Put a Ding in the Universe!

Closing the Teach For America Blogging Gap
Apr 26 2013


Tomorrow ends our second week of state testing.  Some of my colleagues have already blogged about their experiences on TeachForUs.org, but I thought I’d add my own thoughts and observations as well.

As we approached testing, we could feel tensions rising in the school.  There’s a kind of tension you get before a big game or before a concert that gives you some extra adrenalin–an extra edge to your performance.  Then there’s the kind of tension that builds before the explosion or meltdown.  As it was building up, I’m not sure we could tell which outcome to expect.

In my class, I have a philosophy.  I teach like the test doesn’t matter.  The standards are what matter.  I do my best to get my students to stretch, grow, and progress.  They grouse about it every step of the way, but even those who loudly complain that its boring or too hard have shown significant progress in their reading.  Thus, the test will show progress as long as I push for it every day.  Progress varies from day to day, but I don’t sweat the kids being given a standardized test at any time.  I don’t panic.

This is not the case with some of my colleagues.  Some of them, particularly the long-time teachers at the school, switched from teaching whatever they normally teach to test preparation materials.  They began drilling the kids nonstop for two or three weeks before testing was to begin.  Admittedly, I’m inexperienced as a teacher, but I’m the parent of five kids, four of whom are grown-ups now.  I can tell when kids are being pushed and not in a good way.

When testing finally began, the administration published an elaborate schedule telling us who was testing when and where.  Like most schools in our district, we don’t have enough computers to test everyone in a timely manner.  The schedule sought to maximize the usage and availability of computers.  Our principals did a great job putting it together.  It has worked pretty well.

There have been lots of delays getting large groups of students logged onto the pathetic computer network we have.  The district’s IT department is terribly understaffed and the physical plant in the school is awful.  However, being a former network administrator, I could see some things they did that complicated problems right off.  For example, a sure-fire way to bring any network segment to a crawl is to have Symantec Endpoint Security run a scan upon login for each user instead of scheduling them.  Having 80 users log in at once slams the network with all that traffic and brings it to a screeching halt.  It’s a simple thing to fix, but nobody is listening at the IT shop.  Another thing is that the network admins had to map network drives for the testing application and they made that process visible.  Students would see the black “DOS” window pop up and they’d close it before it ran.  The administrators can make that process invisible to the users, but they didn’t bother to.

The unavoidable part of only having 80 computers to test over 600 students who have to take two to five tests online, is the difficulty of keeping the ones occupied who are not testing.  The solution was to have first and fourth period teachers hold their classes for the entire morning or afternoon.  I understand that elementary school children are in one class with one teacher all day long.  However, you can’t just keep a middle schooler penned up in a class for three hours and have him just work on one subject without getting some pushback.  And indeed, we did get pushback.

I tried a strategy of planning three 45-minute lessons and then taking the kids outside for 10 minutes or so between them.  That way, they got the mental break that comes from getting out of the classroom and going somewhere else before settling into another lesson.  They did pretty well with that.  However, my fourth-hour class is a tough one.  There are several hard-to-manage students on a regular day.  The stress of testing made some of them act out even more than usual.

As testing stretched into a second week, there were classes I didn’t see at all since the process began.  I spent all of last week as a test proctor or monitor in the mornings and afternoons.  I was mostly doing make-up tests for kids who were absent the original day of their schedules.  Essentially, I had to plan two weeks of lessons that would last up to three hours (so figure about 30 hours of instruction) that didn’t get used.

Logistics is often a problem.  In one case, I had to test one student in another teacher’s classroom, displacing a class of a dozen students who had to go with the teacher to another class down the hall (that could have been used for testing).  Yes, it was a circuitous as it sounds.

Probably the biggest problem with two weeks of testing that has stretched into a third is the breakdown in discipline and order.  Students are beginning to act out from the stress.  Students who aren’t testing, but whose teachers are, have been sent repeatedly to sit in the gymnasium for three hours at a time–sometimes even all day.  The poor PE teacher who has had to watch them will probably jump off a bridge before it’s done.

The state law requires us to test 95 percent of the students.  If the school doesn’t meet that standard, it loses something like 15 points on the A-F scoring mechanism the state uses to rate the school.  It’s imperative that all students test.  The result of that constraint is that the administration declared that there will be no suspensions during testing.  The kids know this and they no longer have any fear of consequences.   So between testing sessions, there are students wandering around unsupervised when they’re supposed to be at lunch.  When teachers are holding students who aren’t testing, the kids are resistant to doing any work at all and the level of pushback is unreal.

The pushback is becoming all too literal.  In the past week, three male students have assaulted male teachers.  This is altogether unhealthy.  And when this high-stakes testing is over, the students feel that they’ve crossed the finish line and they’re done for the year while we still have five weeks remaining.

This policy of requiring 95 percent of the students to test or the school gets dinged leads to some odd situations.  Kids who have not been in the school all year long don’t have their scores counted, but they’re still required to test.  Because of this, there are weird situations that pop up.  We had several new students enroll in school just days before testing began.  Some of them came from Mexico and didn’t speak English at all.  A couple others came from the Marshall Islands.  I don’t even know what language they speak there, but they didn’t speak English either.  Nevertheless, they still had to sit down and fill in circles on paper or click a mouse on answers to questions they couldn’t read.  There still had to be a proctor and a test monitor paid to sit there in a room with them for the time it took for them to do that.  Pointless.

The crazy thing about all this stress is that many students don’t care about their results in the least.  This morning I watched a kid click his way through the test in a few minutes without even reading the questions.  I’ve had other kids tell me they’ve done the same thing.  The reason for this is that they have no investment in the outcome.  It’s meaningless to them.  They get a raw score of something like 35 out of 60, but that’s meaningless to them.  It doesn’t tell them if they passed or failed.  The reason it doesn’t is because the state board of education will determine what’s passing AFTER the fact.  What’s the point in getting the kids to push themselves if the state will simply mandate that a certain percentage has to fail.  And when the results finally come (sometime in July, I’m told) there won’t be any reinforcing effect that steels the student’s commitment to strive for excellence.  I have to ask:  Is this the best system we can come up with to evaluate students?

Amid the turmoil, one of my eighth graders (who hasn’t been in my class in two weeks) asked me, “Why are you so calm?”  I wasn’t sure how to answer him.  I think I muttered something to the effect that getting upset never helps anything get better.  Surely we can do something to help this whole process be a better experience for everyone involved.

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YOTFAO BACTAG = You only teach for America once, but always challenge the achievement gap.

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