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Teaching and Testing

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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.

9 Comments

As the parent of a high school student with Prader-Willi, I am right there with you. My son is very anxious about the courses he is taking right now and the tests he is beign given. He is also highly concerned about the emphasis being placed on these tests, and the stress he sees being put on his teachers for him to do well on these tests.

When he was in elementary school, there were schools in our district that would not accept him because they knew having him in their school would lower their test scores and that would eliminate them from receiving the money that would come from having those high test scores. That's the plain truth of it. So, he was labeled a monster and kicked around from school to school, finally kicked out of school when he was only 9 with no where to go. I knew it was illegal what they had done to him, but I had no recourse, the school district was king, and my son spent most of that year out of school because the district said they had no school that would accept him.

Finally I moved out of that school district to another part of the state to a more enlightened area and my son is back in school and learning. However, the anxiety of the high stakes testing game brought to us by President Reagan still lives on and our children and teachers are paying the price.

I have to ask myself if real learning is taking place, are critical thinking skills being taught instead of rote memorization and mechanical git er done type abilities being reinforced in today's classrooms?

I remain optimistic that teahcing is a calling for the very good hearted and that our children are in very good hands! Teachers are a rare breed and are, for the most part, Angels who walk among us!

In my mind, standardized testing only shows the economic status of the area where the school is located. My elementary school happens to be in a very low SES/high immigrant area, and most children enter school not speaking English. By second grade, they are tested for the high stakes state test in... English. Our teachers know how far these children have come in their learning, but the official test results do not show that. We are on the "improvement " list, meaning that this year is a make-or-break year for the school. Low scores= closure.

I was the teacher assistant who ran the test modification program at my school before I became a teacher. I had to sit with special ed students and watch them suffer through their yearly tests: finals, assessments, state, local, district-wide. I felt helpless seeing good kids crash and struggle with the tests and all the pre-test studying and prep that went along them. Now that I'm teaching, my subject (Family and Consumer Studies) doesn't require assessments (yet) but I see the aftermath of testing days and how exhausted and mindless the students are when they arrive at my class at the end of those days.
In 9 years, I have seen great students do horribly on state assessments and poor students guess their way to good scores. I agree that there has to be a better way to check for learning and being world ready for kids.

Ms. Denney:

I saw your piece on Susan Ohanian's incredible website and was absolutely floored by your astute and courageous remarks. I am in Anne Arundel County too and would very much like to talk to you. Please ask Susan to forward me your e-mail address.

Annie

Very interesting post. I work in K-12 education and am very interested in the arena of learning. Your post points out many issues, but doesn't suggest any solutions. I personally feel that there are many other measures we can use to measure student performance. For instance, why aren't we using a performance growth model where students have individual starting points and baselines for assessing progress? Have you considered potential alternatives that could provide a truer picture of student growth? I am always willing to work wth educators to devise such alternatives and give them the publicity they need to be considered. Let me know if I can help

Another thing that is frustrating is the inability to measure the effect that social factors in combination with socio-economic factors has on the achievement process. These factors are the hidden indicators that we must incorporate into the evaluation process.

I personally think that all of those things can be overcome (there are individual success stories) in time with the right approach, but agree that the current measure of AYP is a limited indicator that is forcing education to put focus on some areas that truly do not benefit the student.

Additionally, your Special Ed Students should be taking an alternative exam. Does your state or district not have provisions for that?

Thanks!

Casey Adams

I feel your pain. I have no pacing guide, and I teach 2 90 minute blocks of 7th grade English, and an alternating 90 minute block of US History and Science for 8th graders. All of my students have state tests (7th - Reading and Writing, 8th Science and History). Many of my students read below grade level so their access to what I teach is limited. Then on top of this I have lunch duty one day a week and an hour and a half of before and after school duty one day a week. No one seems to be looking at the workload on teachers, including the teacher organizations that are supposed to be our advocates.

Hang in there. I do it for the small victories daily.

I,too, am a mid-life career changer. I am currently teaching Biology, General Science, Anatomy and Environmental Science. This is my first year of teaching and I love it. However, I am swamped by all the time I need to prep for four different subjects, grade papers, keep up with the grades in our computer system, take my turn with detention duty, hall duty, etc. I am working on a provisional license because my original license is from another state. It was easier to update my credentials from that state (I earned my degree in Health education and Biology in 1979 but never taught - worked in health care instead) and now I'm jumping the hoops to certify in this state. I did not get much encouragement from this state when I began my quest 4 years ago so I put it off feeling there was no way someone with over 20 years experience in healthcare could be allowed to teach Biology! I was finally helped by someone from the university I'm taking graduate classes from and I am, hoepfully, heading in the right direction. It has been a frustrating few years. I totally agree that teaching with too rigid of a timetable takes the joy out of teaching and learning. Our students are not computers to have data entered in order for them to "spit it back out" when they take a test. In the 70's I basically memorized for the test. I received excellent grades but I did not learn how to "connect the dots" I had no real concept of "why". It is so encouraging to me when I see that lightbulb go on in their eyes that tells me "I understand" I'm not sure we can always rush this. I am told that it takes up to three years for a new teacher to feel comfortable with what he/she is teaching. I'm going to keep on teaching because I enjoy the students and the challenge. I just hope I'm judged "competent enough" by those that have not "walked in the shoes of a teacher".
Barb Decker

Please make the argument for me why teachers (and I'm only concerned on the 7-12 level) should not have to prove themselves on any subject matter test. Don't get me wrong, I lead the fight on the class-action lawsuit regarding the PLT from ETS being a rubbish test, 4100 false failures 36,000 inaccurate scores, and in the end ETS did not have to show how they arbitarily grade the exams. But subject matter tests for teachers I do not have problem with. I do not believe they should be unregulated in the hands of such a dodgy organization as ETS, but I have an open mind to your arguments. I notice you also have taken a great number of the Praxis Subject tests. The tests are rather basic, why not require teachers to prove themselves in this area. Too many teachers have bogus degrees in education, not in a serious academic subject.

I am a student in college, in my third year of the Education program and hopefully will be out and "highly qualified" to teach Language Arts and Social Studies to middle childhood students. I am actually looking for an article to do a presentation on for my Assessment class, and I came across your article and found it very interesting.
I have always been an excellent student. I'm a great reader and I love English. I did a little poorly in the math and science parts of school, but I survived on the honor roll all throughout high school. When I took the ACT, however, I was extremely shocked to see that I only received a 23.
As I said before, I am now in my third year of college. I am still a decent student, and I have about a 3.2 overall GPA, which is pretty good for attending a small private college. I love teaching and I am in my methods fields, loving every second of watching students learn.
When I took my Praxis 1, I failed the math section. I FAILED praxis 1. How could that be? I was devastated. In fact, I was so upset that I failed a teaching test, the area that I've always felt I was best at, that I wanted to quit.
If a 21 year old college student considers quitting her beloved teaching career simply because she feels inadequate for failing a test, think about those students who do poorly on tests that they studied hard for-just because they are poor test takers.

Sometimes the greatest students just simply do not do well on tests.

I loved your article. Thanks for allowing me to share.

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