Testing Season: Prepare to be Accountable

About Dan McConnell

Husband, father, and teacher. Hoping to earn full redemption through the written word and shaping the dangerous young minds of tomorrow.

It’s testing season

In New York, the state tests are here. Technically speaking the ELA tests have gone by already, other than make-ups that need to still happen. The math 3-8 exams are still to come, and in the tiny rural school system I teach in these tests are all taken seriously by the teachers. My colleagues want their students to show their best work. They know that, to an extent, the performance of their students on these tests is a reflection on their teaching. Some also know that the tests  are taken far too seriously. When educators are accountable for so many other more immediate things it becomes a strange dichotomy to teach in: on one hand we have non-educators pushing a market-based and developmentally inappropriate approach that prizes test data above children; on the other is the judgement of professional educators who have the children in front of them, know better but are compelled to follow the orders coming down from above and are rightly fearing the day when test results could be used against them. “Them” being teachers and children.

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Preparing everyone and everything for the tests

So the teachers and the district prepare their students. In class, students practice for the unnaturally silent and rigid atmosphere mandated by the state. Mini faux-tests include multiple choice items, short answer items and longer written responses. My school district goes above and beyond to prepare for testing season and the tests themselves. Time is set aside for staff meetings to discuss administering the tests. Not just the testing days, times, how to cleanse your location of any inadvertent cues/clues, parameters for providing accommodations to students with a separate location…but also missteps for teachers to avoid at all costs; the legal and professional consequences should you stray from protocol. The possible financial cost (including the first-hand account of a teacher having to pay a twenty-some thousand dollar fine for casually indicating an answer).

Why are we being made to do this?

Those profiting in this system defend it with all sorts of pseudo-educational B.S. to prop the validity of high-stakes testing and to disguise dehumanizing children and teachers. Because of this, all sorts of test prep happens throughout the year-schools are on the defensive. Formative assessments are used to generate a wide variety of data that is tracked through progress monitoring. The start of year data is plotted and a trend line is created to see how each student’s progress compares with the expectations (“on track to being college-ready”) at beginning, mid-year and end of year points. Not to worry, students who test below “college-ready” coming into third grade would have a trend line reflecting a normed student-growth-percentile measure (SGP) that describes how a cohort of like peers based on other value-added-measures (VAM) should progress throughout a school year. So a student reading at a level two years below would not be compared against average or advanced students, only others starting at a similar level.

Where we might be going wrong

But all that fancy statistical stuff means little in a silent room where that student must sit still and be confronted with a high stakes test that might include text a grade level or two above the grade they are in. So even in a little rural village with many more pressing concerns, we do test prep. This place is the home of the Maple Festival- an event where a large portion of the community comes together, volunteers, supports local businesses and the school…It just happened this weekend and right now I sit typing after day two of working the pancake breakfast. I was in the dish-room day one, and on the scrambled egg griddle today. My station was a cooker just under sternum level so my spatula arm was raised flipping, turning, scraping…for four hours. Man, I’m sore, but it was worth it.

Our Maple Queen this year was a student of mine in third grade. An incredibly bright 11th grade girl now (she beat my 1oth grade daughter), she was hands-down the shining star. Hers was a “good class” that year. They cheered on day four when I announced I’d be sending actual homework home that day. This particular student, now “Maple Queen,” became one of my “reading ambassadors” that year-going to model, lead, and followed up mini read-aloud lessons in younger classrooms. A natural teacher even then, there was a day I was away for one of my daughter’s heart-doctor appointments and forgot to leave the follow up activity. This third grade girl led one on her own.

Her speech during the pageant was about valuing and remembering teachers, wanting to become a teacher, and she mentioned her third grade teacher. I had a chance to talk to her parents today as I worked the Maple Festival (her dad is on the school board, mom is a teacher I used to work with in another district)…

“Your daughter came to me a leader,” I had to say. She is the one-in-a-hundred, though.

The bulk of a teacher’s day is consumed trying to meet the needs of a growing number of students coming further and further behind the expectation. Meeting the needs of the “one-in-a-hundred” is being pushed aside as we standardize and test, and meeting the needs of the neediest is a discussion -even though teachers are confronted with this daily.

For the current Maple Queen, my former student, my job as an educator was to find ways to respect and build on her abilities as they were-maximizing her opportunities and potential within the resources and time I was allowed. That is the same obligation I have to my other students. Not to a market. Not to a test. To them. To me that’s being accountable. That’s me holding myself accountable. My job is to teach the students who come to me, as they come to me, and use my professionalism and my considerable judgment and instincts regarding people old and young.

Prepare to be tested

Let’s talk about preparing to be tested. Not for these silly tests being used as cudgels against our poorest and neediest and then as evidence to be used against their schools and teachers. Look at our president. Look at what this administration is doing to the most vulnerable, to the nation, even to the planet. Look at what our news isn’t telling us. Look at what our two party system refuses to do for us, and what more and more of our families have to navigate through to simply survive.

Yes it’s testing season in school. But we are already being tested in a more personal and important way that involve sound judgement, solid character and moral resolve. In school I prepare students along with my colleagues. Inside I wonder if we are failing to really prepare them.

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About the Author:

Husband, father, and teacher. Hoping to earn full redemption through the written word and shaping the dangerous young minds of tomorrow.

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