Tuesday, January 10, 2017

Changes Made

In my head, this was a short snipped for a “Things I’m Loving Friday” post, but then I started writing, and I realized that I just have far too much to say. I’m not sure why I feel so compelled to write this, except for the fact that, as an educator, and as someone who works with high school students on a daily basis, I really can’t keep quiet about these standardized tests that we are forced to administer each year.

Let me start out by saying that this post is mainly for my educator friends. So, some of you may want to stop reading right here. But for those of you who are interested in the thoughts of a relatively new teacher, read on.

There is so much that I love about teaching, but if there's one thing that kills my soul, it's teaching the STAAR. For those of you not familiar with the Texas public school system, the STAAR is a curriculum-based standardized test that every student, beginning in the third grade, takes in order to “advance to the next grade” or to be eligible to graduate high school. There are STAAR tests for math, reading, writing, science, and history, depending on the students’ grade. And before I go off about the absurdity of these standardized tests, let me state that I understand the need for them, and I also recognize that many professions require you to take and pass some sort of exam, so it's pretty important that our students are exposed to a test-taking environment. I had to take two tests to become teacher certified. If I decide to go to grad school, which I would one day like to do, I'm looking the GRE square in the face. My medical school friends studied for the beast of the MCAT, and have also taken some pretty grueling exams over the past couple of years. My friend in law school is about to sit for the BAR exam in a couple of months, and another one of my friends sat through this seven-hour CFA exam in which they weren’t even allowed to have water in the testing room. I get it. These tests are a thing. And teachers and students both need to be held accountable. Otherwise, who knows what might go down in the classroom. There have to be standards, and I have no problem with that.

Do I think it makes sense that the English 1 STAAR test, taken by 14-and-15-year-old high school freshmen, is longer than the SAT or ACT? No. Do I think these kids are over tested? Yes. Do I think the STAAR is necessarily the best way to see that our students have mastered the English 1 curriculum? Not really. In a perfect world, students could showcase something that they’re proud of. Something that they’ve been working on that combines their talents and interests with reading comprehension and writing skills. I’m not much older than many of the students that I teach, but it’s a completely different world from when I was in high school. These kids are true 21st century students, and we’ve got to cater to that. If my students could turn in some of the things they’ve produced – their Adobe Spark This I Believe Essays, or their Hero Research Projects, for example, I think these TEA people would be more than impressed. My students have some really incredible skills, and I don’t think they’re properly measured by a 26-line expository essay and multiple choice questions over some pretty inaccessible passages.

Anyway, the reason I’m going on this rant is because we received word yesterday morning, as my students were busy writing a short answer response, that there will be no short answer responses on this year's STAAR test. I told my kids to recycle the lined boxes I had just handed each one of them, as they will no longer be needed.

My first thought when I saw the email about the fact that the short answer responses have been taken off the test? Pure elation. For pretty selfish reasons, at first. See, I really don't like the short answer responses. I struggled with them when I was in high school, I don't feel as though I teach them very well, and I loathe grading them. Give me a stack of essays to grade any day of the week. My second thought was that, hey, it's January. This test should already be written, printed, and locked in a warehouse somewhere, right? My second-and-a-half thought was that, okay, it's JANUARY. This would have been nice to know in, say, August, when we were mapping out the year. We have already written quite a few short answer responses, and as I mentioned above, my students were in the process of writing one when I checked my email. Is all of that just time wasted? And honestly, I really don’t think it is. I absolutely believe that the skill of reading an article or passage or story or poem and being able to think critically about it, back up that thought with textual evidence and then analyzing or explaining it is an extremely valuable skill to have. In my opinion, that shows true understanding of a text. My problem is not with what the short answer response is asking us to do. My problem with these short answer responses is that our students were limited to a TEN-LINE box in which to complete this analysis. And if they write outside the box, forget it. The graders won’t even see it. I told my students this when I was first introducing the concept, and one students raises his hand and says, “But aren’t we always told to think outside the box?” Touché. And I don’t find ten lines to be enough room to truly think outside the box. Especially when the titles of the stories alone take up an entire line.

It’s the fact that we were asking our students to make these deep connections, but you better write small if you want your brilliant thoughts to fit inside the box. It’s the fact that if our students took a risk by not giving the “cookie cutter” answer the graders are looking for, they risk receiving a poor score.

And I understand that it’s a matter of time and money. If I let some of my kids have all the paper their hearts desired, they would write pages and pages and pages. The graders don’t have time for that. And they probably don’t want to sit through hours of recorded video about what these kids believe in. Or who these students look up to and why. They should take the time to do these things, but I get it. There’s not enough money to pay people to read and grade more than they already do. And I don’t have a solution to this, but what if the way our kids were evaluated and deemed “ready” changed?

My first year of teaching, I was absolutely terrified to open the email that said we had received that year’s STAAR scores. I knew how hard I had worked that year, and I knew how hard (most of) my students had worked, but as that was my first year, I figured this document was going to tell me how good of a job I had really done. The last thing I wanted was to feel as though I had failed my kids by not teaching them the skills they supposedly needed, and I really didn’t need to feel as though I was a worse teacher than I already thought. Though no one ever said these words to me, I felt as though my job was riding on how my kids did on this test. And that’s a horrible feeling. Because I see growth in so many of my students that may or may not shine through on this one five-hour test.

These tests are a bummer. They place so much emphasis on how a child performs on one test, on one morning (and afternoon because we’re talking about five hours, here) of the school year. It doesn't take into consideration the fact that the student may not feel well. It doesn't take into consideration that a students’ parents had a huge argument the night before, and he or she is carrying that into the test. It doesn't take into consideration a lot of factors that really could affect a child's ability to do his or her best. And the reality is, that could happen on any number of important days. But to put that much pressure on a high school freshman?

I don’t know how many of you have seen this article floating around the Interwebs – if you’re friends with any teachers on Facebook, my guess is that at least one of them probably shared it – but it hits the nail on the head. This author had two of her poems appear on the 7th and 8th grade STAAR test, and she couldn’t answer some of the questions about her OWN poems. No one consulted her when it came time to write the test questions. No one asked her why she wrote it. And we won't even talk about the fact that it wasn't what I would call the most uplifting poem (the author says so, too!) But hey, this is just the most important test you'll take, but do you really need any extra encouragement?

There are some really cool materials and applications out there, but sometimes I feel as though I have to pass them by, or say, “Maybe after the STAAR I can experiment with that,” because I feel as though I’ve got to get my kids ready to take this test. And we try and make it as fun and engaging as possible. But come on. Above all, I want my students to love learning. I want them to be curious, and I don’t want them to see reading and writing as something boring, or something that is only done while sitting at a desk. I don't want them to ever not know the joy of reading something that you want to read. I don't want them to see writing as a formula. But I can see it in my students’ faces when I hand out yet another multiple choice practice packet, or when they sit down to write yet another 26-line expository essay. And you better not think write outside the box.

No comments:

Post a Comment