Thursday, May 5, 2011

This is what high-stakes testing feels like

I couldn't fall asleep last night. I did what you are not supposed to do: I kept looking at the clock--10:30, 11:30, 12:30--and thinking about how much sooner Steve Inskeep would wake me up. 6 hours of sleep. 5 hours of sleep. 4 hours of sleep. If I get up and take half of a Tylenol PM, will I be groggy in the morning? Will I have time to drink extra coffee tomorrow morning so that I can make it through the day on 5 hours? 4 hours?

I teach what my mentor has called "both ends of the spectrum" at this school. This morning, the seniors in AP Literature are taking the AP exam. Last period today, the 9th graders in the "struggling readers"* class are taking a reading assessment. In 10 days, as a sign tells me when I walk in to school, all 50 9th graders I teach will take a practice ACT test.

Since my AP class meets first today, followed by a prep, I have 3 hours free this morning. I am wandering around my classroom, flitting from one task to the next--I keep getting distracted and thrown off course. This is, I admit, my normal mode, but it is turned up several notches: I take the longest route to get from point A to point B. While teaching yesterday, I would walk to the back of the room and forget what I had gone to retrieve. In the supermarket I turned my cart 270 degrees counterclockwise instead of 90 degrees clockwise. Then at the checkout I discovered that several items were not ones I had picked. Someone put stuff in my cart by mistake! No, wait, half of my items are missing--I took someone else's cart.

I decide to clean the desks (a weekly task--teens can be smelly), and I discover that dust has collected on the countertop where my homework in- and out-boxes and supplies live. I start to actually dust the countertop, then stop myself. I really do have a lot to get done with this free time.

When I taught at a private school, I never worried about my students' performance on standardized tests. But now, only seven months into teaching at a "reformed" public school, I have already experienced the thrills and frustrations of student "data." Today I feel the familiar excitement of performance anxiety, the eagerness to be measured, that I have felt over many years of test-taking. But mine are the feelings of a high-achieving student. What do my 9th graders feel? I saw the trepidation on their faces yesterday. Will I be good enough this time to get out of this class?

At the private school, standardized tests were a chore, a capitulation to the college admissions regime. We submitted, but it was widely held that these tests couldn't really measure our students. It never even occurred to me that my students' performance might be tied to the "effectiveness" of my teaching, and thank goodness--even now I feel ten times the teacher I did then. Why, then, did my ineffectiveness as a teacher (and lack of certification) not result in low "achievement" for my students, in that notorious half-year of "growth" that builds into the achievement "gap"?

Yesterday I talked to a colleague who also teaches struggling readers. "It never goes away," she said.

We came back from spring break just ten days ago; the dread that has been with me ever since makes it feel like a month. But for the last two days my mood has been lighter. The thoughts keeping me awake last night were not nightmares of stricken students, but dreams and ideas for all that I will do with the seniors in these four glorious post-AP weeks.

*Students who scored at or below a 7th grade reading level at the beginning of the year (on a norm-referenced test) were placed in an English class whose focus was geared more toward intensive reading development, rather than literary study.

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