Teaching and Testing
I have tested and been tested. Last week was final exam week for the first semester, and I tested over 100 students in four different subjects. Some of the exams were specific to my students, meaning I wrote the exams. Other exams were taken by all students taking that class, with some modifications for level of ability. One test, the English 9 Assessment, was given to all ninth graders in our county. It’s that last one that troubles me. You could say I’m “testy” about it.
This assessment is a “benchmark” exam, designed to monitor the progress of our students as they move towards taking the state-mandated high school assessment in English 10. They must take and pass that exam in order to graduate from high school, along with Biology, Government, and Algebra. It’s a policy of one size test to fit all size students. I think it’s the way it is in most school districts now.
I gave the test to my English 9 special education students, the same test the honors classes took. I prepared the test on the computer system for the students who can’t read. Of course, the day of the exam, the system didn’t work and I read the exam aloud to two students. I read it to them, but I couldn’t explain it or help with answers, of course. Reading the exams to the two students meant I could closely watch their effort. I could see what confused them, which words they asked me to repeat, and which answers they put down first and then erased. I could see the pressure in their eyes and the tension in their hands. I could see how hard they worked. None of my students did well on the test, but most tried very hard. They have to keep trying, because they must pass it next year in order to earn a diploma. I’m afraid for them. It’s not just that they can’t read, but that they struggle with in-depth comprehension and analysis. I don’t know if I can teach them what they need to be successful. I’m afraid I can’t “teach to the test” well enough for them to earn a high school diploma. But I am going to try hard again this semester.
I myself have taken a lot of standardized tests. I have earned my “highly qualified” status in English, Social Studies, and Special Education through success on the Praxis exams. I passed the Social Studies content Praxis test before I entered the classroom. But I still didn’t know much specific information about World Civilization or US History – I learned the content along with the students as I began to teach it. I know teachers who have been in the classroom for several years, who are considered among the best in our school, who know the material, but have not yet passed their Praxis exams so are in danger of losing their jobs. Am I a better teacher because I am a better test taker?
Are my students poorer students because they are poor test takers?
Do we judge student success only by their scores on eight hours’ worth of exams? If you can’t pass these four exams, you can’t have a diploma. I was judged worthy of teacher status because I passed ten hours’ worth of tests. The best part is this – if I pass any other Praxis exams, I’ll be certified to teach that subject. I’ve taken five and passed, so I’m thinking about Biology, and Art. Those are subjects I like, too. Perhaps Early Childhood – that’s my previous career. I think I could even pass Algebra, definitely not Geometry. These passing scores don’t mean I could teach these subjects. Do they? How can we really measure the potential ability of a teacher?
This is the critical test for education today. Do we keep using standardized tests that measure knowledge in relation to 60 questions to judge our teachers? Do we keep testing students with unit tests and semester exams and benchmark assessments and exam-dependent diplomas? Is that how we will determine success?
Or can we consider other ways of measuring progress, and ability, and worth? For students and teachers? A lot of questions.
Sorry to test you like that.