Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Open Season

Ah, spring is in the air, the cars are covered in pollen, teenagers everywhere are rediscovering the importance of deodorant and it's time to start TESTING SEASON!  So begins the annual spring ritual of the American public school in which, right at the exact moment when children begin to stare longingly out the window and think of summer we plunk them down in front of a three-hour-high-stakes-paper-and-pencil nightmare and say "Good luck kid!  Show us what you've learned!"

Now, I understand that tests are an important part of any educational system, and that assessments are necessary to drive instruction, to measure student progress, and to determine if kids are learning what we are meant to be teaching them.  I get it.  As an educator who never knew what it was like to teach in the world before No Child Left Untested - I mean "Behind" - I totally understand.  We have to do it.  Not just because someone else says we have to do it.  It's good practice, in principle at least, to use assessment to meaningful purposes.  My primary beef with our current species of assessment has very little to do with principles and a great deal to do with the practical facts of the case: many of the assessments themselves are poorly designed, and the data that comes back is lacking critical information regarding what kids have an have not learned.  We pour our kids into a can of alphabet soup - MSA, HSA, STARR, AP, IB, SAT, ACT, PSAT and the most ironically named standardized test on the planet, the Virginia SOL - and what we get in return is...very little.

What's worse is this: the pressure to push numbers causes everyone, teachers, administrators, parents, and kids to do exactly that, to push numbers.  Which would be great if it were our job.  But it's not.  Our job is to actually educate children.  And not just to educate them to sit a three hour exam.  Our job is to educate children to respond the the ever-growing challenges of an increasingly complex world that requires critical and analytical thought if one is to remain socially and economically relevant. 

As the preponderance of sentence fragments in the preceding paragraph might indicate, I get a little fired up about this.  Here's why: testing does weird things to our brains.  Let me explain.  Several years ago, in the run up to state exams, I had perhaps the most vivid nightmare that I have ever had.  Period.  I had a tough class that year.  In my group of 30 tenth graders, five kids had been arrested for various offenses before spring break.  Almost half of the students had diagnosed learning disabilities and the average kid was reading on a sixth grade level.  So I was in full on prep mode from day one.  I thought it was our only chance of getting them to pass.  To push the numbers just a little bit.  Enough to make AYP anyhow.

My class of misfits was doing alright until about two weeks before the test when they collectively seemed to lose their damn minds.  On the Sunday night before testing week, I drifted off to sleep doing some reading for my own coursework and suddenly I was in my classroom.  I found myself facing the usual suspects of my previous five years of teaching.  Every kid I had ever taught with a tragic life history, all of the kids who were so ADD that they couldn't remain seated for 45 minutes, every gang member, everyone who had ever been suspended, hospitalized, expelled or arrested was there.  It was like Dangerous Minds on meth.  That was when the fire alarm went off.

I collected up my things, grabbed my sunglasses and rosters and said something like "Alright folks.  Let's head outside. C'mon now."

But they didn't move.  They just sat there, being themselves, refusing to move.  That's when I started to raise my voice.  Somehow, even before I could smell the smoke in my nostrils, I knew that it wasn't a drill.  I knew that it was a real emergency.  After much screaming, threatening and wheedling on my part, a few of them started to drift out.  The boys, that is.  Finally, after what seemed like decades, I was left facing only a small group of girls, ranging in age from 14 to 17.  I could feel the room warming up, see the smoke getting thicker, hear the sirens wailing away in the parking lot.  Just when I thought about physically dragging them all from the building, they all simultaneously stood up like some kind of cheer squad: in unison, and turned 90 degrees to the right.

They were all pregnant.

This feeling of overwhelming terror came over me and I remember thinking "Oh my God.  They're doomed.  Not only are they doomed for this generation, but for the next generation as well.  Because of me.  We are all deeply, deeply screwed."  Not to rely on a narrative cliche, but that is when I woke up in a cold sweat. 

This is what testing does to us as teachers.  It drives us to the very edge of reason and, because of the fact that many of our jobs now rest on our ability to make numbers move, we attach so much importance to that one three-hour exam that we forget about how little control we have over the myriad factors that determine how kids do on these tests.  We are trying so hard to do everything, to solve every problem, to cure every ill, that to do just the best we can with the time we have seems like a colossal failure.

I am a strong believer in the fact that all teachers should watch The Wire.  It won't make you feel any better about the job - it will probably make you feel worse - but it will at least give you some context to smile wryly when things get so insane that you think you must be living in some kind of bad teaching movie that is being filmed in real time so that at any moment some director is going to pop out and say "Great!  I feel like we have covered the hardship portion of the movie, let's move on the the 'innovative teaching method that inspires these hard-nosed kids to love you and succeed in life' part!"

Season four of The Wire is set in the Baltimore City Public Schools, and in one memorable scene one of the characters' little brothers, his backpack too large for him, is shuffling home with his older brother from school.  The older brother asks what is going on in school, and the younger one says "MSA prep.  Teacher say if we don't do good someone gonna get fired." It's heartbreakingly perfect in that the kid realizes that the numbers are all that matters.

Right before testing season, one of the first year teachers, who is also a former police officer named Prez "can't believe the pointlessness of teaching test questions and wonders how it will ever assess what the kids are learning. Grace [another teacher at the school] explains they're not really assessing the kids - if the scores go up the administrators can say that the schools are improving. Prez realizes he's been here before: they're 'juking' the stats, just like in the police department. 'Making robberies into larcenies.  Making rapes disappear.  You juke the stats and majors become colonels.'"

Couldn't have said it better myself.

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