The Promise and Hope of Our Students

I haven’t had much of a chance yet this semester to sit down and talk about the two classes I’m taking in this last spring semester of my masters education (just one or two classes this summer and I’ll be done!). I think it’s time to remedy that.

This semester I’m taking another professional seminar class that is split into three mini-courses taught by three different professors, just like the one I took last semester. This time, the three topics are Best Practices, Leadership, and Social Justice, but I’m going to focus on Social Justice here.

These past five weeks have been incredibly thought-provoking. To be completely honest, when I first saw the amount of work required each week in this course, I texted my co-workers and asked for preemptive forgiveness for my actions as I worked my way through all of the reading, discussion posts, and topic papers. But as soon as I got into the content of the first week, I knew this was going to be a good experience. (Which brings up an interesting teaching concept – more/harder work doesn’t feel like more/harder work when it feels meaningful.)

We discussed some difficult topics that really highlighted a lot of the current issues in education, from race to SES to labeling of students and teacher expectations. Of course, in the first week, the United States Secretary of Education, Betsy DeVos, made an appearance in the form of a prepared speech in which she discussed her beliefs that public education is so far down the rabbit hole, there’s no way to save it. So, I want to start this review of what I’ve learned and my thoughts about what it all means for the future of education with a message for Secretary DeVos:

Dear, Mrs. DeVos,

While I can concede that public schools are not meeting the needs of all students, I do not at all believe that the solution is to allow parents to send their children to different schools with taxpayer money. The solution is to fix the public schools. This does not mean that I “care more about a system […] than [I] do about students.” In fact, I say that means that I care about all of my students. Just a few weeks ago, I had the heartbreaking task of telling my most hardworking severely autistic student that he failed the benchmark (last year’s released STAAR test – used for data and preparation of the real test in April). Standardized testing turns my students, whom I love fiercely, into numbers on a data chart. And I resent that. I, however, do not believe that sending some students to private schools or charters is the solution. The solution starts with reform of standardized testing. Even great educators struggle to individualize instruction to meet the passions of all of our students when the focus has to be “passing the test.” You said yourself that students all have unique needs. Each individual student is a different human being, who expresses themselves differently and learns differently. So tell me, why are they being tested the same?

Sincerely,

An over-tested, over-stressed, but fiercely passionate educator

And this really leads me into the topic I’d like to focus on: standardized testing.

It’s no secret that I’m not a fan of standardized testing. It stresses me and my students every year, and I’ve expressed my frustrations in previous posts. However, I consider myself to be a good educator, and a large part of that means that it is my job to ensure that my students perform to the best of their abilities on the state test, which usually means a strong focus on test prep in my classroom. Being so close to the test now, the last couple of weeks in Mrs. Hebert’s ELAR class have been filled with reading passages and answering multiple choice questions instead of the fun and engaging lessons we all prefer.

As an English teacher, I appreciate finding irony in the world, but the irony that a system requiring all students to take and pass the same test in an effort to be fair and equal ends up treating our students exactly the opposite of fair and equal is not the kind of irony I enjoy. I see the inequality even more this year, as I have a group of students who are incredibly smart and have amazing discussions in class but just can’t translate their knowledge to a multiple choice test. They are, as a group, terrible test-takers. Unfortunately, it won’t matter how smart they truly are if they can’t pass the STAAR.

And that is the heartbreak of standardized testing. A multiple choice test does not test for creativity, leadership, communication, work ethic, or any of the other skills that we all know employers want in good employees and are the skills that will make them successful and productive citizens. Standardized tests do not allow students to be individuals. We’re expected to differentiate instruction, but no one differentiates the test.

I’m sure that every teacher out there has said or heard someone say “I’m doing all I can, but this kid just isn’t going to pass the test.” It’s hard not to get sucked into the negativity of feeling that our work is futile. And as much as we hide it from the students, it’s naive to think that they don’t know it. I can’t even imagine how it must feel to be a student who knows they’re not going to pass the big test and to know that the teacher knows it too. Especially when we take into account how fully and loudly adolescent students feel their emotions, this can be devastating. No student deserves to feel that way.

Imagine the difference if the test actually showed what a student learned. If it was a chance for students to show off what they know instead of being disheartening and embarrassing. I desperately want every single one of my students to feel that they are special and unique and that they matter. Isn’t the American Dream supposed to be that if you work hard, you can accomplish anything? What about our students who work hard every day and go to extra tutoring sessions before and after school and give up their social lunch time to get even more tutoring… and then they still don’t pass? How is that the American Dream?

Our students are the promise and hope of the future. It should be the focus of educators to cultivate confidence and passion in each student. We can’t truly accomplish that while we’re teaching them how to navigate tricky multiple choice questions.

A couple months ago, I let myself get overwhelmed by the testing. I sat down and I made a list of all of the assessments that my 8th grade students are put through. Here’s that list:

Curriculum Based Assessment – District assessment, given twice per year

  • Reading
  • Science
  • Social Studies
  • Math

Benchmark – District assessment using previous year’s released test used to tell us who is likely to pass the STAAR and who is not

  • Reading
  • Science
  • Social Studies
  • Math

New Interim State Test – new state assessment serving the same purpose as the benchmark

  • Reading
  • Math

Universal Screener – district assessment that determines a student’s reading (Lexile) and math level, given three times per year

  • Reading
  • Math

STAAR – State standardized assessment – the one that really counts

  • Reading
  • Science
  • Social Studies
  • Math

That’s at least 16 major assessments. 10 of those major assessments are shutdown days for the school, meaning that instead of going to their classes, they spend the entire day in one class taking the test. Usually, they go back to classes for the last two periods of the day, but nothing very productive happens.

After the students take the tests, educators and administrators analyze the data for each of these assessments. And when we look at the data, we start by looking at it overall – how did the whole school do? how did my students do? how did each class do?

But then, we look at categories. Another huge topic discussed in this class was the labeling of students and the impact that has on the teacher’s expectations for students and the students’ performance. We look at the SPED numbers and the LEP/ESL numbers. Then, and here’s where I get really uncomfortable, we look at the numbers by ethnicity and race. We look at the African American, the Hispanic, the Asian, the white students.

And after all of this, we maybe look at individual students.

It is incredibly difficult not to view each of these subgroups differently. After analyzing test data upon test data, it becomes a habit to have different expectations for students based on their label instead of looking at each individual student for who he or she is. Too often, the belief that a student will not succeed because they are in a certain subgroup becomes the truth, not because the student was not capable of succeeding, but because the teacher’s practices become skewed based on his or her expectations.

Our discussion boards week after week filled with stories of the effects all this have on students. I read stories of what my classmates experienced as students as well as stories of their students’ experiences.

I was nervous about tackling this topic on my blog because I work hard to keep my posts positive and uplifting. I hope I haven’t seemed too negative here. I truly believe that my students are amazing and they deserve to accomplish everything that they dream. I want to be able to spend time each and every day inspiring and nurturing a passion in every student. This would be so much easier to do if students could show their learning authentically instead of with multiple choice.

If we want public education to “work” for all students, reform needs to start with testing.

One thought on “The Promise and Hope of Our Students

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s