Sunday, March 26, 2017

To My Students: You Are More

Tomorrow my ~120 freshmen students will shuffle to their assigned classrooms (hopefully on time, and really hopefully with a pencil) to sit down for five hours and take the English 1 STAAR (State of Texas Assessment of Academic Readiness) exam. And that makes me a little bit sick to my stomach.

First year tackling the STAAR
Not because it’s a reflection on me, and the work I have done with them in the classroom for the past seven months (though it definitely is those things), but because in a couple of months, my students will be given a score: PASS or FAIL. And many of my students will attach their worth to that score. It will supposedly confirm what they have been told about themselves as students for years: that they aren’t capable. That they aren’t smart. That they shouldn’t even bother trying in their classes because, what’s the point? They aren’t going to pass anyway. This STAAR test has told them so.

And it sounds silly, but unfortunately, it’s true. At the beginning of February, every single student in the freshman class sat for a Mock STAAR exam. And I’m so grateful that we are allowed to give that exam each year, as it allows our students to actually experience what it’s like to sit through a test of this length. It is a test of endurance, and some of them realize they lack the focus to hang on for that long. So, it’s good for them to experience it before they sit for the real thing. But getting back to my point, we gave them this mock exam, and many of my students were disappointed in how they performed. I was a little bit disappointed in how they performed, if I’m being completely honest. Some of my very top students were scoring in the 70’s range, and while that’s not necessarily bad, it was far lower than what I believed them capable.

Until my PLC sat down and analyzed the results. And the questions. And we ended up throwing out FIVE of them because even we couldn’t determine or agree on why the right answer was the right answer. FIVE questions. Out of fifty. And as we continued to look at each question, we found faults with others. Maybe the question was worded poorly, or there wasn’t really a best answer. Or the lexile level of some of the stories given was FAR above a 9th grade reading level. And it further reiterated how totally bogus I think this test is.

A Friday text from a fellow STAAR-testing teacher
This test – designed to see if high school freshmen are on a 9th grade level for reading and writing – is longer in length than the SAT. And during the SAT, there are scheduled breaks! If my students need to use the restroom, it comes out of their testing time.

I wrote my own essay - that box makes it tough!
I’ve hit on this test before, most recently in my post following the seemingly last-minute announcement of the removal of the Short Answer Response questions from the test. And as I have mentioned before, I do not hate the idea of a timed, sit-down, multiple choice and written exam. Because the reality is, no matter what path my students take following high school, each one of them will be facing some sort of entrance exam. It is important that they have experience in this type of environment. What bothers me is that this test drives so much of what we do in the classroom, when there are so many other, cooler, more relevant things we could be doing. The fact that these students are still taking the same exact type of test that I took when I was in high school is a huge problem. Because the world these kids live in today is so incredibly different than it was when I was in high school. And that was only seven years ago!

Their progress with technology has been off the charts
This test, when it comes down to it, gets my students a score dependent on how they perform in one set five-hour period. On a set date. No matter how they’re feeling. No matter what they went home to last night. No matter what fight they got into with their boyfriend or girlfriend during lunch yesterday. As silly as it may have been. No matter what’s on their minds. And while there’s something to be said about being able to put things on hold to focus on the task in front of you, we also have to remember that these kiddos are 14 and 15 years old.

Boston Bound
This quote comes from a book ultimately written about running. This book is a fantastic read, and while it talks about this particular runners’ experience in trying to qualify for the prestigious Boston Marathon, at this book’s core, it’s meant to be applicable to all aspects of life. And it is. And while gaining entry to the Boston Marathon takes months and months of disciplined, focused training, the training isn’t taken into account when applying for entry into the prestigious Boston race. Participation on Marathon Monday takes the months and months of preparation PLUS everything else working in your favor – weather, staying injury-free, good nutrition and hydration, and so on. Sure, you put in the hard work, but if one thing goes wrong on test day, that’s it. It doesn’t take away from the hard work you put in, of course, but ultimately, the results are the only thing that matters.

I sure hope that's what we're doing!
And to miss what you were working so hard for, trust me, I know, feels like it erases all of that hard work. And for many of my students, a missed performance on that set day can seemingly erase what so many of them have worked so hard for. And that kills me. Because this test measures how you perform on one day. But what this test doesn’t measure is the real problem.

To my students – You have put in months and months of hard work. Seven of them, in fact. And we will continue to work after you take the STAAR test, despite your inevitable pleas to just watch movies, because we’re done with the STAAR test and that’s all that matters. Except that it doesn’t. Okay, it does matter. But your scores on the STAAR test is not my main focus anymore. The score you guys receive on this test does not reflect the growth you have made from day one to day 133. It doesn’t reflect the digital portfolios that you guys have started. It doesn’t reflect your willingness to go along with my attempts to meet you where you’re at in terms of technology. It doesn’t reflect the discussions we have had over real world issues facing you guys and your families today. It doesn’t reflect the way you have learned to respectfully disagree with your classmates, while still holding onto your beliefs. It doesn’t reflect the way some of you have hung onto the words of the book I’m reading aloud to you, some of you for the first time in your lives. It doesn’t reflect the laughs we’ve shared in class, the cool tidbits I’ve learned about each one of you, and this test certainly doesn’t determine your worth as a student or a human being. You groan when you walk into my room and see that lined paper waiting to be picked up, and quite frankly, I don’t blame you. Because it’s one less day that we get to tackle something more important than a 26-line essay. It’s one less day that we get to feed off of one another’s thoughts and questions and have stimulating discussions. It’s one less day that we can explore all that this World Wide Web has to offer you guys. And no matter what this test holds for you tomorrow, know that you are so much more than this test. You have a teacher who could not be more proud of the work you have put in this year, and despite the fact that she doesn’t really believe in the validity of this particular test, she has all the confidence in the world in each one of you.

I don’t have the answer as to what should be used to measure whether our students are 9th, 10th, 11th, or 12th grade ready. Because I recognize that we have to have something. But perhaps that something looks different from the way it looks right now. Perhaps it focuses more on growth rather than on a score. Perhaps it focuses more on what ignites each students’ passion, rather than on a cheesy prompt asking them to define friendship.

Tomorrow, as I count my steps walking up and down the rows of students, actively monitoring, if you will, I hope that each one of my students knows that this test does not define them. That they have done work this year that has blown my expectations out of the water. And that no matter their score on this silly standardized test, I will always be proud of them. 

1 comment:

  1. I love your concern for the knowledge and skills that your students have, the passion for what goes beyond the tests, and your heart for them as people.

    I feel for you and your kids. That pressure is enormous! I can't imagine how defeating a failing grade can be to a 14-15-year-old. I work with retesting juniors and seniors and they can be discouraged. If it helps when the tests come back and any of them pleasegodno fail, most kids pass the test after a while and if worse comes to worst there is the senior project to replace the test so that they can graduate. It's hard (Carl Sagan? Poem translated from 700AD Chinese?), but it's possible. There is hope.