Sunday, April 24, 2016

Thoughts on Testing

Over the last couple of weeks, my students took the new state test, a test only in its second year of implementation and which the state is considering getting rid of already. The M-STEP is a test I am not allowed to see, but it is administered with the goal of measuring the effectiveness of my teaching and the effectiveness of my school district. I tried my best to predict what kinds of questions they might ask my students. I tried to clarify the various terms that might be used for a single concept so that students wouldn't miss a question because they were unfamiliar with the vocabulary of the test. I increased the amount of informational reading in my classroom and have had students writing in response to nonfiction articles on a regular basis. These are all things I've done in addition to the reading and writing workshop approach I've worked to implement for years.

But I still can't tell you with certainty that my students will be successful on the state test. 

About 19 years ago, I went to work for a small Michigan school district where I was to administer the old state assessment for the second time in my career (I had taught in another district the year before to cover for a teacher who had taken a leave of absence).  Only 45% of my students had passed the state assessment the year before I arrived at my new school district. After having been in my reading and writing workshop for the school year, 80% of my students passed the state assessment. I considered this significant progress and felt certain that not only was the test fairly closely aligned with my teaching, but that I had successfully created a classroom climate in which students felt confident in their literacy skills and had tried their best when the state test came around. I did not teach to the test. I was and am still passionately opposed to doing that.

In the 19 years since I administered that state assessment so early in my teaching career, I have worked diligently and conscientiously to improve my classroom instruction. I've been selected as a Fulbright Memorial Fund Scholar. I've completed 30 graduate hours above my masters degree in education. I've participated in the National Writing Project Summer Invitational. I've presented research at a national convention for the National Council of Teachers of English. I've provided professional development in the teaching of reading and writing to teachers from numerous school districts from multiple Michigan counties. Every year I read multiple professional books in order to increase my understanding of student learning. I've spent thousands of dollars out of my own pocket towards professional learning experiences, and I have implemented new strategies from my professional reading and professional development every year to try to improve my classroom instruction.

And yet, when you look at my students' test scores, it appears that not only have I not grown as a professional, I have gotten significantly worse as a teacher. Does that make any sense?

I feel a great sense of failure. The idea that in order to appear to be an effective teacher, I really must teach directly to the test has been weighing heavily on me this past week. But in order to truly be an effective teacher, I can't allow myself to do this. That isn't authentic teaching, and it doesn't take into account the real needs of the human beings I work with every day.

I'm tired of reading published resignation letters from burned out teachers across the country, but I can relate to their frustration and feelings of inadequacy and defeat.  Even so, I'm not going anywhere. As hard as it is to feel like I'm drowning in the failure of the educational policies of the state and federal government, the kids I work with are human beings, not data points, and they are worth my continued efforts to grow as a teacher.

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