Standardized Testing: The Highs, the Lows and the Stash of Chocolate

If you’re thinking of becoming a teacher, let me tell you now: Covet thy chocolate. Have an extra stash somewhere in your room, because you never know when the moment may arise for a Hershey Bar.  I’ve had a stash of gummy bears this year, and I don’t get the same experience with them as I do with my cocoa beans.

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I needed my chocolate, desperately, beginning in the last of March until this week.

“Why”, you may ask? Any teacher in Texas will tell you: STAAR (State of Texas Assessment of Academic Readiness) Tests. These are also know as ‘The Damn STAAR Test”, “Those Standardized Tests”, “Non-Instructional Days”, “Today calls for a Xanex”,  and “Sign Here. Good Luck”.

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Planning for this test began, and I kid you not, the previous May when last year’s test results showed up. We spend all summer in workshops (no, contrary to popular belief, we DON’T get 3 months off with nothing to do) contemplating the ‘how’s’, the ‘whys’, and the ‘what the heck happend’s’.  We look at data by grade, by test, by teacher, by department, by question, by question type,  by state requirement, by student, by ability level, by District, by school. And what do we come up with? Someone, somewhere comes forward with a ‘new’ idea that is going to help our kids ‘beat’ this test, knowing full well, no one really knows what’s on it for sure and that it changes every year.  In short, we are taught new ways to essentially ‘teach the test’.

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Now, being in education as both a student and teacher for many years now, I can say that I truly believe that a well rounded education aids in a person’s ability to problem-solve and draw conclusions. I sometimes feel, as I know others do as well, that in an effort to make sure that education is equal and all are learning a certain set of standards, this process has created a generation of people who are quite adept at bubbling in ‘A’ or ‘When in doubt, C it out’, and less adept at simple decision making and the application of learning to their lives. (WHOLE other blog this could be)…

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This year was not different for me. I made sure I covered everything the State said they needed to know. In order to get this down, especially with my lower level classes, we didn’t have time to take a lot of tangents, or stop often and test a hypothesis (where I think real learning takes place when kids get to see why something does/doesn’t work).  I followed the prescribed lesson plan format, I administered the 3 common assessments we are required to give EVERY 6 weeks (no I’m not joking), and I retaught and cycled back in things they scored low on. These are all good teaching methods, but when you feel like your hands are tied and are constantly reminded that the kids ‘don’t need to know that for the test’, you sometimes wonder where the priorities really are.  Now, some people will argue and say that ‘No, we don’t teach a test to kids’. I can’t speak for everywhere else, but I know in my neck of the woods, if you teach an age group that’s tested, you try your best to get in the real special extras, but you do focus on what’s going to be on that test so sayeth the State.

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I stood in the back of the room as I ‘actively monitored’ 4 different tests at 4 hours each, and I felt the compassion I always feel for my kids as they work away, and with it was mixed a twinge of guilt. The cold brick against my back, I realized that I had done them no favors by not teaching them Science in a way that I knew would undoubtedly inspire a love of learning.  Just like the hard wall I was leaning on, I felt a barrier between the teacher I knew I could be and that I wanted to be, and what was expected of me by local test standards.  I would have loved to take them outside to look at our impact on the environment, to spend a semester doing a weekly examination of the decomposition of a McDonald’s hamburger,  or to have taken a field trip to our local Edison Museum.  There was never time after all I was required to do in relation to test prep and I was always told “it’s not on the test”.

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As focused as we were made to be on scores, we taught the kids to do a ‘data dump’. Sounds charming, I know, but for weeks prior to the test, we worked on getting that formula chart out of the test and once they were told to begin, to ‘dump’ everything that had learned this year on the formula chart. Moon phases, acronyms, signs of a hurricane, atoms, Newton’s laws, tides…we went over and over that, thinking full well, only some would do it. The day of the test, when they were told “If there are no other questions, you may begin”, an amazing thing happened. 95% of all 8th graders on my campus used this technique and they wrote down everything they could think of. My 2 8th grade coworkers and I had people come up to us after the test and basically state, “I don’t know what you taught those kids, but I have never seen a group do that before or be so eager to take a test”.

My happiest day of the year was the day following the test, not because testing was over (that was good too), but because I could tell the kids with absolute sincerity that pass or fail, because they had obviously translated all their learning and did what I asked, that I was proud of them. That’s all a teacher can ask for (especially when you’re working with teenagers).

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In real life, we face tests of a sort everyday. Some we pass, while others we fail or barely skirt by.  It’s not really about always getting it ‘right’. It’s about the lessons we learn along the way. I am not against standardized testing to see where certain deficits lie and what could be improved. What I am against is the stifling of a group of extraordinary people known as teachers who want kids to love learning as much as they do. We are a diverse, bright, skilled group of people. I wish the people who focused only on tests and test results could see that we would get the job done, and, if left to our own devices, would even leave them pleasantly surprised.

 

 

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