Sunday, April 27, 2014

High stakes testing? No, thanks.

“Standardized testing has swelled and mutated, like a creature in one of those old horror movies, to the point that it now threatens to swallow our schools whole.” Kohn, Education Week, 9/27/00

Imagine that!  Alfie Kohn made this statement FOURTEEN years ago and it may be truer today than it was then.  This is one heated topic right now and I’m not sure if I should go about it as a parent or as a teacher.  I can tell you one thing, no matter which side I come from I can tell you with every fiber of my being, as mom and teacher, my daughter will NOT take part in high stakes testing; E-V-E-R.

I’ll start from “the mom side”.  The hubs and I know our daughter better than anyone; her strengths, her challenges, her gifts and talents, and her downfalls.  There is no “test” on Earth that will ever be able to accurately evaluate her and give me any feedback worth putting her through the testing to begin with.  Although I’m insanely slightly, sorta competitive in nature, I do NOT need to see how high her three digit number is, or if she gets a “perfect” score in order to tell whether or not my daughter will succeed in life – I put more faith in my ability as a mom than that.  Doodle Bug is a pleaser and if she thought for one minute that she wouldn’t do as well as she “should” or she’d let people down or she “should” get them all right, it would greatly affect her and I will NOT put my child through something like that for a worthless score.  I do have to say that my “big kids” DID take state assessments when they weren’t so grueling; what a difference 10 years makes!  Even still, every time the scores were mailed home I promptly fed them to my woodstove......not important and I would NOT let them define who my kids were.  That truly is the value I placed on those tests – NONE.  My child’s life is not up for use in the political posturing, teacher bashing state we’re in – not happening.  But in the end I TRUST the teachers my kids have to teach my kids, to move them forward, to push them as far as they can – to LEARN for life, NOT to prep for a test that is used solely to score teachers, play political games, and “earn money” from the government.    

It hasn’t been a secret that I DESPISE “test prep” and high stakes testing in general.  In my own little, civil disobedience sort of way I hope that my decision, and any other parent who makes this choice, will send the message that the tests are invalid to us and we want our kids to LEARN, not be subject to hours of skill and drill.  Imagine the things teachers could do if they didn’t feel the pressure to “stop teaching and just prep” for weeks before the test – S O O O much quality instructional time is lost and in depth, challenging opportunities are wasted because of the pressures some feel with high stakes testing.

        It was not a decision I took lightly when I devoted the time I did,  earning several degrees in education, and becoming a teacher – it’s something I’m passionate about, have conversations and debates about, and continue to read current research about.  There was never a class in all of my years in college that taught me to beat children down over the course of six days, four hundred twenty minutes to be exact and there is NO WAY to convince me it was for any benefit to my classroom, and certainly not to my students.  I’m the type of person who assesses day in and day out – formal and informal, making kids prove their understanding, pushing them with questioning, and posing situations that force them to grapple with ideas and report back.  Testing is the LAST thing I’d turn to to evaluate my kids’ strengths and struggles.  I always let them know that no grade can define them, that perseverance through difficult situations and their personal best CANNOT be numbered and those qualities are invaluable; it’s what life is about.

        So, during the three days, 210 minutes to be exact, of testing recently, what was the opportunity to learn?  You’ve got me on this one – in my opinion there was none, it was time my kids were robbed of.  What I witnessed over those days was brutal.  We started the week with me playing my “fake cheerleader” role; use strategies you know, do the best you can, you’ve got this, etc – I felt like a fraud.  During the first day, kids looked up at me with doe eyes, tears lurking on the edge of their lashes, but went right back to work trying their best as they were encouraged.  Yes, I was proud of their perseverance, but wanted to rip the tests away from them and tear them to shreds.  The second day the poor kids were so confused with having to answer multiple choice, short answer, and long answers they started to show wear; again I put on the cheerleader persona and did my own best to persevere.  On the third day I just about lost it.  The number of sighs I heard, the number of kids looking at me, eyes screaming, kids crossing out questions because the way they were worded was so baffling.   Even I had to read many questions three times to understand them and there was not a damned thing I could do.  What beat many down even more than the insane testing they had been through was that more than a third couldn’t finish; their body language was devastating and I was FURIOUS. 

NOTHING I could have taught them would have helped them run through this gauntlet, used as the sacrificial cow for teacher bashing and political posturing, in the name of saving education.  And there is NO WAY I will put my daughter in this situation.  Day in and day out I push my kids to work hard, they take on each challenge that is given to them, and beg for just one more minute to dig deeper and research more.  But those same, hardworking kids at the end of the testing said:
  • ·         “What kind of teacher makes a test like that?”  (Can I tell you, sweet child, that NO teacher made that test???)
  • ·        “I hate the feeling knowing there’s only one right answer & three wrong ones and chances are that I’m probably going to choose a wrong one.”
  • ·        “There’s a difference between challenging kids and tricking them.  You challenge us every day and that was trying to trick us. It’s just not nice.”

As someone who has devoted their life to education it is simply sickening, that after a day of high stakes tests, it takes hours to calm the anxiety and encourage the souls of those kids, MY kids.

        Then, there’s the false information that the scores of these high stakes test are used as “feedback to inform instruction”.  Frankly, that’s a crock.  First of all, teachers generally get preliminary scores back in the SUMMER following the testing,   Hmmmm, any of my professors would cringe had I ever suggested that type of effective feedback which has ALWAYS been defined as “immediate and specific”.  Second, when we are given the scores, we are handed the same number as parents; we are NOT given any sort of item analysis to nor a copy of the test to be informed on what areas need work - period; there is absolutely NOTHING diagnostic about getting a three digit number.   If high stakes testing is to see where the kids are at, why don’t we get the scores for weeks after students leave us?  

        Of course we can bring up the battle about teacher evaluation.  I’m evaluated continually; through my own reflection (and happen to be my own worst critic), through peer coaching, through the students, parents and administration.  To use a developmentally inappropriate test, with absurd questions and time on task and put my kids under that kind of stress only to determine if I’m effective is LUDICROUS!  Last year, on state measures only two of my students passed ELA and two passed Math state assessments.  However, looking at district measures (non-invasive, brief assessments) that are not only continual throughout the year, but are scored and feedback returned to me almost immediately,very thoroughly & diagnostically, all BUT two of my students met proficiency or higher in BOTH ELA and Math.  Hmmmm, too much of a disconnect on MANY levels for me.   

        Bottom line:
        ~My child is NOT FOR SALE.     
        ~My child is worth more to me than an irrelevant score.
        ~My child has more to offer than being held to the standard of superficial learning.

To read more from Kohn on testing:  Standardized Testing and Its Victims : Kohn, Education Week 9/27/00

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Saturday, April 5, 2014

Silver Lining

I apologize that I’ve been “missing”.........public education is under attack and frankly it has dried me out.  I’m not sure people understand what is happening and how children are being used as the sacrificial cow. 

I’d like to think I am the kind of person that tries desperately to find the silver lining or the “what’s meant to be” in things.  And so it was, this past week, the biggest test, not of standards, but something much more important in life; a test of my core beliefs.  As I found myself getting angrier and angrier as the test went on, almost to the point of being physically ill, I realized I had to own that last of three grueling days, not let them be robbed from us any longer, and choose the way I looked at things. 

I roamed the classroom, feeling like I had stepped foot in a foreign land; dividers separating learners, three perfectly sharpened pencils placed carefully in front of each student, completely silent except for the frantic page turning drowning out the classical music playing softly in the background.  Certainly not the usual collaboration or communication, it was obviously void of the questioning and challenges from teammates, missing the wondering and digging for answers, absent of the awe I’m in most days from the kids who have become so intrinsically motivated to learn, to discover, to better themselves.  Motivation was replaced by terror and feeling defeated, questioning and digging for answers swapped with a prescribed expectation for an answer.   As I felt myself begin to boil that our learning space, our community of teammates, the love of learning had been stolen from us – completely out of our control, I did what I could do to get through and not show my anger; I shifted my focus on to my kiddos.

The first one I spotted from across the room; the one who has come so far out of their shell – anxiety and stress are gone replaced with joy of life and learning shining through; I’m beaming with pride.  I turn to stare at the child who has had so much sadness and has been a classic symbol of strength and endurance; each day I’m in awe.  Another little person who has worked so hard to push through adversity, just discovered a new strategy for multiplying four digit numbers by one in their head - teaching them self twice to make the pieces of learning come together - that smile, that pride; I’m amazed by the daily perseverance.  There’s that child who wouldn’t say a word, often rolled eyes when I tried to be funny – now funnier than me and can’t wait to find humor in random places; makes me giggle every single day.  Still roaming I find that sweet child who struggles with every breath of their being, but has worked so hard and simply beams when they makes progress or understands a really tough concept; that face makes me want to cry with joy.  Standing back I spot that child who each day seems disengaged in so many things, but always manages to amaze me with the understanding, knowledge, and connections that are shared; I silently apologize for underestimating what’s tucked away inside that sweet little head.  It wasn’t until I turn around from my lengthy trip down “Proud Teacher Lane” that I discover my little kiddo who just yesterday multiplied four digits by one, holding their head, hands placed gently on their temples.  My eyes drop to the paper below that precious face to see a perfectly round, wet dimple on the page.  At that moment I am slapped across the face, as hard as they were, by the reality of what’s being done to our kids.  I knew, that instead of rescuing that child and ripping that book to shreds, I had to walk away and for a few minutes abandon this trip of progress and pride, do what I had to do to finish those endless minutes of the gauntlet my kids were forced to run - one that will NEVER be able to truly assess the progress and abilities of my kids. 

After finishing we regrouped and debriefed.  I reassured the kids that I know they tried their personal best and I’m proud of how they persevered through something that was so grueling, but it was time to take back what was ours; wonder, learning, excitement, questioning, grappling, digging, and most important - pride. 

Although it may not have been my best choice, before setting them off on an intense inquiry in Science I asked, “Anything else?”.....It took every ounce of strength in my being to stay strong for the next three seconds of a question I never saw coming. 

The most revealing look into what these little heads were focused on and were consumed with:  “Mrs. W.?  Will you get fired if I didn’t do well?”

I quickly reassured, “That is NOT your worry because I only care that you did your personal best and you did.  And besides, if I do, I’ll go work at Wal-Mart and we can see each other all the time!”

Learning space: reclaimed.
Joy in learning and in making each day better: regained.
Understanding that a mistake is a chance to improve ourselves: salvaged.
Feelings of being defeated: destroyed.
And we all move on knowing that every single one of us has improved and made progress this year. 

Giggles abound.......and the silver lining comes busting through the dark once again.  

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