Sunday, May 8, 2011

Pardon the Interruption...This is a TEST

Last night I couldn't sleep. I kept going over the calendar I had been working on all evening. You know the one? - an overview of what I am going to teach in May. A plan for the prescribed curriculum, art projects, field trips, spring celebrations, and yes...testing. This is what has me lying awake at night. There just isn't time for everything and since the testing can't go...what to give up?

Let me explain our May test schedule. Oh, and before I do, did I mention I teach FIRST GRADE?

This coming week I must complete all our end of year benchmark assessments for DIBELS, TRC and BURST. These are all done one on one. So, let's see, DIBELS - a series of 3 one minute oral reading fluency tests, and a nonsense word assessment - total time with instructions, transitions and all, about 10 minutes per student. TRC - this one is tricky, because the better a student reads, the longer it can take. It starts with reading one book, and perhaps book after book, until you determine the student's instructional level (90 - 95% accuracy + comprehension). This test is untimed so the slower a student reads or the higher the reading level, the more time it takes. The last benchmark test I gave took anywhere from 5 minutes per student to 40 minutes PLUS transition time. Finally BURST - measures vocabulary, decoding and comprehension- about 10 minutes per student. My modest estimate is a minimum of 20 - 30 minutes per student.

This testing is done during class, so while I am spending 10 hours plus assessing my students one by one, guess what I am NOT doing. That's right, teaching! And the rest of the class has to be monitored and kept engaged in an activity while I test. This year my class is relatively small, but I keep thinking about the fall when we have been promised class sizes of 37 for first grade. How in the world can this be accomplished?

As soon as we finish these end of year assessments, we move right on to Quarter 4 assessments for reading and math. These assessments are fill in the bubble tests the entire class takes at the same time, so they are not as time consuming. While the math test is fairly appropriate and measures what we have been learning during the year, administering the reading test is one of the most painful things I have had to endure in my 22 years of teaching.

What is the purpose of all these tests you might wonder? I mean, why so many? In a perfect world, tests should be used to inform instruction. That is, let the teacher know what skills students have mastered and where more instruction is needed. Assessment should be for determining "next steps". I did say perfect world, didn't I? I'm not naive enough to think the world is perfect so let's move on to the next purpose, the one that is all the buzz in education news and politics. That purpose is accountability. That's right, make sure teachers are doing their jobs and that students are doing theirs. Let me set the record straight; I have no problem with accountability. In fact, I have often asked to be observed and critiqued so that I can improve. I welcome anyone to come sit in my class, observe me teach, or speak to my students. Are you listening Mr. Duncan? You are welcome in Room 3 ANY time, no notice necessary.

There are yet other purposes floating around lately. The first is to connect student performance on these assessments to teacher evaluations. And finally, a proposal by our new governor would link school funding to student performance. On the surface it's hard to argue with either of these. After all, if teachers are teaching, then students are learning, right? I wish it were this simple. That takes me back to the dreadfully painful quarterly reading assessment.

For the first ten weeks in the fall I work endlessly to encourage my students to read, to convince them they are readers even if they can't write their name and there are plenty of those. Kindergarten is not mandatory in Michigan and many first graders are entering school for the first time. Even those who were in kindergarten may be considerably behind grade level. Because I believe that attitude matters, that's where I start. By the end of the first marking period, everyone believes he is a reader. Yay! Then I pass out the test.

First grade does not take the Q1 assessment, we start at Q2. This is supposed to give us a baseline for each student so we can mark progress throughout the year. The problem is, this assessment is 4 stories, comprised of several unspaced paragraphs taking up to two full pages of space each. Then come the accompanying questions - some multiple choice, some constructed response questions with two and three step directions. Students must read stories, questions and answers all on their own. And write their own responses, no help given. The readability level is end of first grade/beginning of second. Again, on the surface this sounds reasonable.

Let's remember the stated purpose of this test is to measure student growth. In order to show growth, you must use an instrument that shows where the student begins. Remember those first graders who are just learning to write their name when they begin the year? What does this measure for them? All it tells me is that they can't read at end of year standards yet. Thanks, I already knew that. What it doesn't tell me is which letters or letter sounds they can already identify, phonemic awareness (rhyming, alliteration) concepts of print, sight word recognition, vocabulary...the list goes on.

Then comes Q3 and what do I learn? What? That child who couldn't write his name in September still can't read? But, how many letters does he know now, which sounds can he get the point. According to Q3, there has been NO growth. Same for Q4 - still can't read those four stories, questions and answer choices? Is it correct to say this child has shown no growth? Absolutely not. In fact, some students could show up to a year and a half's worth of growth and it would not be measured on this assessment. So I have failed as a teacher, he has failed as a student and the school should be penalized. Right?

Let me introduce you to Bob. Bob could read at grade level when we assessed with Q2. In fact, using the measures in our core reading program, he was slightly above average. Bob knew he could read. His teacher had convinced him he could read. His parents had told him how proud they were of his reading ability. Robert was an able, confident reader and had a positive attitude towards reading. He opened that test booklet and began to read. Alas, it was written to end of year standards. He tried and he tried, but in the end, he put his head down and cried inconsolably for the next hour. After lots of soft words, gentle hugs and assurances that the test wasn't important, not to worry, I wiped his tears and sent the class to lunch. Then I closed my door, put my head on my desk and cried along with him.


  1. The state of public schools is abysmal. These tests are racist, sexist, and completely ill-informed. Thank you for bringing people's attention to this issue. I can only cry with you and wish you the best of luck.

  2. I'm having a similar experience at a small HS in the Bronx as a teacher of ELLs. Thanks for writing this. I will spread it widely.

  3. Hi! I found you through Twitter, someone tweeted you : )
    I've done IEP meetings, been told by Neuropsychologists the "limitations" of my child's abilities and all the stories for 11 years. We are also blessed to be in a very progressive school, that keeps these tests in perspective. They say, "This is snapshot, only one small image of where a child is on one particular day in all of life. They are not accurate, some kids are tired, unused to how the tests read and many kids don't like taking tests in the first place. These are no reflection on your child's ability as a learner." You know where I'm coming from on that front.
    For me, here's the deal: every kid is a genius, we are all geniuses in our own right. Luckily, we have a support system that agrees: standardized tests are crap, useless and discouraging. To encourage genius, you give tools, not tests. My child has passed all the benchmarks, is on "grade level" and doing great. We listened to Seth Godin's LINCHPIN on audio in the car (get it if you can), he talks about the failed education system (and more). My little genius asked, "What is school and homework for, anyway?" I said, "School is for picking up the tools you need to build your dreams. You can't fail school, you can only ignore your passion. Grades are for systems, you are for living your vision." Some parents want great grades, that's out of our hands. We can give kids care, encouragement and tell them they are amazing in the own right - no matter what. You can't object to care, they can't fail you for being authentic. STAR GIRL is another book that is good.
    Best to you and thank you for BEING a teacher - that's huge - you're incredible.