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Tuesday, March 18, 2014

I'm Not Afraid of Test Scores and You Shouldn't Be Either



I'm a masochist. No, really. I am. I have a sick, uncontrollable yearning to read the comments underneath news articles. You know the ones - the comments on a NASA article blaming Obamacare for Justin Bieber's arrest - the ones where people make grandiose oversimplifications, like "poor people just need to make better choices" and "all doctors are idiots."

Sure, maybe I just have a twisted nature that seeks pleasure out of this sort of misery, but I have a deeper fascination that often leads me into the dark world of reading similar commentary on the failure of teachers. Have you seen these? They run nearly as rampant as the blame on the President.

Apparently, we are all lazy, overpaid, incompetent, and boring. We only teach because we couldn't handle a "real" major. We hate our students, and we want them punished, but at the same time, we are overindulgent and praise their every effort. Children are rude because of us. Teenagers push down the elderly, because teachers made them that way. We teach to the test, and we don't value critical thinking or authentic learning. We should listen to them, because, after all, these commenters are taxpayers, so technically, we work for them.

Interesting perspective.

And, of course, true to form, I also love to read comments about high-stakes testing. In a couple of months, the media will publish the results of our upcoming testing. Join me in my masochism, and you will see what I mean. The headlines will promote some sort of doom-and-gloom ideology, and the blame will flow. Remember, we are all lazy, overpaid, incompetent, and boring.

When we speak out against testing, it is because we are afraid of it. We fear being seen as the terrible teachers we are. According to this paradigm, good teachers would embrace test scores as an opportunity to show off. We would welcome merit-based pay as a token of our brilliant teaching skills, and those with poor test scores would be pushed out of the profession.

I know many believe these statements to be true, but this thinking is misguided.

I am not afraid of my test scores, but at the same time, I welcome them with the same enthusiasm as a patient accepting chemotherapy.

For any naysayers out there, let me be clear. My test scores are high enough that I'm confident I won't have a reporter writing about my failure as a professional...as a teacher...as a person. I don't worry that test scores will "hold me accountable" for the otherwise poor job I'm doing. I am in a unique position as an intervention specialist. Getting kids to pass their test IS my job. It is why my job exists. It is why my job is funded. My students only come to me after they have failed the test. To be good at my job, I must get them to pass the next test that will then disqualify them for the services they desperately need.

The ultimate catch-22.

I am not ashamed of my test scores, but likewise, I am not proud of them. There's nothing wrong with my test scores, and I am very proud of my students who have worked hard to meet their goals. But I'm not proud to be part of a system that cycles students into a pattern of repeated failure.

Do I teach to the test? Yes, of course. It's my job. I try to make it fun and exciting, meaningful and relevant, but ultimately, yes, I teach to the test. If I don't, my students will fail. Again. The effects of failure significantly impact a child's future to the degree that he will be statistically more likely than another student to drop out of high school. One test has that effect. Multiple failures are devastating.

I know each of my students who did not pass, and I carry their futures in my heart. That is what drives me. Not negative comments. Not accountability. Not merit pay.

Years ago I went to a training with some very enticing title, such as "How to Get Every Student in Your Class to Pass the State Math Test." Wow! Pretty cool, right? What brilliant tokens would he offer? What secret miracle did he have? The presenter showed charts and graphs and data, all validating his claim of low-income minority students "beating the odds." His e-books were flying off the proverbial shelves. Teachers and administrators were ecstatic!

This presenter, quite gifted though he was, had discovered how to beat the test. By teaching my students a few charlatan moves, they, too could pass. It wasn't about math knowledge, practice, and skills. It was about tricks, eliminating bad answers, manipulating numbers to find the answer. Passing the test was only smoke and mirrors and was actually quite easy to do.

I left that seminar without my magic beans.

Fascinating, isn't it? So much stress, time, and money is put into something that, in reality, means very little. Could I increase my scores by sharing these magic beans with my students? Probably, but I'll never know. You see, as much as I want them to pass, I am far more concerned about next year, and the many years to come. Teaching them the skills they need to pass the test is essential. Preparing them, so they know what to expect is important. Teaching them to manipulate the test is not.

These tests aren't that difficult to pass. Any teacher could (and some have) learn to beat the test. But, is that what we want?

When we are more concerned about passing a test than building solid educational foundations, we have failed.


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