Friday, March 23, 2012

Notes from the Testing Wars from a 4th Grade Teacher in Massachusetts

I teach fourth grade in an urban district in MA and today my students took the first part of the Reading MCAS. Two days ago they spent four hours writing their long compositions and we still have another Reading session to complete. It is one of the most stressful situations I have ever experienced.
Teachers come to school with long faces, visibly filled with anxiety. They complain of lost sleep and they fret over the days ahead. They anguish over the lack of sufficient accommodations for children with special needs and emotional issues, while also worrying about the punitive measures certain to accompany the scores. They remind each other to keep a game face on so the kids won’t see their anxiety.
Let’s look at how this process affects the kids with a snapshot from today. I greeted my class and fed them breakfast while explaining how their daily schedule would change. I signed the testing materials out of the security area and passed out sharpened number two pencils. I introduced the proctor assigned to monitor my implementation of the test. I want to scream, “Have you seen our scores? We don’t cheat!” I read my script, verbatim, inundating my students with directions and warnings not to cheat. I’m sure my students are wondering where their normally friendly teacher went.
The students then begin to read on demand, a difficult task even for adults. How many of us have found ourselves at the bottom of a page not knowing what we just read? Meanwhile, I am expected to walk up and down the rows of desks, looking at the tests to be sure the students are working in the correct portion of their booklet. However, I am not allowed to read any questions or look to see if they missed filling in any bubbles. How on earth does one look for the correct section without “seeing” the words on the page? I feel guilty hovering over the kids as they work, but I am being watched so I don’t dare sit down.
Student A raises his hand and asks me if he can underline parts of the text. With all the directions I just gave, I guess he doesn’t remember I said he could, despite all our test prep. I am impressed that he wants to underline because a few months ago he did little to no work. Sadly, I tell him I can’t answer his question. My stomach begins to feel queasy.
Student B turns a page on her test and realizes she has a lot more to do even after an hour of intense concentration. She looks up at me and mouths the words, “Can I go home?” I smile at her even though the security manual clearly says I am not to alter my facial expression in any manner. She shakes her head and looks down. My stomach is sicker by the minute.
Student C works on an open response question for a considerable amount of time, but fails to put his answer in the correct booklet. I want to point out this oversight to him because I know he will get no credit despite his beautiful effort, but I can’t.
Student D is crying softly to himself because his favorite green pencil is missing from his desk. Only a classroom teacher understands the trauma these seemingly small events cause.
Three hours later, when all the testing is done and the snacking begins, Student A asks me if I’m proud of him. Tears well up in my eyes as I put my arm on his shoulder and truthfully tell him he made me very happy with all his effort. But I am not feeling very proud of who I am at the moment.
Exactly how does any of this test reading comprehension? These tests measure listening skills, an ability to attend, and stamina. They measure what type of morning a child had, and they measure the environment in which these students live. Our school is over 90% free and reduced lunch and the majority of our kids deal with issues like hunger, violence, drug-addicted parents, jailed parents, neglect, and homelessness. Many speak broken English while others have serious learning disabilities.
These tests do nothing to measure the growth my students have shown, nor do they help them to really think. They serve only to humiliate and degrade our entire school community. My kids have difficult, tragic lives and we make their educational experience less than desirable. I find myself wondering if the students in the outlying suburbs have the same experience. While I’m sure they have their issues, somehow I doubt they suffer the same indignities my kids do.


nana joyce said...

I am a grandparents with guardianship of My 14yr old granddaughter . My beautiful child has been mine for 11yrs. She is being tutored at home because of psychiatric problem,one of which is agoraphobia , even with this the school is demanding she go to school to take the MACS test. I fear for her, I can not see why a special needs child should be forced to take a test that she is not able to pass, and would be a great risk for a sent back with could wind up have her hospitalised again.

Christina Stopka Rinnert said...

Thank you for sharing this. It made my stomach hurt reading it, but I think it is imperative that this information gets out to everyone so that people can see what this version of "education" is doing to our kids and to their teachers. I've taken my son out of public schools because they were failing him. In the three months since we've moved him home (he does an online high school) we have witnessed marked improvement in not only his class grades (from failing everything to a B+ student) but in his attitude and behavior (from angry, sulking, depressed to funny, lively conversationalist!). It's sad to me that our system is so broken and it seems like no one can or will fix it. We should stop trying to create future worker-bees and start teaching our children how to be creative and imaginative.