I’m a Chicago principal. This round of state testing won’t tell me anything that matters.

The pandemic has offered its own lessons about what makes a good school, a good teacher, and a good student.

First Person is where Chalkbeat features personal essays by educators, students, parents, and others thinking and writing about public education.

I am the principal of an elementary school in Chicago. This month we welcomed 200 children back to school for the first time in a year. Two of them are my sons. They were scared, they were brave, and now we will ask them to take a six-hour test. 

The federal government agreed to waive standardized testing last spring, but this year the answer was no. So in two weeks, we will take our children to empty gyms, sit them masked at spaced-out tables, and watch for two days while they take a test that answers none of the questions that matter.

Seth Lavin and his sons. (Courtesy of Seth Lavin)

We say we test to teach better, and that is true when it comes to teachers and their students. Teachers read with their children, tracking fumbled words and how well they understand the story. They give check-in slips in math to study how students are solving problems. 

But teaching better is not why we do statewide testing. Results don’t even come back until the year is over. It’s especially hard to see how this year’s numbers will tell us anything, with half our kids still remote and no option to take the test at home. 

We give these tests to make judgments: who’s up and who’s down, who’s red and who’s green. We give these tests because we pretend test scores tell us what it means to be a good school, a good teacher, a good student. But they don’t.

What does it mean to be a good school?

For a year, we’ve cared for our students and their families. We’ve given our children a place to find each other, to make sense of the world even as we’re cut off from it. We’ve tried to get our families the things they need. We’ve tried to find our children who are lost. We’ve failed many times, but not in any way the test will measure.

What does it mean to be a good teacher?

The teachers I work with left school last March with what they could carry, then rebuilt the world online for our children. They taught fractions on Zoom and read to middle schoolers through cell phones. They grieved with grieving families and built mutual aid organizations for laid-off parents. For a year, they’ve gone to bed each night worrying about the children who are still disconnected. They’ve done so much, and none of them feels they’ve done enough, neither of which the test will measure.

What does it mean to be a good student?

These are children who walked home from school one day and did not come back for a year. These are children who carry the trauma of their families’ suffering. No test could measure the weight of all they’ve lost, but still, they have grown. Still, they are making it. 

On April 19, I walked my sons to school for the first time in 398 days. On May 13, school will stop again so we can put a test in front of them. If they take it, they’ll spend six hours like the rest of us: looking for right answers and not wrong ones.

Seth Lavin is a parent and elementary school principal in Chicago.