Thursday, June 23, 2011


As you may have guessed from the barrage of posts, the school year is over! I made it! I have a whole list of topics on which I plan to write over the next weeks, but I wrote the one about testing before this one because it's the word I want to end the school year on: joy.

One of my students asked me if I liked being a teacher, and because she's the most thoughtful 15-year-old I know I gave her the long answer, which is yes, because. I had not even had this thought before, but when the words came out of my mouth I felt as if I could not have made a truer statement: This has been, without a doubt, the best year of my adult life. 


-I love students. I love their passions and their frustrations, watching their bodies and ideas and brains grow. I even love how narrow-minded they are (most of the time), how conservative they are. I think that's one of the most fascinating things about them. I love cracking their brains.

-It is intellectually challenging in a way that motivates me and gives me energy, unlike my previous job, which was certainly intellectually challenging, but without the other part. I love turning over teaching challenges in my mind. I think about teaching in the shower, on the drive home, and when I'm walking my dog. The best lessons come about in a eureka! way--your brain approaches them from the side, when you're not looking.

-It makes me love my content more, not less. I have read more novels this year than in any other year I can remember since college. I'm grateful to grad school for making me a great reader, but teaching adds yet another layer to reading, because I have to read with two or three sets of eyes and two brains--my own brain, the brain for which these ideas and words are unfamiliar, and the brain that wants to create a bridge between the two. I actually actively look for examples of rhetoric, or figurative language, as I read. It's crazy. Plus, I have come back to the aesthetics of reading in a way that I have missed for years. I take joy in reading. Something about being around adolescents all the time puts you more in touch with your adolescent emotions. I cry more, reading, at movies, and watching TV. As I've written here before, most people think that teachers are cynical and burned out, and I certainly am both, and often. But teaching has rejuvenated me in amazing ways too.

There's this joke in education: elementary school teachers love kids, high school teachers love their content, and college teachers love themselves. I've done all three, and I think all three are true about me.

This is what high-stakes testing feels like, revisited: elation, heartbreak, embarrassment, fury, frustration

Elation: When I found out that my students' scores on the Explore (the 9th grade version of the ACT) went up across the board, I was thrilled. This, I thought, would prove that my practice produced results without drilling, without biweekly practice tests, with student choice and class time for pleasure reading, writing things other than persuasive essays, all of it.

Heartbreak: Then I found out that our school had given a test WITH THE ANSWERS IN THE BACK OF THE TEST BOOKLET. Widespread and massive gains in scores indicated that many students had availed themselves of these answers.

Embarrassment: Why was I even excited about the scores in the first place? If I believe that the scores are not an accurate measure of achievement, why do I buy in when they score well? Is it because I feel subversive? Because I feel like the strategies I use--already supported by research--are validated?

Fury: It gets worse. Much worse. Emails and letters were sent out expressing our "disappointment" in our students' "lack of integrity." Students whose scores went up 3 points or more (a significant gain) were informed that they would need to re-test two days later, on a Friday, technically a student attendance day, but in practice a day when students picked up their report cards and did not attend school. After the last day of school. After grades had been turned in. If students did not show up to re-take the test, they would not be promoted to 10th grade. Finally, they were told that we need accurate data for their own sake, so that we can plan their instruction effectively.

This is wrong for so many reasons. First, to impugn our students' integrity when we made the temptation to cheat and the stakes for cheating so great that cheating outweighed doing the "right" thing. As most teachers know, cheating is usually evidence that students have been given a task for which they are unprepared. And then to question our students' integrity as if we are the authorities on integrity, we who do all kinds of things to "massage" our numbers. Second, to hold students' promotions hostage in exchange for a test that has no codified effect on, and bears little relation to, their qualifications for promotion. Third, to present this to students who did well as if they are guilty until proven innocent, and to threaten then with punishment if the scores they earn after the end of the school year do not match their earlier scores. Last, to tell them that this is for their own good is the worst of all, because I can't find a way to construe it that isn't a lie. Their scores will not determine placements for next year (those decisions have already been made); they will take another practice ACT in September to serve as a new baseline. Their gains are only being used to demonstrate the success of the school. The school actually calls EPAS scores "the gain that matters."

Frustration: My students came to me to pick up their report cards after the test, obviously frustrated at the sour end to their school year. I can't tell them that I agree with them, and that I think it's bull shit, that the whole testing regime is the foul, stinking river of shit that they must swim across just because they don't have money and are trying to get somewhere in their lives. After all, I am their Chiron, their guide; I wish that I could say that my classroom is a raft, or at least that I pass out life vests at the shore. But jobs are at stake. Reputations are at stake. I'm neck-deep in it too.

The Article That Everyone Interested in School Reform Should Read

Brilliant and sensible.