Wednesday, October 14, 2015

It’s Testing Season Again

It comes around every year. Parents are encouraged to make sure their children get a good night’s sleep and a filling breakfast. (As if they shouldn’t every day!!—But that’s another story…) Students come to school excited and nervous with two brand new #2 pencils, ready to sharpen. (Or not...again, another story..)

Standardized testing* is a way of life in public education. No getting around it. My experiences as a teacher with standardized testing have been far from stellar. 

When I taught first grade, my school district required first graders to take the Iowa Assessments. (Many other school districts wait until students are in third grade before giving The Test.) Since first graders are basically non-readers, the test was read to them by me, their classroom teacher.  Each first grader got a test booklet to mark in. They were to circle the correct multiple choice picture answer after the question/problem was read out loud.  Part of my job was to make sure all 20 to 24 students were ‘on the right problem, on the right page’.  Can you imagine trying to keep 20 some kids on the same page?  Well, that was the easy part.

A really big part of first grade is learning as a team.  Six year olds don’t understand when the teacher they’ve come to trust unconditionally says, “I’m sorry, I can’t help you.  Try your best.”  At the very minimum, the student expects his/her teacher to give clues or ask questions that will help guide their thinking toward the correct answer.  (Cuz that’s what teachers do!) There were many tears in first grade over what I felt, was the students’ feelings of betrayal on my part and perhaps hopelessness at their inability on their part.  It was a sorry sight to be sure.  Just writing about it today – a good eight years later- gives me a gut ache. I’m not kidding. I have a stomach ache right now. 

It was a tedious process.  Read the question-twice- no more. Give the students time to circle the best picture answer.  I remember one picture answer was of a car going into a skid.  I think skid was the vocabulary word, I can’t remember for sure.  But what I do remember is my kiddos asking me what that particular picture was.  I couldn’t even tell them that.  It would have been considered helping. Helping equals cheating in the eyes of the State.  

And of course, if two pictures were circled, that answer was automatically incorrect.  Did you know first graders sometimes have a hard time with a black-and-white world?  Two answers may seem reasonable to them. 

Oftentimes in the first couple of days of testing, before they understood not to, students would blurt out answers.  You can be sure that every kid in the class circled that answer, whether it was right or wrong. By the end of the week we were all just mentally exhausted.

When I taught third grade testing sessions were somewhat better, but also held their own set of problems. Third graders can feel the tension in the air even more so than first graders can.  This causes a number of reactions.  Some kids get so tense they can’t think.  Other kids just shut down.  There are an equal number of kids who give it their all, so all is not lost.  We teachers spend a lot of time during testing week being cheerleaders for these children.

Third graders, for the first time, read the whole test silently to themselves from a test booklet and fill in bubbles on a separate answer sheet. (Second grade has a blend of first and third testing procedures.)  In third grade, the students are given a specific amount of time to answer a specific number of questions. (You’re cringing now, aren’t you?  You remember, don't you?)  I would always write the time to start, the half-way time and the stop time on the board.  I also wrote the half way problem number next to the half-way time in an attempt to keep kids from going too fast.  Because that’s what they do.  The timer freaks them out, no matter how much you practice and try to prepare them for it.  Most of my students completed the tests in half of the allotted time.  We would just sit and wait quietly for the timer to beep.  Before testing season began I would spend  time teaching them how to go back over answers to check for accuracy.   Either they’re not developmentally ready for that kind of a task, or it’s just too daunting because they pretty much didn’t do it.

Oh, and the test results you ask?  Well they arrive at the school some two to three months later.  We analyze and data troll and discuss how to ‘do better’.  In the end, classroom teachers know exactly what they knew about their students the day before the testing began.  We know who’s at  the top of the class. We know who will struggle or cry or shut down or freak out.  We know who will work their little selves to death to try to be successful.  That’s because we’ve already been helping them all grow and learn and extend themselves since August.  And now in January a test is supposed to tell us how to teach them?  Give me a break.  I’m fed up with this crazy system. 

But what’s  a parent to do?  There are few alternatives.  In my next blog I will talk about what parents and kids can do to survive and thrive in this test-taking-madness that has gripped public education.

*Standarized tests are test that are all the same in content and difficulty given to a certain grade (in school) of students over a huge demographic region.

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