The Misuse of Assessment Must Stop.

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.

 

 

Advertisements

A Champion is Never Alone #AprilBlogaDay

The Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines champion as “someone (such as a team or an animal) that has won a contest or competition especially in sports”, but also as “someone who fights or speaks publicly in support of a person, belief, cause, etc”.

The second definition really stands out to me since later today I am trying to do just that:  speak publicly in support of a belief-at yet another House of Representatives Public Education Committee Hearing.  My belief is that SB 149 should be passed in time to help our current seniors in danger of not graduating because they have not passed all of their STAAR tests.  You can scroll through my archive starting this past January in case you are unfamiliar with how Texas places more emphasis on testing than it does on its students, and why this bill was created in the first place.

My personal champions throughout this process have been the folks from the grassroots groups Texans Advocating for Meaningful Student Assessment and Texas Parents Opt Out of State Tests.  Both of these groups have provided an incredible amount of essential information for anyone impacted by the STAAR tests and have each sent people to testify on behalf of our state’s students and teachers.  Without their continued support, showing up to the Capitol would be way more difficult and lonely.  Three out of the four times I’ve recently testified, I have been the ONLY high school English teacher to do so.  I know representatives from both groups will be at the Capitol later today and that always helps calm my nerves.

I believe testifying publicly is the best way to be a champion not only to my students past and present, but to my colleagues as well.  What I’d like to make clear is that I am only ONE person, and that the fight for better, quality assessments is far from over.  The STAAR Wars started more than 3 years ago, and fighting for SB 149 is just one battle among many.  I am aware that many parents and teachers have made the effort to contact their State Representatives, but I would still love to see 200 of them at the Capitol today.  I know from past experience that’s probably not going to happen (still hopeful it will) but it’s okay; I will be there regardless because I told my kids I won’t give up until a decision is made, and I know they’ll be with me every step of the way.

In Response to “Education News”: “Texas Schools and the Slippery Slope of Sen. Seliger’s SB 149” by Donna Garner 2.19.15

After seeing a question posted on KXAN’s Facebook earlier today asking what readers think about SB149, and after reading Donna Howard’s blog post decrying SB 149 about a month ago,  I’ve decided to respond, addressing the issues mentioned in Howard’s post  (and the comments on KXAN’s Facebook feed).  I know, I know, “you’re not supposed to ‘feed the trolls'”, but because I actually testified FOR this bill, I don’t mind writing about it.

SB 149 would allow seniors to graduate from our Texas public schools after taking and failing the STAAR tests multiple times in the past three years.  Some students have taken one STAAR test as many as 7 times, which adds up to about 30-35 hours of testing.  Furthermore, the majority of seniors have actually passed almost all of the STAAR tests, and only lack one or two tests to meet the 5 test requirement for graduation.  The number of students have not passed a single STAAR test is extremely minimal, and most likely those students have other issues (attendance, credits, etc.) that would prevent them from graduating even by committee decision.

As a CURRENT, experienced high school English teacher, I know the majority of seniors only need to pass the English 1 or English 2 STAAR test.  I can tell you that the implementation of these tests was severely flawed.  Teachers who were actually in the classroom during the ’11-12 and ’12-13 school years know that the preparation for the test was inadequate. We were only given field test questions that Pearson had already considered “bad questions” as a basis for our instruction.  Furthermore, when test results were released in ’12-’13 when current seniors were sophomores, we did not receive valid feedback.  This was extremely detrimental to students because we had no way of knowing what specific areas to focus on for remediation.  Students retested that summer and failed, and the cycle continued during every following administration of the STAAR test.  It was not until the Summer of 2014 that schools received any kind of adequate feedback and teachers, like myself, were able to finally TEACH TO THE TEST, and our passing rate for the retest increased substantially in December.

Believe me, classroom teachers care about what we teach and even more about WHO we teach.  Research study upon research study will show that standardized testing should not be the only way student ability/achievement is measured.

Anyone that says the English 1 & 2 STAAR is an OBJECTIVE measurement of student academic progress has obviously not been an English teacher in the past 3 years.  The writing required on the test is SUBJECTIVE, and is supposed to be graded on a rubric that takes into account a variety of measures from mechanics to voice.  However, the process for grading English 1 & 2 tests, to say the least, is a joke.  It is a well-known fact that Pearson hires people from Craigslist to grade the exams.  These people do not have to have a background in English (although SOME do), they just need a Bachelor’s Degree.  How is it okay for someone off of Craigslist to determine a student’s graduation status but not the people that have been working directly with the student for hours upon hours?

Also, former Pearson employees have said that TEA sets deadlines for the essays to be graded, and graders have quotas to meet.  Graders can score up to 100 essays in an hour.  It takes me, a highly qualified teacher with a Master’s Degree plus almost 18 hours of graduate English, about 5-6 HOURS to grade 130 essays accurately when we give mock STAAR exams.  If I have to take the time to grade PRACTICE essays, shouldn’t the test scorers be held to the same standard?  I seriously doubt the rubric is used effectively and would bet my salary that students’ scores are flawed.

If SB 149 passes, the graduation committee would look at overall grades in all courses.  Saying that graduates would be allowed “to walk without proving their mastery of important academic skills” is basically saying that no other classwork or projects are capable of teaching students such skills.  It is also a slap in the face to educators.  As a classroom teacher that spends roughly 90-100 hours with a student per year, please believe me when I say I can tell you what a student can or cannot do.  I don’t know when we stopped trusting teachers but it’s time for things to change.  I would challenge Donna Garner to step back in the classroom for one week, particularly in a Title 1 school, within the next two weeks before the test, but I don’t particularly want her near any students.

Looking forward, Texans should be PROUD that their voices have been heard, and that SB 149 was created as a direct result of public input.  There are still so many changes that need to be made regarding STAAR and how students are measured in school. HB 5 was just one small step in the right direction, and SB 149 follows in that regard.   

Thankfully, and again because of public input, SB 149 has passed the Senate and now only needs approval from the House and Governor Abbott.  However, if SB 149 does not pass, Texas schools will definitely be pushed further down the education hill because the STAAR test does not adequately measure “how well students have mastered academic knowledge and skills”, and ultimately, students will be the ones to bear the burden of retesting AGAIN and be labeled a “failure” as long as the test is allowed to be used as a “measuring stick”.