Thursday, May 13, 2010

The Test

Not everything that can be counted counts, and not everything that counts can be counted. - Albert Einstein

I couldn’t have been prouder of my students than I was this week. Tuesday through Thursday we took the final part of our high-stakes, standardized tests. If you have an elementary age child in SC you know that Tuesday was Reading, Wednesday was Math and today was Science and Social Studies. The tests take an hour and a half or so for these three days. We had already taken the writing part of the test back in March. My students did shine. I am blessed with a bright and curious class. I did not look at any of their answers. I just read the instructions like I was supposed to. But I could tell.

I think one reason they were successful is that we kept alive a tradition started by my teacher buddy Brent Petersen. We created an adversarial fictional character named Ed. Ed makes the tests and tries to outsmart us, tries to trick us, tries to get us to mark incorrect answers, to think illogically, to tire, give up – to bomb the test. The further along in the year, the wilder our Ed character became. Now we have this image of Ed-the-test-maker-scorer as being a greasy guy in a small windowless room, with a single bare bulb dangling from a wire. He is a smoker too. He sits around all day creating these crazy writing prompts and test questions, or reading kids’ responses trying to find fault with our answers. Ed is the enemy. We must defeat him.

No one really believes this scenario but we have fun with the image of Ed. Sometimes he is wearing an old fashioned fedora hat, sometimes a sleeveless t-shirt. At various times he is shiny bald or has big tattoos. We imagine him reading our responses to the writing prompt, or scoring the fill-in-the-dot answer sheets with a cigarette dangling from his lips, the bare lightbulb casting sharp shadows on the cement block walls.

I tell the students and their parents that these tests don’t sum up the year. Not for me. And hopefully, not for them. The way we teach and learn is not rote. It is not a matter of dispensing information that can be picked up like radiation with a Geiger counter at some point later on to see what residue is left.

When we read it is for more than comprehension. It is for captivation and learning about the world and understanding human nature and characters. We read to enjoy well-crafted words, to immerse ourselves in other places, other lives, other worlds. When we write it is to express ourselves clearly, to share who we are, what we know. When we were writing our farewell notes to one of our student teachers last November I asked the children to think of what Tammy taught us, what she means to us, what we’ll remember most. Daquan said, “Well, maybe we should also try and make her cry.” So, OK, we also write to make people cry… and laugh and think deeply.

There isn’t much room on the test for their “stories” to amaze us, or any opportunities to make a reader laugh or cry. Filling in dots to show what we know about science or math or social studies doesn’t even scratch the surface of what children know about how the world works. So no, these tests do not reflect the two school years we have spent together. Not even close.

But, when I sat with these children, my children, for all these hours over these three days (not to mention the four mornings spent in the computer lab with testing and the two mornings spent in March with the writing part of the test) they worked incredibly hard. They pondered every question, worked in silence, completely isolated – as if in a room full of others in solitary confinement. They didn’t talk at all (an amazing feat in itself), checked over their work, put up with me reading directions in my “Ed-the-Test-Administrator” voice. No one complained. Everyone took it seriously.

I watched them stretch and yawn and give themselves little mental breaks, raise their hands with dulled pencils, read and reread confusing questions, shake their heads, furrow their little brows, look up pensively and think, erase incorrect answers, wink at me to let me know they were doing fine… smile at me – SMILE at me.

I know it’s silly, but during this testing time, when kids were scratching their heads, biting their lips and smiling at me, I felt this overwhelming sense of pride. It was the wrong time in so many ways. Tests are so artificial. They DON’T give a complete picture of achievement or instruction. But these children, my children, gave it everything they had. They know exactly how I feel about the tests but however incomplete the information they yield, I told them this was important. They trusted me and took this seriously. They trust me. Me. 21 minds. 21 spirits and hearts. 21 totally unique individuals. They trust me. This takes my breath away. Maybe I’m making too much of it, but it is staggering that these 21 little friends have this kind of faith in me.

It is one more powerful reason why I will miss these children as they move on to 4th grade. And why I don’t take the job of teaching for granted. It is simply so important. They trust me, you know? And their parents trust me. I don’t know why, but that astonished me a little today.

When we finished the tests, there was no big hoorah. The kids gathered around to learn a new song, munch a few cookies, and have some fellowship. For the rest of the day I listened a little more closely and laughed a little harder (“Hey, Mr. O,” said Joe, examining his cafeteria sandwich, “is some of the chicken for the chicken sandwiches made from the chicken’s… you know… behind?”). Today, with these precious few days left in the school year, I learned again why I love this gig.

“Standardized testing has become the arbiter of social mobility, yet there is more regulation of the food we feed our pets that of the tests we give our kids”
- Robert Schaeffer


Judy T said...

Tim--Ed, the test maker-grader, trickster,smoking, greaser guy is the
greatest fictional character I believe I have ever met. I marvel at your creativity every time I read your blog.

What an inspired way to reduce their fear and at the same time motivate the kids to beat "the man". BRILL-I-A-N-T.

Judy T said...

I hope you don't mind that I wrote about this post on my FaceBook.

Chris Hass said...

You beat me to it! I was planning to post a testing story this week but you beat me to it. And how impressive that you were able to write it so positively. That's what made me change my mind about writing a testing post. I suddenly felt as though I would be too negative.

And we'll definitely steal the Ed idea. All good ideas deserve to be stolen!

Ruth said...

Alyssa, our foster 3rd grader, has nothing left in school but picnics, sports, field trips and parties. Except her nightly reading journal. And it still makes her cry and stew. Her bio-parents have virtually disappeared. I think this is the real source of her unhappiness. This time of the year when I was a 3rd grader was the best time of my childhood. Our Mom and Dad brought you home for the first time. I knew I was going to love you before I met you, but I couldn't believe how much I did love you. As much as a third grader can, I think. That is a lot. I compare how wonderful the end of 3rd grade was for me with the trials and troubles of Alyssa and I feel sorry for her. I wish she had a brother like you.

Travis said...

As one of the people responsible for passing out these tests I just felt sad after reading this. Tim, I used to think maybe I could make a difference from the I see I can't, so I'm pulling back out and going back to what I love. Teaching!