Real Learning

It’s standardized testing week! I hate standardized testing. I absolutely hate it.

I know that it is logical and practical for states and nations to hold teachers accountable. I have no problem with this. I want to be held accountable. I want to know I am doing the best I can. I want to know other teachers are as well, and that the youth of my town or state or country are being effectively prepared to meet the rigorous challenges of the world.

But standardized tests don’t test that. They don’t test how smart my kids are, or how much they’ve learned. They don’t test how good of a teacher I am, or how effectively I teach the curriculum. They test each individual’s ability to take a standardized test.

On one hand, I can’t complain too much about this. I was an average student in high school, but I rocked my SATs and got a scholarship because of it. I aced all the teacher certification exams without ever opening a book. I am one of the people who are good at standardized tests. Give me the bubble sheet, throw some analogies at me, ask me to reason, give me an essay prompt. But is this the best way to see how students are doing? Hell no.

The problems with this method can best be summed up by the conversations that occur in staff rooms and principals offices all over the country months after the tests are taken. When we all sit down, and go over student scores. When we are asked why a particular student failed to perform to the standards mandated by the powers that be.

“This student scored in the needs improvement range. Why do you think that happened?”  Asks the administrator. “Well, she’s on an IEP for a pretty severe language disability.” The teacher points out, trying to be rational. “But she was given accommodations on the test.” “Yes, she was given a graphic organizer and had the test read aloud to her, but she still has difficulty forming sentences and keeping her ideas organized.” Trying to stay calm. “Well, that may be true, but the state has said she has to be making adequate progress.” “This time last year she couldn’t form a sentence at all, and now she can write a three paragraph essay. That’s not progress?” Asks the teacher through gritted teeth, steam slowly starting to come out of her ears. “According to the standards, she should be able to write a five paragraph essay by now.”  At this point the teacher slides bonelessly out of her chair and onto a puddle on the floor. Or wants to, at least.

The conversation continues. “What about this student, also in the needs improvement range?” “He emigrated from Korea a few years ago. His English is coming along great, but reading comprehension and writing are still a challenge for him.” “Wasn’t he given a Korean to English dictionary?” “Yes, but it’s still pretty hard to succeed on a reading test with only a dictionary. Language learning isn’t as simple as translating individual words. The section on metaphors and idioms was especially hard for him.”

“What about this student?” “He has a lot of anxiety, and he froze on the test and couldn’t stop crying. He was terrified of it.” “Didn’t you try and calm him down?” “Of course, but it’s hard to be convincing that the test isn’t a big deal when the entire school is covered in neon signs saying ‘WARNING! TESTING IN PROCESS! NO TALKING!’”

“What about this one?” “She was really worried about her mom. She was having a biopsy for cancer that week. It’s hard to stay focused when you think your Mom’s going to die.”

“And this one?” “Threw up on himself halfway through.” “On himself?” “On himself.”

Every conversation listed is one I, a colleague, or another teacher I know has actually had. That’s the problem with these tests. You spend a few hours two days testing, and expect to get an accurate portrayal of a student as a learner. Kids don’t work that way. People in general don’t work that way! We get anxious, we worry about sick family members, we struggle with language deficits and disabilities. Sometimes, we throw up on ourselves.

What I as an educator would love to see is a system that looked at a variety of sources to see how teachers and students were doing. Most systems in place claim to do this, but don’t. These tests are incredibly high stakes. Districts lose funding and control over the outcomes, students are denied diplomas. Again, I agree that schools that are underperforming shouldn’t be left to continue the way they are, and students who haven’t learned the curriculum shouldn’t graduate. But why do we punish schools, teachers, and students for things that aren’t their fault?

We know that schools in poorer areas do worse on these kinds of tests.

Obviously, schools who are forced to slash budgets due to lack of funding will do worse than schools who have plenty of cash flow. We cut drama, music, the arts, and wonder why kids drop out.  We cut P.E.  and wonder why kids who have no chance to run around can’t sit still. Class sizes swell and there’s no money for new teachers. How can one person meet the needs of upwards of thirty students, all with their own complex situations and issues? They can’t, and they are then blamed when these same kids score low on tests.

Obviously, kids who don’t get enough to eat do worse on these tests. Kids who don’t have a safe place to sleep. Kids who have parents who don’t have time to read to them, let alone pay for a tutor. Does this mean we teachers throw up our hands and say, “it’s too damn hard!” Hell no. We try even harder. That doesn’t change the test scores, though.

Then there is the issue of special education. In today’s schools, students with special needs have wonderful things called Individualized Education Plans- IEPs. These are the documents that mandate that students receive things like speech and language support, one on one teaching, classroom assistants, and the use of modifications on standardized tests. But in general, even with all these supports in place, these students don’t tend to do as well as there peers.

Why? It has nothing to do with intelligence or ability. Rather, these tests often include the type of things that are challenging for a wide variety of students with special needs. It’s hard to write an essay when you have a language disability. It’s hard to organize your thoughts and use algorithms when you have executive functioning deficits. If you have ADHD, it’s hard to sit still for two hours with few breaks- especially if you are eight! It’s hard for any eight year old to sit still that long, and that’s how young we start kids on these tests.

The most heartbreaking thing I have seen in my career as a teacher was a student of mine  with special needs (who I knew to be an incredibly intelligent individual) struggle on the math version of our state test. He was exhausted, overwhelmed, and scared. He put his head down and said, “I can’t. Let them fail me. I’m stupid.” I wanted to run into the department of education and drag them to our school. To sit them down and have them watch him solving complicated math problems the way he did- walking around, talking out loud, using manipulatives. Because if they could do that, they wouldn’t be in doubt that he was meeting the standards for his grade.

And which of these scenarios is more true to the real world? When you pay bills, draw plans for construction, collaborate with colleagues, solve problems, you do it by talking and moving and asking. You don’t sit at a table in a silent room filling in multiple-choice answers. Yet a machine read his scores, and told him that he was underperforming.  It told his teachers, myself included, that we were not doing our job because his intelligence couldn’t be accurately tested using the one rigid method that was easiest and most cost effective.

So much of this comes down to money. We are a nation of bank bailouts and corrupt politics, where we spend more on weapons than on books and vaccines. We tell our children, you are not important enough to pay for. We will not make sure you have up to date books and resources, safe buildings, or enough teachers. We will not test you in the ways best suited to your intelligence, or even in ways that allow you to be seen as living, breathing people.

We will, however, blame you for not being able to showcase how smart you are and how hard you’ve worked. We will blame your teachers when you aren’t all at the level we have decreed. We don’t care about your family life, your language ability, your special needs. We don’t care that a year ago you couldn’t even speak English, or write a paragraph, or add. We don’t care what progress you’ve made. We want you all to reach the finish line at the same time, and we don’t care how far back you started.

I am lucky to work in a district that is fairly well funded, in a school that refuses to bend our entire curriculum and philosophy to standardized tests. The pressure is there, however, and so in the weeks leading up to the test we show them examples, and remind them of expectations, and take practice tests. Some schools, like mine, do this a few times. Others practice it for weeks.

This isn’t learning. This isn’t new information. It isn’t even review of learned information. It’s  teaching to the test, no matter how you spin it. This is not why I became a teacher.

On the last day before our tests began, I took my class outside at the end of the day, during a precious half hour of free time that I refused to fill with test prep. Because I want them to learn. I am invested in their learning, deeply and whole-heartedly.

I want them to learn how crocuses come up from the mulch. I want them to learn that when they go down the plastic slide, static electricity makes their hair stand up. I want them to learn that capture the flag takes a lot of cooperation and teamwork. I want them to learn that pinecones and sunflowers have the same spiral patterns we learned about in geometry. Yes, I teach them math, language arts, science, social studies, and I do I well. But that’s not all there is. I want them to love exploring, and learning, and school, and their time here. I don’t give a damn about filling in the bubbles.

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10 responses to “Real Learning

  1. Awesome post, it’s been a while since I’ve heard someone with that much passion about teaching. That passion is a precious gift, hold on to it.

  2. Yes! Yes! Yes! This is so well stated. I have a teacher friend who always says you don’t make a cow heavier by continually weighing it. So true! As schools we are so focused on differentiation and IEPs, then we expect all the kids to take the same test. Oooo…gets my blood boiling! Please send this excellent post to a senator or the Board of Ed or someone who can make change!
    Deirdre
    A Burst of First

  3. Preach girl. It is a sad time for our schools, our teachers, and our kids and I wish SOMEONE would listen to a voice like yours making such complete sense.

  4. Good analysis. That’s why I and over 20 teachers at my school retired early or left for better pastures. My students were so tired of testing…it was hard for me to encourage them to do well. But, as the teacher, you have too!

  5. Pingback: This! | swedishkoreans

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