Didymath

Closing the Teach For America Blogging Gap
Mar 31 2013

#65: What standardized tests do not measure

The Texas House of Representatives just voted to reduce the number of end-of-credit exams required for graduation from a record 15 (five each year from freshman to junior year) to just five. The push to scale back our testing regime came from all corners of the state and enjoyed near-unanimous support from both parties. The bill, if it passes the Senate, would also create different pathways to graduation, including tracks for the humanities, STEM, and a vocationally-oriented path.

It’s interesting that Texas, whose test-based accountability model would serve as the blueprint for No Child Left Behind, would experience such a vocal backlash to its testing blitzkrieg, not to mention that it would cave to public pressure so quickly. The problems with this volume of testing are legion, but chief among them is the absolute hatchet job it would do to elective coursework.  With so many kids struggling to pass five tests every year, the amount of remediation needed on annual basis would necessarily squeeze out the classes that frankly make going to school worth it for many students.

Critics of corporate reform will typically bemoan the limited utility of standardized tests, only to hear as response “But how will you know that kids are learning anything?” How, indeed?

—–

It might come as a total shock to you, but I was editor of my school newspaper when I was a senior(1) in high school. The year prior to that, I was editor of the opinion section(2). Prior to that, I was a scrub staff writer. And as a wee freshman, I was sitting in a Journalism 1 classroom learning the basics.

If you’re keeping track, that’s four years learning to report, interview, do page layouts, edit the writing of others, meet deadlines, sell advertisements, and occasionally meet with school administration regarding the content of your paper.

On top of that, I spent two years in creative writing, the last of which I was also the prose editor of the student literary magazine. The list of competencies needed for the newspaper went double for the lit mag as well on top of needing to evaluate the creativity of others’ writing (as well as one’s own).

There is no multiple choice test that adequately assesses the skills necessary to put together a newspaper or literary magazine. The publication itself is the assessment. It’s an unquantifiable metric of success which data-driven fanatics hate. On top of that, a lot of the work for these things is extracurricular which is something only privileged kids do because they do not have an achievement gap which must be addressed at all times!

I don’t know how to put it in a chart for you. I don’t know how to say “If you invest x number of dollars into this student newspaper, you will close y number of years in the achievement gap.” I don’t know to what degree it really “works” in that sense. What I do know is how critical it is to have multiple avenues for student-led academic pursuits in order to make students care about school and care about getting better at a craft.

—–

My early high school memories were not positive ones. I was depressed and had a difficult time making meaningful friendships. I felt like an outcast at my school. I felt unattractive in large part because I was over 60 pounds heavier than I am today. I had enormous social anxieties. I was suicidal at times. I remember coming home and crying a lot. I was a smart kid, but I don’t remember feeling “successful.” In fact, sophomore year was the first time I ever got an F on my report card(3).

Therapy helped. Meds did, too. So did losing a bunch of weight over the summer. But I think finding writing as a creative and expressive outlet was equally important to keeping my depressive tendencies at arm’s length. And it was the years of practice and collaboration in these extracurricular/elective courses that fueled me to write all the time for fun and develop a voice(4). It was the crucible of many enduring friendships and lasting memories(5).

My creative writing teacher eventually became my senior English teacher. I have kept in touch with him with varying degrees of regularity for the nearly nine years since I graduated high school. This weekend, I discovered an e-mail he sent me the summer after I graduated and it was like discovering a long-lost family heirloom. In it, he told me this:

“If I have never told you before, I have never been more proud of a student than I was of you. To have known you at the beginning of your junior year and to see where you were able to go… I’ve never had a student who I liked so much be as successful and mature as I wanted him to be.
Maybe you don’t feel particularly successful, but you are.”

I mean, is it any wonder I went into college wanting to major in English and be an English teacher? Is it any wonder that I eventually became a teacher and that this is the career I have chosen as my life’s work? If I can be for my students what Mr. Goodyear was for me and countless other classmates, then I know I will have been of service to them.

—–

As an exercise, ask yourself these questions about your state’s standardized exams: Do you think the STAAR test will ever inspire a child to teach? To think creatively? To produce little chapbooks of their own writing, or to write inflammatory editorials, or to produce anything of their own and be able to judge its worthiness for public consumption? Will the STAAR reveal Mark Twain’s genius to a child for the first time? Will the STAAR teach you to be a part of a large-scale project over the course of a year, and encourage you to negotiate social relationships to ensure its successful completion? If a child is taught just enough to pass the STAAR test, are they more or less likely to read for pleasure as an adult? Are they more or less likely to read to their children in the future?

When there is such emphasis on the outcomes of these tests, I’m less interested in what they purport to measure and more so in what they don’t. What standardized tests measure is a debasement of what schools are capable of producing, in fact what they ought to produce and we ought to fight for. Had I gone to a school in constant fear of state intervention due to low-test scores, I would not have the same opportunities to really grow up, to develop an adult brain. It is the students in low-income schools that are most vulnerable to losing these opportunities because of the shortsightedness of our policymakers who believe these kinds of programs(6) to be inessential to learning the three R’s or becoming the workforce of the 21st century or whatever(7). It is why we as teachers ought to continue to push back against the utterly destructive and regressive test-based accountability regime of the last two decades.

NOTES

(1) Technically co-editor in chief. Allie would be mad if I didn’t mention that.

(2) Well, I never! Me, with opinions about stuff?

(3) In AP Computer Science. It was because I never did anything in that class but play Flash games which in 2002 could not have been that fun.

(4) Of course my English teachers made me a better writer, helped me appreciate and understand literature, helped me better understand myself and the perspective of others. I’m sure their input helped me pass the TAAS test, not that they ever stressed about it because this was pre-NCLB. That was before teachers were held accountable for student performance so, you know, they were probably doing a pretty awful job since there was no test to measure what they were doing.

(5) My most cherished high school memories probably came from the student publications trip to Washington DC, so the yearbook, newspaper, and lit mag staffs were all there. We did touristy stuff, we went to some student publications conference, we got to meet then-Justice Sandra Day O’Connor — our school’s namesake — who was totally phoning in her appearance because some of the things she was telling us was verbatim from a video clip of her and the other justices somewhere else playing the background. I remember one outing walking back to the hotel by myself when I got separated from our group and I didn’t have a cell phone at the time to tell them I was leaving and that I got there okay. When they came back, they were upset. Some friends got in some hijiinx that, as a teacher now, would cause me eternal worry or rage. We shared a lot of inside jokes due to the lack of direct adult supervision and hotel cohabitation. I don’t think I appreciated how much fun it was until years later. And I have not appreciated how much trouble that must have been for the teachers until now.

(6) You can include in this list UIL, Academic Decathlon, student publications, forensics, or any other academic pursuit that doesn’t take place with 30 kids and a teacher in a room with desks and a projector.

(7) Or at least does not consider them worth the expense because we should value efficiency above all else, after all.

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    "Brilliant, stunning analysis…" – Diane Ravitch

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