Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Differentiation: At what cost?

It came home in his backpack.  It wasn’t really a big deal. I mean, jeeze, it was a spelling pre-test, right?  All of those check marks were wide-eyed with sideways grins. And at the very top, next to the percentage, was a note saying he was on the “purple” list. In other words, he was just average.

Yes, I’m biased because he’s my son, but I couldn’t believe what I was seeing.  He’s not a genius, but he’s pretty smart and so why is he doing this poorly?  When I asked him about it, he said his teacher went through the words too fast and that he was unable to write quickly enough, so I knew I had to start digging for the truth.

All in the name of differentiation, Connor was put on the “average” list because his pre-test didn’t earn him the “honor” of being on the “challenge” list, and he knew exactly what that meant. Ranking the tests by colors doesn’t hide the implications. At the tender age of 8, he’s already aware he’s being tracked as an “average” kid rather than being pushed beyond.  The teacher had even written a blurb on the test noting her surprise when she saw his score because his reading fluency was solid, and the two didn’t correlate.  

To make a long story short, we exchanged a few emails and she discovered (after another spelling pre-test) that if she had him spell the words verbally he only missed one on that particular pre-test.  So, as I suspected, Connor’s anxiety was the issue behind his poor scores. He couldn’t write the words fast enough while she was saying them. Despite his poor performance on the pre-test, she decided to put him on the “challenge” list, which is the most difficult list. He scored a 94 percent and I was so proud. 

Connor is currently in the third grade and a hard little worker. Sure, he picks on his sister, sometimes cries about giving-up playtime for homework time and doesn’t always listen that well, but when it’s time to buckle down and get the job done, he’s always up for the challenge.  It doesn’t matter what spelling list he gets, he’ll do well on the final assessment. 

Unfortunately though, since that 94 percent, he has taken another spelling pre-test and not surprisingly, he didn’t do well. And here he sits, back on the “average” track despite his gains on the “challenge” list. His teacher ignored his progress and her instinct for the sake of staying true to the numbers.  Needless to say, I’m feeling a bit defeated.  He worked hard, proved himself and was kicked out of the high-ability group nevertheless.

So what happens when we lower the bar from the get-go?  What happens when students start getting separated into groups based solely on pre-tests, based on numbers, not based on what is truly best for the students? We start standardizing mediocrity even at the kindergarten level.  Connor will rise to the challenge as most kids will at his age, but instead of pushing him, challenging him to be his best, the pre-test/post-test system is set up to only make students comfortable so they experience success at their own level.  It sounds so nice and politically correct; however, the irony is this process leaves children behind because it widens the gap that already may exist between different groups of children. 

Pre-tests, from my understanding, give teachers insights into how they should approach their curricula.  It’s not supposed to be another form of tracking.  All students should be on the track for the “challenge” list, and not deprived simply because they panic with words they’ve never been tested over before that moment.  Will everyone be able to get all of them right? Of course not. However, building from those mistakes while keeping an eye on the prize is more important than jumping from platform to platform, gaining no real ground.

It’s never any fun to always know you’re one step behind because, by high school, that “one step” oftentimes becomes years and we wonder why kids are bored.  We allow them to get comfortable with just getting-by all in the name of  “differentiation.”  Differentiation isn’t just about numbers or meeting proficiency; it’s about the kids and about knowing what is best for the whole child.

Friday, September 16, 2011

State Testing Scores: Numbers come between education and our students

Now here’s a familiar scenario for many of you: state scores came in and everybody’s in a tizzy. Reading scores have gone down a few points and math scores (the first year ever given) are way below proficiency levels expected by the state. To combat the problem, we had a building-level day of professional development, some of which focused solely on data analysis, brainstorming and the hopes of a plan that will turn the numbers around. 

You’ll notice the word “students” isn’t mentioned anywhere in the above paragraph. While the children we teach are naturally the center of our world and our curriculum, they have become secondary to the numbers presented by the state and second to the numbers expected by the federal government. In fact, today at the meeting one of my colleagues asked if it would be worth sacrificing the students who “exceed expectations” on the tests so those who are “below the standard” can “meet the standard,” and an administrator responded, “If that’s what it takes, I guess that’s okay with me!” 

There was a collective gasp and the silence was deafening.  My mouth was open and I couldn’t help but think, “Did that really just happen?”  Are we really becoming so blind we only see numbers, not students?  Then there was talk about how we need to provide remediation to prepare kids for “the test,” and we need to know if students are at risk as soon as they enter ninth grade so we can get them ready for “the test.”

It’s no longer a matter of preparing them for their future; it’s a matter of getting them proficient on these red-horned, triangle-tailed state albatrosses.  Teaching the “whole” student is becoming a lost art because proficiency, mediocrity, has become a new kind of merit pay for schools—ironically all at the expense of the kids.  

One of the many reasons I asked to be moved from teaching junior English to sophomore English is because it was hard not to feel trapped by all the state testing preparation and its overwhelming impact on curriculum. For example, the state persuasive writing prompts have nothing to do with critical thinking and everything to do with the mechanics of a five-paragraph-essay, an essay that would be laughed at in any collegiate setting.

The reading test, for example, has approximately 3-5 (out of 60) questions based solely on decoding vocabulary based on origin, prefixes and suffixes and even more that simply ask for definitions. The questions that deal with more abstract concepts like tone and theme are incredibly subjective, and the tests fail any test of objectivity because by nature, English is subjective. As a result, the tests act more like speed bumps than bridges in our curriculum because shared inquiry, analysis and the questions/ideas kids get from it aren’t up for discussion and the material is independent from what we teach. However, despite the obvious flaws, every school’s future rides on standardizing students so they can get their funding and “stay off the list.”    

But the problems just begin there. Not only do the tests have very little relevance in terms of content, the amount of time it takes out of our curricular time is mind-boggling. Not only were kids pulled out of class for two days for the NeSA State Reading and Writing tests, we had to spend approximately three days first semester and three days second semester to administer practice writing tests. Then the same applies again for state writing.  What that means is at the minimum, 16 days of classroom curriculum has to be put on hold for testing.  And that’s just where it begins. 

Now add state math testing, which means two more days down at central office. That’s two more days out of everyone’s classes and then, of course, there will be a science and social studies assessment in place sooner than later, which means four more class periods.  So here’s what it looks like:

State Writing Test =                  2 days
                (Practice Tests) =                  6 days
State Reading Test =                 2 days
                (Practice Tests)  =                 6 days
State Math Test      =                 2 days
                        18  days

Then you need to add what is to come:
State Science test  =                        Add 2 days
State Social Studies test =               Add 2 days
                                                              22 days

                  Approximately Twenty-two days, over four weeks of class time, will be taken up or interrupted by state testing once all tests are put into place junior year.  The question is, in the long run, how will this benefit our students?  In a desperate attempt to create quantifiable data, the government has decided to focus on numbers rather than the kids and consequently, kids are becoming the collateral damage. As a student, imagine spending 22 days in one year working on test after test.  

              Let’s not forget trying to work meaningfully through all the curricular expectations while knowing most districts care most about test scores. It’s all incredibly overwhelming, but as teachers we must work through the problems, not around them and demand change. I’m just not sure how and where to begin. All I know is that we need to figure out a way to do it together.