Testing, Testing

February 21, 2013

By anonymous

The memo came last week. The latest district directive clearly laid out the course of literacy “instruction” for the next three weeks. We will immediately put our reading series on hold and use sample items from the MCAS, the Massachusetts high-stakes test, to better prepare the students who will soon be taking them. Students will read the passages independently, annotate the text, and answer the questions. Teachers are expected to analyze the responses to identify and address areas of weakness, while also teaching effective test taking strategies. This will be done everyday during the time that used to be spent on reading and writing.

I have a major problem with this. Test prep, in moderation, can help students understand the format and strategies involved in taking a standardized test, but this is overkill. Two hours a day, for three weeks. 600 minutes a week. 1,800 minutes over the course of three weeks. That’s a lot of valuable time to spend practicing test-taking, especially when we’ve already bubbled in a boatload of district assessments this year.

Spending weeks working with black and white photocopies of MCAS tests will not engage or motivate my students. Instruction based on drill and kill is a mind-numbing and frustrating experience. And I don’t think they learn very much other than how important the test is to their school.  I cannot inspire a passion for learning when I amtraining kids, rather than teaching them.

We do this because we operate in a reality where test scores are used to make big decisions for our struggling urban district. Intense pressure to raise scores drives administrators to seek quick fixes and simple solutions to very complex issues. I understand the instinct to survive and the panicked reaction to try for one last boost. I get it. Teachers feel the same anxiety. But the goal of education is learning, not testing. We have either forgotten this or rationalized our way around it. The last line of the memo reads, “We are hoping it will help our students perform better on the assessment”. Nothing in this admission suggests we are in the business of creating lifelong learners and thinkers. There is no room for the messy process of discovery, and there is no time for the valuable experience of allowing students to fail and learn from their mistakes.

My students and their parents trust me to provide the very best education I can. The moral dilemma I am faced with is that this type of instruction is not my best. I didn’t become a teacher so that someday I could teach to the test. All the great lessons I dreamed of teaching, or once taught, remain in the back of my mind, waiting for the dawn of common sense.

I can’t help but wonder if the kids in Wellesley and Weston are subjected to this type of teaching. Many of our students are dealing with social-emotional issues, homelessness, neglect, abuse, and the chronic stress associated with poverty. So our scores tend to be fairly low.  Does anyone really believe these children will be better off with this type of school experience? We sweep the real issues under the rug, and we use trendy words like “rigor” and “grapple”, but we aren’t fooling anyone (well, maybe a few people). This is more about us, the adults, and the political diatribe than it is about our kids.

Anonymous is a teacher in an urban school in Massachusetts. Do you have a story to tell? Send it to tips@edushyster.com.

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EduShyster is Jennifer C. Berkshire, who has spent the past six years writing about public education and urban schools in Massachusetts.