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.  


  1. You know how much I detest state exams and all the data bs, so my idea for pulling those who aren't proficient was an attempt at finding a solution so we can stop wasting time making generalizations about demographics and return focus to individual students. I didn't mean to pull those students and teach to the test, but to focus on some strategies. Other states have board exams that students must pass in order for them to graduate while here in Nebraska, a student can not meet proficiency in 4th, 8th, and 11th grades and still graduate. How is that even justifiable?

  2. Joe, I agree with what your saying. Those kids obviously need help, but I'm worried it would simply turn into test prep because our administrators' jobs are depending on it. I mean, if you've got a family, you've got to support them. It's just so hard because we all know what the elephant is in the room, but no one's really willing to deal with it because the problem has gotten so big it's just too overwhelming to even attack. Your point made about graduation is a good one, but again it's tied to graduation rates and those are tied to funding and how good the school looks. If our district, any district, really addressed the problems, all the stats would probably change for the negative and the suits aren't willing to do that. We're doing what's right to get money, not to truly help kids beyond the walls of our high school. As a nation, we've embraced this expectation that every kid should, none should fail and that's simply not realistic. You have to fail in order to learn, and that's the case for our schools right now. I just hope we choose to learn from this failure.