Teacher Heartbreak, Student Healing.

I’ve mentioned before I’ve been teaching for over ten years, and I’ve told many people that unless you’re a teacher, there are some things you just won’t understand.  You won’t know what it’s like to spend hours planning for a sub, just to take a day or two off, only to have the sub do nothing of what you planned; you won’t know what it’s like to have a student be a complete sweetheart one day and a complete jerk the next; you won’t know what it’s like to watch a kid finally GET IT and blush from being proud.  I could go on, but I think you know what I mean.  I have come to realize that from all of my teacher experiences, I have developed a “teacher heart”, dedicated to all the feelings associated with my students, classroom, and school.  I consider myself lucky in that for the first 12 years of my career, I never had my teacher heart break.  However, during that time I witnessed the heart break of several colleagues due to losing a current or former student, usually to car accidents and terminal illnesses.  I remember waking up to a friend’s panicked phone call after she got the news that one of her students was killed while skateboarding near a busy street in town.  I remember feeling completely helpless on the phone, wanting nothing but to wrap my arms around her and to let her know she wasn’t alone.  But I was separated from her not only by physical distance, but also by the lack of actually knowing what it meant to have my teacher heart break.

Unfortunately, after this school year, I now know very well what it feels like to lose a student, because I have lost two.  To lose two kids in one year has not only been shocking, but it has been a challenging learning experience as well.  I have been reminded how fragile life is, and it has encouraged me to be even more open and available to my current students.  The students I lost, “OC” and David, were no longer in my classes; one had graduated and one had moved schools, and I don’t know if that makes the circumstances easier or more difficult.  I do know that students don’t really understand what it means to be a teacher’s “kid”.  I’m not a mother but I consider all of my students “my kids” and that to some degree, they will always be my kid.  As a teacher, I spend more time with them during the school year than they do with some of their friends or family, and actually get to know them.   I worry about how they’re doing in other classes and whether or not they know they’re capable of so much more than what high school will ever show them.  I give them silly stickers and smile at them in the halls.  I try to go to their games (at least one per sport!), concerts, and club events.  I know if they’re having a bad day or good day, what they like or don’t like, and more often than not, what they want to do in the future.  When it comes down to it, I guess you could say my students are my teacher heart.

This past October was the first time a piece of that heart broke.  I got the sad news that Collins “OC” Chima, had passed away in his sleep.  OC was only 18 and had just graduated a few months before in June.  He was studying to be a doctor and all signs pointed toward his success.  My memories of OC involve his rowdy, end-of-the-day class, and the laughter he often caused.  He was always in a good mood and always respectful to me.  The day of his funeral did not match his spirit; it was rainy and cold.  But a speech by one of his best friends, Derek, brightened the mood.  The eulogy he wrote was beautiful and filled with both love and humor.  Derek was another former student of mine and I had never been more proud of him than in that moment.  He did one of the hardest things in life; he said goodbye to a friend and promised to keep moving on with his own life.  He reminded me what it is to be strong even when you feel weak, and what it means to have hope even when you hurt.  I left the reception knowing that while OC is gone, his family and friends will carry his memory and love for years to come.

When I got back to school that following Monday, without being too emotional, I was very honest with my kids about what I was feeling.  I told them how much it meant to me for them to know that life is short and unpredictable, and that for whatever reason, we’re in each other’s lives and that we have to use our time to work together in a positive way.  They seemed to agree.  My teacher heart began to heal.

A few months later in February of this year, exactly one month ago today, my other former student, David “Pronto” Joseph, died.  David once told me that he called himself “Pronto” because of how fast he was on the football field.  I went to a couple of his games and he definitely had talent.  In class, David was a bit of a class clown but knew when it was time to work.

The circumstances surrounding David’s death are much different than OC’s. When David died, I actually tried to start this blog post about a hundred different times because I couldn’t wrap my mind around what happened, and I find writing therapeutic.  You see, when OC died, I had a general understanding of what happened and felt like his death was an unfortunate part of his life.  I honestly didn’t feel the need to write about it because I talked about it at length with other teachers and friends, and felt some sense of closure at his funeral and at the memorial service we held over the holidays.  What’s glaringly different is that David didn’t die in his sleep or even in a tragic car accident; David Joseph was shot and killed by an Austin police officer.

I wrote my first draft of this post on February 12th, 4 days after David was killed, and I understand now that the 12th was still too soon for me; I was only beginning to process what happened and how my students–specifically David’s friends-would be impacted. I found out David died the way so many others were informed: through social media posts and through the official police conference that was held on Tuesday, February 9th, a full day after the fact.  When the conference ended, I realized that I actually had heard about the shooting late Monday evening, and the headline “Police Shoot Naked Man” flashed through my head.  I remember listening to the story and thinking it was yet another questionable police shooting, and wondering why anyone would shoot a naked person since they’re obviously unarmed.  I did not think twice that I could possibly know the “man” that was killed.  I did not think twice that it would be one of my former students since the news kept saying “man”.  David Joseph was a 17 year old boy; he was a naked, unarmed, 17 year old boy that was shot and killed by an adult with a weapon.  

I watched the police conference at school during lunch and I immediately had so many unanswerable questions.  More than anything, though, I was angry and my teacher heart started to break, not just for David and his family, but for my other kids; the ones I knew were still close with David even though he had transferred schools the previous year.  I wanted to know if they were okay and even had other teachers track them down for me since most of them are seniors and not in my class anymore.  One by one, those kids showed up and one by one they all had the same look of sadness: they knew their friend was gone and they knew how he had been killed.  My teacher heart slowly shattered.

After school that evening, I attended an emergency community meeting that was called in response to the shooting. I had no idea what to expect but felt like I had to go find out what they planned to do for David and to see if anyone could make sense of what was happening.  I was told about the meeting about an hour after it started but decided to go anyway.  When I arrived, everyone was working in small groups, but I didn’t know what the groups were for.  I could tell the meeting was coming to a close and listened as one of the leaders solemnly recited several names.  The names were all victims of police shootings, and they were all black:  Mike.  Trayvon.  Tamir.  It was difficult to hear David’s name added to that list.  I was familiar with the stories in Ferguson and Baltimore and other national headlines, and could not believe the same issue was happening to someone I knew.  I knew that if I was having a hard time understanding what was happening, my students were probably confused, too.

I didn’t come home from the meeting until after 9PM that night, and it was the first time I had been home all day since hearing the news.  I sat on the couch and finally cried for the first time.  I cried for David.  For his family.  For his older brother, Mark, that I also had as a student.  For his friends.  For his current teachers.  Crying felt good, but it still didn’t answer any questions.  My boyfriend decided to play devil’s advocate and began to throw what if questions at me:  What if David WAS on drugs?  What if he had killed someone before the cop found him and that’s why he was running?  What if he had been at school and not on the street?  For each question, I had the same response:  it doesn’t matter; he did not deserve to be killed.  Drugs, murder, truancy or any other crime-related activity does not equate to an automatic death sentence.

At school the following day, counselors were made available for both students and teachers.  A touching moment of silence was observed during our daily announcement period, and once again, I had an open conversation with my students about what was happening.  Our school did not provide a space to have open dialogue regarding the shooting; all conversations were confined to the counselor’s office.  So, like other teachers, I allowed my students to consider issues such as police body cameras, gun laws, and even mental health to help talk their way around what happened to David.  It was both frustrating and liberating to respond with “I don’t know” to a majority of their questions.  I just kept telling them the only thing I did know was that David was loved, and that he will continue to be loved regardless of what any report or news story says.

Love for David was never more apparent than what was shown at his funeral.  Attending David’s funeral was one of the hardest things I’ve done recently and I can only imagine how hard it must have been for his family and close friends.  I hated seeing one of my kids listed as a pall bearer; they should be attending prom together instead.  It was especially difficult to hear his oldest brother, Fally, talk about how unfair it is that he has to bury his baby brother.  And it was just as hard to hear Fally’s mentor speak about David’s outgoing characteristics, and the future he could and should have had.

I saw many students at David’s funeral and told them I am available at school if they ever need me.  In the coming days, weeks, and months, more details will be revealed since the investigation has concluded, and that may or may not provide more answers.  I think there will always be unknowns and it’s something I’m helping my students to understand.  I also want them to move past the “all cops are bad” mentality and to eventually acknowledge that ultimately the officer who shot David is a human being, and human beings are flawed.

More than anything, I want my students to have hope.  I want them to have hope that people can work together to impact change, whether it’s in local police policy or national gun laws.  I want them to have hope that shooting incidents like this will stop.  I want them to have hope that other people want these things, too.  I need them to have hope.  My students’ hope is what will help heal my teacher heart, because having hope is the only certain way to move forward during a time of such uncertainty.  It’s the only way to know I haven’t lost them yet.

 

 

 

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.

 

 

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.

Why We Need House Bill 1164

The following is my testimony given to the Texas House Education Committee on March 24th:

 

I am here in support of HB 1164.  My name is Cynthia Ruiz and I teach high school English is Pflugerville ISD.  I’ve been teaching in Texas public high schools for 11 years, have my Master’s in Teaching, and at the end of this semester I’ll have a total of 18 hours of additional graduate level English.  I’d like to think I’m an expert in my teaching field, but since the implementation of the STAAR test, I’m made to feel otherwise.

 

Just within the past 3 years, I have taught over 460 students and have graded upwards of about 3000 STAAR practice essays, and this is what I’ve learned:  the English 1 & 2 Writing Test are not rigorous, they are ridiculous.

 

Assessing students’ writing ability based on a 26-lined essay is not conducive to effective writing instruction.  26 lined essays focus on form instead of content, and they seriously limit students’ ability to fully express themselves and hinder critical thinking and creativity.  There’s been a lot of talk about students being “college and career” ready, and I seriously doubt that higher-Ed English instructors, whether at community colleges or large universities, use 26-lined essays in their classrooms, so I don’t understand why high school teachers are being forced to prepare kids for a writing test that doesn’t prepare them for college level writing.

 

The writing required by STAAR is also irrelevant.  If you want to be able to hire people that know how to write, you need to let them WRITE, and the topics must be relevant in order for students to ensure student motivation.  This spring’s English 2 STAAR prompt was: “Write an essay stating your position on whether learning always has a positive effect on a person’s life.”  I would rather my students write relevant essays about how they can impact change in their community, or research a topic that is important to them.  I would love to be able to teach them how to write proper emails and cover letters.  I’m embarrassed to say my students today are no where near as familiar with MLA, APA or Chicago writing standards, the cornerstones of formidable writing, as they should be, because I have to spend so much time focusing on STAAR writing.  I feel like I should apologize to professors everywhere for how Texas has been “teaching writing” the past 3 years.

 

Further, the English 1 & 2 Writing tests do not provide valid feedback for teachers or students.  I have with me an example of a score report from the English 1 test administered this past December, and it has ONE LINE of feedback on the essay portion of the test.  It simply says what type of essay it is and what score the student received.  It does not say if the student had a strong thesis statement, enough evidence, or anything else that can be used for remediation.  In a previous testimony I mentioned that this past summer was the first time in two years that we received student essays back from the STAAR test, but even then, the essays had no editing marks or revision suggestions.  I still had to take time to figure out what mistakes my students made in their writing.  If I have to make sense of a students performance on this assessment in order to help them, why can’t I be trusted to come up with the assessment in the first place?

 

It’s a widely known fact Pearson Education hires essay scorers off of Craigslist, and it’s also come to light that scorers can grade up to 100 essays in an hour in order to meet their “quota”.  When I grade practice essays using a rubric to provide feedback for my students, it takes me 7-8 hours for about 120 essays.  I’m not a math teacher, but I find it really hard to believe over 50,000 STAAR essays are being carefully graded between April and the end of May when scores are returned to schools.

 

Why are we placing such high stakes into an exam that Pearson graders merely glance at?  Students write these essays, thinking that whoever grades it is going to look at it with as much attention as their teacher does.  I feel awful knowing that  we have been lying to our students for the past 3 years, and it is time to stop and do what’s right for our kids.

 

I am urging you to rethink the STAAR writing exams.  Please remember that you have hundreds of experts at your fingertips in classrooms across the state who are already working hard every day and do not require a multi-million dollar contract.  We are ready to show you there are more effective, less harmful, and less expensive ways to assess student writing abilities.

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”.

 

 

#ReshapeSTAAR: My Quest to Change Standardized Testing in Texas

In 2011, I made one of the hardest decisions I have ever made:  I resigned from my full time teaching position at the beginning of the spring semester.  I had made it through a very difficult fall semester with a very unsupportive administration (I had never known what people meant when they said that until I experienced it firsthand), and I had every intention of making it through the end of the school year.  However, on the first day of classes, an assistant principal came in for a walk-through observation during my morning class.  I convinced myself that our follow-up meeting would be positive, and that I would receive constructive criticism and that the spring semester would be different from the fall.  But when he asked why I “basically wasted the first seven minutes of instruction” by passing out stickers to my students, I knew I was done and my decision to resign was solidified.

I had established a tradition of passing out stickers at the beginning of every month to celebrate a fresh beginning.  It’s inexpensive but highly effective.  By December, students who sometimes refuse to do their work are often the first to ask if I have a new sticker for them.  I love when former students stop by just to say “Happy March!” or ask for a sticker.  I will always believe that building teacher-student relationships should be emphasized before focusing on learning or language objectives, state standards, TEKS, or whatever your state calls them.  And I certainly have never believed nor will ever believe that focus should be placed on standardized testing.

After my resignation, I did not accept another full time teaching position until the fall of 2012.  I was extremely excited to start over after having just completed my Master’s in Teaching.  I knew what kind of classroom culture I wanted to create and knew the Title 1 school I was hired at would provide a daily challenge.  Unfortunately, I was still not adequately prepared for the beast that was (is) the STAAR test that year.  I had 187 10th grade students on my roster, and the two other teachers on my team had about 150 each.  We were charged with preparing our students for a test that we had only field test questions and data to rely on for study materials.  This was also the year that the “15 Tests to Graduate Rule” was being enforced.  I could not understand how the State Legislature had allowed something like that to pass as law.  I, along with thousands of angry parents, teachers, and students, marched at the Texas Capitol during Spring Break and demanded change.  The “STAAR Wars” had started.  I called and emailed State Representatives.  My students wrote letters to both Dan Patrick and Kirk Watson, and explained what standardized testing was doing to their educational experience.  Our scores were dismal to the say the least, but I assured my students it did not reflect what they were capable of doing or learning.

That summer, we experienced a small victory.  By an overwhelming vote, both the House and Senate agreed to decrease the number of tests to graduate from 15 to 5.  Not a perfect solution by any means, but still, progress had been made and it was inspiring to know that more change could happen if teachers, students, and parents kept fighting.

In the spring of 2014, the Senate Education Committee convened to discuss the STAAR test.  I took an entire day off of school and sat through almost 6 hours of testimony from the TEA, ATPE, TAMSA and other education stake holders.  I remember reeling in my seat when Dr. Cloudt of TEA insinuated that teachers needed to “change their instruction for the STAAR test”.  Sound educational research has always proven that teaching to a test will only result in students being able to pass the test, but will not result in real learning.  I stayed to testify and let them know that thousands of students in Texas were being required to test and retest for hours without success, and that the test was an unfair graduation requirement.  I was hoping for changes to be implemented for the upcoming school year but nothing happened.

This past fall, in October of 2014, I took another afternoon off from school and testified before the House Education Committee. I only testified because of what I have witnessed for almost the past three years; the class of 2015 has taken the brunt of the STAAR test madness and the madness must stop.  I did not ask for the STAAR test to be eliminated; I only asked that changes be made specifically to the English 2 STAAR test, and that this particular test not be counted as a graduation requirement. In my testimony, I mentioned watching seniors attend weekly interventions and have their senior year pretty much ruined by the STAAR test.  I also mentioned having multiple conversations with students about how they would drop out if they did not pass the retest in December.

Well, it is now January and we have received the official retest results.  Of the 99 seniors that took the English 1 & 2 STAAR tests in December, only 12 of them did not pass one or more of those tests.  While that is incredibly happy news for our campus, it still made me extremely frustrated.  Of those 12, I know at least 2 that passed the English 2 test but NOT the English 1 test.  So now they have to retake the English 1 test again (some of them for the 8th or 9th time!!!) in the spring and hope that they get the results in time for graduation.  And for what??  To show that they can pass a test that is actually very, very similar to the other test that they took 3-5 times and FINALLY passed in December??  Imagine being one of the students that failed when so many of your friends that were in your intervention group passed, and are now making plans for cap and gown purchases and graduation announcements.  It’s pretty sad that we had to have counselors on hand to deliver the news to the students that did not pass.  It gives just a small glimpse of the emotional damage this test has created for the past three years.

On a side note, if we’re being completely honest, can we truly say that having so many students pass a RETEST (most for a 3rd or 4th time) is a success? These particular students were required to enroll in a class whose sole intention was to prepare them for the STAAR retest.  Daily, I felt sorry for the teacher because the kids HATED the class even though they knew it was for their benefit.  They also had to attend weekly intervention meetings for a total of an hour every week.  Yes, they finally received the direct instruction they needed to help them pass the test, but what did they really, really learn?

I am hoping that when the Texas Legislature reconvenes next week that changes to the STAAR test is one of its primary focuses.  I also hope to see more teachers standing up for their students and testifying either in person or by letter.  I have testified by way of letter or personal appearance 3 times and have never received any negative repercussions.  If anything, I have received support and encouragement.  If a teacher works in a district that discourages their support of what is best for students, I would encourage that teacher to find another district.  As I said in my testimony, changing graduation requirements is not about lowering standards, it’s about doing what’s right for our students, and the STAAR test(s) is NOT right for students.

Video links to my testimony on 10/8/14:

Google Doc of my testimony on 10/8/14: http://goo.gl/VzlbTC