardized Testing measures superficial thinking and how much a skill has been practiced. Forced repetition, not child based repetition leads to tedium and a dislike of school. If we want children to explore their own interests in as deep of a way as they want, develop a love of learning, and think critically about what they are learning, isn’t it counterproductive to then show them a test that others created and say, “This is what society says you need to know and be able to do?” Even more counterproductive to our goals of a love of learning and depth of understanding, is to then say, we need to allocate a huge chunk of our time to learning the things that will be on this test. Of course, the more a child practices for the test, the better they will do. But at what cost? There is the opportunity cost of time they could have spent learning something of interest. Another, and I think much more harmful cost, is the dimming of the desire to explore and learn more as a lifelong learning quest.

When we hear people talking about “Great Schools”, are we talking about how well the children do on standardized tests or are we talking about the child’s love of learning, depth of understanding, and perhaps even more importantly, their social development? The standardized tests do not measure a child’s ability to make a courteous phone call to an adult and ask to do a Going Out. Today I heard children give oral presentations on Multiple Sclerosis, the Haitian Revolution, the Beluga Whale and the muscles in the lungs. As a Montessorian, I would not want to trade these experiences for more test taking practice.

How do you know if the children are learning what they need to know?

Darin:

Montessori lessons are given in small groups. I gave 4 lessons this morning. The smallest, a reading and parts of speech lesson had two people in it. The largest, an in depth look at World War I, had about 5 children in it. These small groups are very interactive. It is very easy for the teacher to evaluate / assess, how the child is doing with the material. When I record the lesson and those that attended, I make notes on each child and how they did. If more work is needed on a something in particular, etc. I can do this without the stress of an assigned test.

Why does testing start in the 3rd grade and not before?

Darin:

“Virtually all specialists condemn the practice of giving standardized tests to children younger than 8 or 9 years old. I say “virtually” to cover myself here, but, in fact, I have yet to find a single reputable scholar in the field of early-childhood education who endorses such testing for young children.” Alfie Kohn, Education Week, September 2000.

Marnie:

We are in line with what AMI, non-charter, Montessori Elementary programs do, based greatly on the fact Darin shared above. 

If testing isn't part of the Montessori program, why do you do it at all?

Darin:

Montessori is a preparation for life. It is inevitable that children will be exposed to standardized testing at some point. Because we do it so infrequently, the children often think it is a fun experience.

Marnie:

WBMS follows a norm for most non-charter Montessori elementary programs. All of the AMI schools with elementary programs in the Twin Cities Metro administer either the MCA's or use the ITBS (Iowa Test) as we do.

What do you do with test results?

Darin:

I look at them to see if there are any obvious weaknesses. I try to find different ways to present related material to the child. My goal is to inspire the child to take on more work in the area.

Marnie:

Scores are kept confidential in student files and also in a separate class file. Scores are recorded on a spreadsheet year over year for documentation purposes and to see if there are trends.

Can you share a summary of these results?

Darin: I do not share the results with the children. I leave that to the parents. I think there are risks associated with sharing the information – including the child that has done really well. If our goal is to inspire a love of learning that comes from within, isn’t it counter intuitive to then share how others think they are doing? I think the risk is that the motivation switches from internal to external. I would rather know how the child thinks they are doing – where they think they need to improve, and how they plan to approach that.

Marnie: No. Although it is very tempting as the Administrator of this school to publish results in an effort to increase Elementary enrollment, it is a slippery slope. We never want these results to be the focus of our program which would easily be confused with the real work we do here every day. Test scores are just a snapshot of a particular child on a particular day against a set of norms that are not our own. 

Danielle Cloe