I have seen an increase of articles discussing teacher resignations, and regardless of location, each teacher mentions not being able to handle the extreme amount of testing plaguing public schools. I have also noticed an increase of teachers that are still in the classroom speaking out against testing as well.
In the past four years, I have already done my fair share of speaking out and even testifying for improvements to testing policies during legislative sessions, but I know there is still so much more to be said and even more to be changed. I am tired of educational stakeholders convincing people that assessments and standardized testing are one in the same.
I take great pride in the fact that I assess my students every day, often two or three times within a given period, because it lets me know what is happening in my classroom. I am aware of what my students needs are because I use daily formative assessments to gauge their understanding and progress. But now, thanks to STAAR and our low scores that are typical across the state, I have incredibly less freedom on how I assess my students.
A case in point: This past semester, I taught a unit over Lord of the Flies. I have not actually taught this book since my second year of teaching in 2004. I looked back through my files and remembered having my kids go outside and actually try to use magnifying glasses to burn grass to show how hard it is to start a fire with nothing but Piggy’s specs. They wrote journal entries about what survival skills mean to them and what they would do if they were stranded on an island. We had a whole class debate about whether it is more important to build shelters or to hunt for food, mimicking a conversation between Ralph and Jack. I had my students do various other projects that involved symbolism and writing persuasive arguments and using the text to back up their positions.
Fast forward to 2015 and my unit for Lord of the Flies does not come close to the project based activities I did ten years ago. Instead, this year I’ve been doing “close reading” exercises and practicing short answer responses, which require students to write a formulaic response in a ten-lined box, hardly room to express opinions thoroughly. I was also required to give multiple common assessments starting in September and mix Lord of the Flies into one of the assessments by including a passage from the novel and having students complete yet another short answer response. Below is how many practice tests my kids have had to take within one semester. Each test varied in the number of questions, but all contained multiple choice questions similar to those found on the STAAR test.
“Unit 1 Pretest”/common assessment: 9/4 “Unit 2″/common assessment: 10/5 “Unit 3″/common assessment: 11/5 District assessment: 11/20 MOCK STAAR test Part ONE (to be given as the midterm): 12/16 & 12/18.
Now that we are back from winter break, my students must now complete the MOCK STAAR Part TWO, which has taken yet another TWO CLASS PERIODS (3 hours). In total, my students have already “tested” for almost 720 minutes, or 12 hours, or in teacher time: THREE WEEKS of class since we are on a block schedule. I’m aware not every student takes the full class period to test, but that just means they have to quietly wait and/or work on another assignment while their classmates finish. How is almost a month of time spent preparing for a test not count as teaching to the test? And keep in mind this does not include any other common assessments our district decides we must give before our testing date in April. It also does not include students who are required to attend “intervention” periods for up to 30 minutes, 4 days a week, working on “English skills”.
What’s more frustrating about these “unit” assessments is that because Texas has rules against how much instructional time can be used for preparing students for the STAAR test, I am not supposed to count them as major grades in the gradebook. The district assessment was not even counted as a grade, minor or major. That means I have to convince my students that it is for their benefit to take yet another practice test, even though it won’t impact their grade. Now, I’m actually all for not taking grades, but that is not to be confused with lying to my students, which is what I feel like I’m doing. I am lying when I tell them that trying their best is important. It’s actually not important because I don’t believe the STAAR test is important. Thankfully, no colleges or trade schools–or employers for that matter–look at STAAR scores for admission criteria.
A lot of people know I feel about the STAAR test or overtesting in general, and many people have argued that we need something in order to measure student performance. I very much agree, and believe there are THOUSANDS of ways to do this. Typically in my classroom, end of unit assessments are a piece of critical writing or a project that a student has chosen to create to show their understanding of a text. I try to provide a lot of choice so students are more open to actually doing the project, and so that they can take ownership for what they have done. After projects are turned in, I can tell who understood the subject and who did not. I know who just didn’t do it because they were lazy versus having a real issue with comprehension. I know I know these things because I see my kids every other day and see what they do in class. I also generally know what’s going on outside of school, and how that may or may not be impacting their performance.
For instance, one of my students this year was required to retake the English 1 STAAR exam in December for a third time (he failed the original spring test and summer retest). The week before the retest, his nephew died in a tragic accident. He came to me after the test and told me how difficult it was to stay focused, and that he didn’t think he did very well. This is a kid actually has a physical disability, comes to class every day wanting to work, asks for help when needed, is one of the most creative writers I’ve had in a while, and now he feels bad because he thinks he did poorly on a test. As his teacher, I could care less if he fails it. I can measure his progress in so many other ways, and that test SHOULD NOT BE the only way that lets me know if he’s learning.
Unfortunately, the STAAR test will remain the determining factor for all Texas students until change is made. That change will not happen until more people start to realize that when the news reports start quoting statistics and numerical data to show what schools are “exemplary or failing”, that they’re actually talking about individual students from a wide variety of backgrounds that each have specific educational needs, and that standardized testing is not the answer if we want to assess our students, teachers, and schools fairly.