Thursday, June 23, 2011

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.

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