Saturday, January 30, 2010

The Big Test

One Hundred Years From Now 
(excerpt from "Within My Power" by Forest Witcraft)

One Hundred Years from now 
It will not matter 
what kind of car I drove, 
what kind of house I lived in, 
how much money was in my bank account 
nor what my clothes looked like. 
But the world may be a better place because 
I was important in the life of a child.

Thirty one years ago I began my life as a teacher. It’s hard to figure out how many students I have hung around with during all that time. For the last 14 years, I have had mostly the same ones for two years. Years ago I had the same amazing child for three years in a row. So, an exact number is hard to come by. But it’s a lot.

Each year, each group is different. Each child is an individual so special and unique. I have taught in three states, 4 different school districts, under six superintendents, in nine different schools, under ten different administrators. Change is definitely the constant.

During all of that time school policies have changed and the emphasis toward test scores has become pretty intense. Test scores have always been important but back in the day, it was in a global way. There wasn’t the pressure to perform on high stakes tests that there is today.

It started for me when I worked in southern Indiana in the early 80’s. Our school was underperforming when compared to another school just a mile or so away. On paper, most descriptors were similar. We had about the same number of kids bussed (yes, bussed), the same number of free-and-reduced-lunch, same average household income, etc. Our principal compared our test scores to our sister school on the overhead projector, flipping chart after chart up to demonstrate our shortcomings. How could they perform so much better than us? What were their teachers doing that we weren’t doing? She was getting pressure from the higher-ups and was just passing it down the line. It’s hard to blame her.

What we needed, she determined, was a task force to investigate. I was drafted to be on the task force. Long story short, we went over to our sister school several times at different times of day. I probably wasn’t the right one to be on the task force for lots of reasons. I wasn’t what you would call a traditional teacher. I didn’t stand up in front of the class with the teacher’s edition and read what the teacher was supposed to say. We didn’t do very many worksheets in my class. My kids wrote pretty joyfully, but they were able to write what they wanted to for the most part. My students read a LOT, but it wasn’t from the second grade basal reader most of the time.

So my view of the situation was a little skewed when I visited the school down the road. What I saw there was remarkably similar to what I saw at my own school. Basically, the curriculum was driven by the textbooks. Basically, everyone in the same grade level taught everything the same way at the same time. The kids sat at their desks for the majority of the day. There was not much conversation. It was a transmission model of instruction where the children were sort of passive recipients of information. I didn’t know that I could really say much in our report without getting myself in trouble. It seemed that this school was following the same awkward model of instruction as our school.

The question still remained. How were their kids testing significantly higher than ours?

On our last visit to the higher testing school, we went first thing in the morning. The children in the second grade classrooms I visited came in, quietly put their things away, and sat down to complete a bunch of worksheets. It seemed pretty status quo to me. The difference was, these worksheets were exactly like the standardized test all of the students had to take in the spring. These worksheets were even made, and sold to school districts by the same company that published the test.

Ah ha! These children were being prepared to take the test by taking the test every day, a little at a time. Their test preparation was with the test. Not that the questions were exactly the same. But they were almost the same. So, these children spent nearly an hour every day going over the test. They spent almost five hours every week preparing for the test, which amounted to about ONE HUNDRED FIFTY hours at least.

Now I had to wonder when the children read. When did they have the chance to write their own stories? When could they create their own math stories for each other to solve and engage in science conversations? When could they read the books they wanted to, the authors they loved, dive into a genre and not come up for air for a while? When could they talk about current events and listen to great books read aloud? I never felt like I had enough time to get in all of the important stuff, much less fit in an hour each day of test-prep-worksheets.

So when we reported out at the next faculty meeting, I raised my hand to speak. It was a no-brainer… “The reason their test scores are so much higher than ours is that they teach right to the test every day.” My principal must have known this. We were probably sent over there so we would come up with the conclusion that we needed to spend the money on the same materials. Her agenda was clear. She just wanted the suggestion to come from the teachers. I lamely thought that she would agree with me that this was just wrong; that spending thousands of dollars to buy their test-prep materials would amount to paying ransom to the very test-makers who were calling the shots.

She shut me up with a glare and a, “See me in my office,” spoken through gritted teeth. I did see her in her office and she bawled me out like a second grader for my “careless remarks”. Of course they weren’t “teaching to the test” as that would be illegal. Their test preparation materials had been reviewed and selected with care. Furthermore we were going to purchase the same materials and use them with our own students and that I had better hold my tongue from now on.

I did hold my tongue… pretty much. We spent thousands of dollars on the workbooks and I expect that our test scores did improve. I was only there for another year-and-a-half so I am not aware of the long-term results. I expect that in terms of the test scores, they delivered the desired score increases. I did not use the materials much. We did some exercises before the test so the kids would be used to the multiple-choice format. The thing is, my class’ scores were pretty high anyway. Even before our investigative task force, our scores were fine. Most of the best of what happened in our room was not tested anyway. Pencil-and-paper-fill-in-the-dot tests do not truly measure reading ability let alone a kid’s passion to read. They don’t accurately measure problem solving ability or curiosity or motivation or pleasure seeking knowledge. I guess my big question is, what did they miss? All of those children who practiced taking the high stakes test hour after hour, day after day… What might they have done in school that was a better use of their time?

This following poem is something I posted a couple years ago, but I think it fits here as well. I am a teacher of little kids. I don't just teach math or reading or social studies. I don't just teach children to take tests. I teach children. This poem by Ina Hughes reminds me.

We pray for children

who put chocolate fingers everywhere

who like to be tickled

who stomp in puddles and ruin their new pants

who sneak popsicles before supper

who erase holes in math workbooks

who can never find their shoes

And we pray for those

who stare at photographers from behind barbed wire

who can't bound down the street in a new pair of sneakers

who never "counted potatoes"

who are born in places we wouldn't be caught dead

who never go to the circus

who live in an x-rated world

We pray for children

who bring us sticky kisses and fistfuls of dandelions

who sleep with the dog and bury goldfish

who hug us in a hurry and forget their lunch money

who cover themselves with band-aids and sing off key

who squeeze toothpaste all over the sink

who slurp their soup

And we pray for those

who never get dessert

who have no safe blanket to drag behind them

who watch their parents watch them die

who can't find any bread to steal

who don't have any rooms to clean up

whose pictures aren't on anybody's dresser

whose monsters are real

We pray for children

who spend their allowance before Tuesday

who throw tantrums in the grocery store and pick at their food

who like ghost stories

who shove dirty clothes under the bed and never rinse out the tub

who get visits from the tooth fairy

who don't like to be kissed in front of the carpool

who squirm in church or temple and scream in the phone

whose tears we sometimes laugh at and whose smiles can make us cry

And we pray for those

whose nightmares come in the daytime

who will eat anything

who have never seen a dentist

who aren't spoiled by anybody

who go to bed hungry and cry themselves to sleep

who live and breathe but have no being

We pray for children who want to be carried and for those who must

for those we never give up on

and for those who don't have a second chance

For those we smother... and for those who will grab the hand of

anybody kind enough to offer it.

Ina J. Hughes

At school we have a moment of silence every day. "Please pause for a moment of silence," says the child who reads the announcement. It used to mean nothing to me. It was just this little moment where I would mentally prepare for the school day ahead. Now I pray for children.

1 comment:

Brent and Kristen said...

WoW. I just got around to reading that poem. (wiping the tears from my eyes.) We are so blessed! I am so thankful for all that I have and all that I am able to give to my son. I am so proud to be in a profession where I get to reach out to children and if nothing else, give them hope and love! I too am proud to be a "Teacher of children."