High Stakes Testing

Fighting for the dream, continued

This was my very first blog post, written in 2011, in response to my growing frustrations and fears over NCLB.  I had met and spoken with Stephen Krashen, who encouraged me to start blogging, to get my voice of experience out there for others to hear.  Although our ongoing battles in education may not compare to the historic (and ongoing) struggles for civil rights, we do know that inequality in the schools contributes a great deal to inequality in opportunities: opportunities for higher education, income, job security, health care, etc.  While NCLB may be on its way out, the Common Core and its Smarter Balanced Assessments are on their way in.  And so the struggle  continues…

Ten years ago [now 13], President George W. Bush, in whose symbolic shadow our children now shiver, signed the No Child Left Behind legislation. This momentous decree came as a great beacon light of hope to millions of children who had been seared in the flames of educational injustice. It promised a joyous daybreak to end the long night of their inferior education.

But ten years later, many children have indeed been left behind. Ten years later, many children’s minds are still sadly crippled by the manacles of under-funded schools and the chains of standardized tests. Ten years later, many children still live on a lonely island of poverty in the midst of a vast ocean of material prosperity. Ten years later, many children still languish in the corners of American schools and find themselves an exile in their own land. And so we’ve come here today to dramatize a shameful condition.

When the architects of our education system wrote the magnificent words of every state standard and the questions and multiple-choice answers on every state test, they were signing a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir. This note was a promise that all children, yes, all children of America, would be offered a quality, rigorous education. It is obvious today that America has defaulted on this promissory note, insofar as her children and schools and teachers are concerned. Instead of honoring this sacred obligation, America has given its children and schools and teachers a bad check, a check which has come back marked “insufficient funds.”

But we refuse to believe that the bank of education is bankrupt. We refuse to believe that there are insufficient funds in the great vaults of opportunity of this nation. And so, we’ve come to cash this check, a check that will give us upon demand the riches of learning and the security of education.

I know that not all of my students come from homes where parents have read to them, fed them nutritious meals, engaged them in healthy activities, sat together at the dinner table and spoken with them.  I know that many of my students come to my classroom from places of great trials, homes that are cold, kitchens that are lacking family meals, walls that do not hold shelves of books, conversations wanting in warmth, support and a rich and varied vocabulary.  But I continue to work with the faith that I, a middle school teacher, have the power to make a difference in the lives of my students.

Let us not wallow in the valley of No Child Left Behind.  And even though we face the difficulties of mandated textbooks and standardized tests, I still have a dream.  It is a dream deeply rooted in the dream of the American school system.

I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that although all children are created equal, and although all children have the right to a quality education, this does not mean that all children should have the exact same books and the exact same lessons and the exact same assessments.”

I have a dream that one day children will learn to read by reading literature of great variety; that teachers will read to them from great books; that children will choose books to read that ignite great passion and that inspire them to read even more; that reading will be made a pleasure for all children, not a task, not a race, not a recitation of meaningless sounds and chunks of meaning.

I have a dream that all of my students will one day attend a school where they will not be judged by the bubbling of a test answer but by the unique demonstration of their talents and abilities, of their knowledge and understanding.

I have a dream that one day even the state of California, a state sweltering with the heat of overflowing classes, sweltering with the heat of one-size-fits-all curriculum, sweltering with the heat of annual assessments that tell more about a child’s parents’ income than about the child’s learning or the teacher’s teaching, yes even the sorry state of California will be transformed into an oasis of authentic assessments and project-based learning, a refuge of writing workshop and reading for pleasure, a sanctuary of art, music, woodshop, cooking, theater, languages, film making, journalism and life-long learning.

I have a dream today!

I have a dream that one day, in Washington, D.C., with Education Secretary Arne Duncan having his lips dripping with the words of “merit pay” and “data-driven” — one day right there in Washington, D.C. teachers will be able to join hands with one another as sisters and brothers working together to build the best schools for America’s students based on the knowledge and experience and wisdom and practice of the teachers who know children and curriculum better than any fly-by-night CEO whose only education experience is playing basketball with the students of his mother’s after-school tutoring program.

I have a dream today!

I have a dream that one day every child’s accomplishments shall be exalted, and every so-called-researched-based scripted curriculum shall be made low, the cash-strapped schools will be fully funded, and every library will be staffed with a credentialed librarian where the shelves will overflow with books; and the glory of a quality education for all shall be revealed and all flesh shall see it together.

This is my hope, and this is the faith that I go back to my classroom with.

With this faith, we will be able to hew out of the benchmarks of despair a student-designed project of hope. With this faith, we will be able to transform the jangling discords of API and AYP into a beautiful symphony of respect for the teaching profession. With this faith, we will be able to work together, to read together, to write together, to experiment together, to design, build, create, perform together, to stand up for education together, knowing that all children will have the opportunity to learn one day in classrooms fully funded where respected professionals are empowered to do their work.

And this will be the day — this will be the day when all of America’s children will be able to learn with new meaning, to write for understanding, to read for personal growth, to explore their interests and feed their curiosities.  This will be the day that my dream of enthusiastic, joyful schoolchildren taught by empowered, professional educators in classrooms stocked with books and paper and technology and dreams and opportunities and joy will become a reality for all.

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…and then life happened

I had planned a follow-up to my recent Power of Positive Technology post… but then life happened.  The new school year started on a Wednesday, and Thursday night my father died.  He and my mom had been living with us for about five months, waiting to move into their new house.  Dad had been sick for a long time, and we knew the end was near, but I was still (and continue to be) blindsided by grief.  It comes in waves, rolls over me, recedes for awhile, and then – BAM – it’s back.

As I struggled to focus on my work, I thought of how hard it must be for my students to focus and learn new concepts and complete homework and study for tests… when their lives are in chaos.  In my own fog of grief, I would leave work and drive towards the grocery store, knowing we needed food for dinner, but as I approached the parking lot, I would just keep driving toward home.  “I’ll order pizza,” I would think.  I didn’t have the energy to park the car and go into the store.

My students are probably not suffering grief on a regular basis, but from what I read in their journals, there is plenty of chaos in their lives: parents in the throes of divorce, siblings in the angst of adolescence, friends in the midst of middle school drama.  And every year I have a student or two who have recently lost a parent or who lose a parent during the school year.

I want to teach my students to persevere in the face of adversity.  I know that life is hard and they need to learn to keep plugging through the most difficult times.  But I also know that there are days when it’s all we can do to get dressed and make it to class on time.  And my own bout with grief makes me wonder: if all we care about is test scores, what do we expect our children to become?  Are we neglecting their emotional selves?  Are we asking them to be robots?

I don’t have an answer.  But I do know that when grief strikes, it’s all we can do to face the day, not to mention learn a new concept, demonstrate proficiency, perform on demand.

They’re kids, not Olympians

We work hard all year, writing and reading and analyzing and discussing and reading and writing some more.  And then, all of our hard work and learning are testevaluated and assessed in two days of state exams.  Multiple-choice exams, mind you, no writing necessary.

So we also work hard to create a testing environment that supports our students.  We keep our daily routine the same.  We schedule the tests so that students take them in the same classroom, with the same teacher, where they have learned the content that year.  Students are tested in only one subject each week, so that their other classes are kept on a familiar routine.  And we encourage our students to approach the tests as an opportunity to show everyone what they know, what they have learned.

And then this happens: a beloved 2nd grade teacher is gunned down by her husband, who then kills himself.  Their 18-month-old twins are left orphaned and her two teen daughters from a previous marriage lose their mother.  Many of our students were in this teacher’s class.  One of her daughters is a student at our school.  The victim was a local girl, attending high school here with many of us.  Her mother was our teacher when we were in junior high.  The ripple effects of this horrific tragedy continue to splash against the hearts of so many lives here in our tight-knit Northern California community. We are devastated, in shock, angry, grieving.

flowersThe day after the shooting my 8th grade students were scheduled to take the first half of their state exams in English language arts.  Wisely, our administration postponed that day’s testing.  So that Monday back to school we did the other kind of work so common to teachers: we acted more as counselors, walking our students through grief, giving them time to write, draw, talk, share.  We let them leave class to go to counseling rooms.  We ignored the mandated curriculum because we knew that nothing was as important as acknowledging their grief, allowing time for healing.  Some needed to cry; some needed to get back to a normal routine, whatever “normal” might be.  We straddled that precarious line, offering solace to those in need, some semblance of regular “school” to those who wanted it.  The first day was exhausting, the second, a little better.

By Thursday of that week, we needed to be back on track.  We have little flexibility in the timing of the state tests, so four days after the shooting, my students took the first 90-minute portion of their English language arts exam.  I watched them as they read, contemplated, and bubbled, and I thought, does it make sense to anyone that all the work we have done this year is assessed in this one sitting?

This is not about the horrors of domestic violence, and in no way am I suggesting sadthat issues with state testing can compare to the losses faced by this family and their community.  But as we reeled from the shock of this tragedy, the absurdity of our situation was magnified.  We all have good days and bad days, we all have struggles and tragedies and life’s curve balls thrown at us, but over the course of the school year, we do a lot of good work.  Why, then, must we perform in a one-shot, high-stakes testing scenario?

Maybe it makes sense for law students taking the bar exam.  Maybe it makes sense for Olympic athletes competing for gold.  But does it make sense for 13-year-old students?  And what about their 7-year-old siblings?  Seven. Years. Old.

Adults learn to set aside whatever is going on in their lives in order to perform in a high-stakes situation, but children? No, it doesn’t make sense.  And this is why some of us are trying to fight back.  Join us?

“A, B, C or D? Really?!?”

Our frenzied novel writing was repeatedly interrupted on November 30 as students let out yelps of joy when they met their word count goals.  Even I disturbed the quiet when I took a writing break, loaded my novel into the NaNoWriMo word validator, and saw “WINNER!” flash across my screen.

“I made it!” I yelled, jumping out of my chair and bowing to my students as they applauded my success.  Whew.  Last day of November and just hours left in the NaNoWriMo challenge — nothing like having students watch my progress online to motivate me to get that novel written!

Kyle is a novelist!

The next day my students came to class bubbling with excitement over their success.  Of my 91 8th graders, 87 met the word goal they had set for themselves in October (and the remaining four students continued to write until they met their goals — maybe not in a month, but they made it!).  Many wrote far beyond their goals, and most of them said, “I’m not done yet, Mrs. Bradley!” They came back to class in December knowing that they needed to put the finishing touches on their novels, and then we would dive into the hard work of revising and proofreading.

Ivette and Hailey celebrate making their goals.

But first – their task that day was to log in to an online, multiple-choice test that would supposedly assess their progress in English so far this year, give me a print-out of their current abilities, and, MOST IMPORTANT OF ALL, predict how they will perform on the high-stakes STAR test in the spring.

The terrible irony in the contrast between the hard work they had done in November and the assessment they were asked to do on December 1 was not lost on my novelists.  (“Mrs. Bradley, I wrote a NOVEL!”)  But they are well trained little monkey students.  They sighed, set down their backpacks, opened the laptops and logged in to the assessment site.  A, B, C, D, click, click, click.

I am confident that my students are better readers and writers because of our novel-writing month, and I am sure their improved skills will be reflected in their performances on the multiple-choice assessments that drive our schools today.  But doesn’t it make more sense to assess their writing skills with writing?  Doesn’t it make more sense to look at the larger body of work they have done this year as an assessment of their learning than to trust isolated, unrelated bubble tests?

On the other hand, hooray for the local news, which recognizes the power of project-based learning like the NaNoWriMo project:

“Students inspired by novel writing.”           

“Can we write today, Mrs. Bradley?”       

“Teacher tells students: just write.”

“Petaluma’s Kenilworth students write novels in a month.”

And hot off the presses!  A cover story on our NaNoWriMo project: “A Novel Idea.”

Mihir, Julia and I show off the covers we designed for our novels.

I {heart} public schools!

When I met my husband, he was teaching at a small, private school. On more than OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAone occasion I joked that if he wanted to marry me, he had to get a job at a “real” school. There was nothing wrong with his school, but I just didn’t see private schools in our future. I had always assumed that my teacher/coach husband would join me in the world of public school education. By the time we were married, we had both started our journeys as public school teachers. Now, 25 years later, I can say with all honesty and enthusiasm that I love public schools! And this is why:

  • Equal Opportunity: Although our country holds to the ideal that “all are created equal,” we know that any semblance of equality disappears as early as preschool. But our public school system strives to provide every child, no matter where they come from or what they do or do not have, equal opportunities to earn a quality education. And that makes me proud.
  • Diversity:  Since public schools welcome all students, it means that our classrooms mirror the population of our communities. My students’ parents are construction workers, chefs, writers, grape harvesters, business people, artists, teachers, domestic workers, winery owners, bus drivers, Pixar animators, university professors, prison guards, secretaries and unemployed adults searching for their next job. And their children sit together in class, study together in the library, eat together in the cafeteria and now blog together online. And while birds of a feather do tend to flock together, our students have the opportunity to chill with a different bird every day in our diverse public schools. And that makes me proud.
  • Democracy: Dating clear back to the founding fathers, a public school system has been considered one of the most critical elements necessary for the success of America. Thomas Jefferson said it best: “Enlighten the people generally, and tyranny and oppression of body and mind will vanish like evil spirits at the dawn of day. . . . the diffusion of knowledge among the people is to be the instrument by which it is to be effected,” and, “If a nation expects to be ignorant and free, in a state of civilization, it expects what never was and never will be.” I am part of a system that endeavors to provide the knowledge and skills for all students to actively and wisely participate in their communities and government. And that makes me proud.
  • Parents: When the parents in my school volunteer and donate, I know that they do it because they believe in our school, they care about the system and they want to do their part to make it even better. They aren’t obligated by a system that “strongly encourages” (i.e., requires) parents to give of their time, talents and money; they do it because they know that their child’s school is a village — a village that is made stronger when all of its residents contribute. Parents of my students have generously given of their time, their resources (copy paper, boxes of tissue, Staples gift cards) and – best of all – their homemade goodies at the holidays.  They give because they care, and that makes me grateful.
  • Loyalty: The town I live in is neatly divided, at one time by railroad tracks, but now by the freeway, east and west. Each side of town has a sprinkling of elementary schools, plus a middle school and high school of its own. We have a traditional cross-town rivalry that is bandied about in grocery stores, churches, soccer games and the local newspaper. My middle-school students wear their east side school colors and mascot with pride, and they look forward to the day they promote from our school and don the colors of the high school down the street.  But navigating adolescence takes a toll on even the coolest of kids; our public schools provide a community of support that teaches them that they are cared for by their entire town… well, the east side of town anyway.
  • My students: After two decades in middle school classrooms, I continue to be amazed by my students. They are 13 years old, battling adolescent hormones, self-consciousness, and the humiliation of parents, yet every day they make me laugh. They inspire me, challenge me, test me and reward me. They write, illustrate and bind books for children in Uganda. They pen poetry honoring parents, grandparents, pets and friends. They publish magazines filled with writing on topics that matter to them: fashion, friendship, cars, music, video games, dogs, books, movies and food. They would rather be hanging with their friends, yet they give me their best. They say they don’t like school, yet they laugh and write and read and teach me what matters. I raise the bar, and they jump. I say I’m sad, and they get quiet. I say well done, and they smile. They act too cool to care, yet when June comes, they bring their grandma over to meet me, they sign my yearbook, and they hug me. And eventually they friend me on Facebook. They invite me to their graduation, they contact me from college, they remember me even when school fades from their memory.  They make me so very proud.

In this season of bash the public schools and throw the teachers under the bus, I am especially proud to be a public school teacher. I know that in times of devastated school budgets and rhetoric of blame, my students and my colleagues and my school and I continue to do professional, inspirational work. And thanks to groups like Save our Schools, America’s public schools will continue to strive to be the ideal system envisioned by Horace Mann, the father of public education:  “a school that would be available and equal for all, part of the birth-right of every American child, for rich and poor alike.” Through public schools, poverty and crime would decline and social harmony would be attained. If we are ever to see that vision realized, it will be through the fully funded, nationally supported, public education system that I do love.

I Have a Dream for Students and Schools

(with gratitude to and reverence for the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.)

Ten years ago, President George W. Bush, in whose symbolic shadow our children now shiver, signed the No Child Left Behind legislation. This momentous decree came as a great beacon light of hope to millions of children who had been seared in the flames of educational injustice. It promised a joyous daybreak to end the long night of their inferior education.

But ten years later, many children have indeed been left behind. Ten years later, many children’s minds are still sadly crippled by the manacles of under-funded schools and the chains of standardized tests. Ten years later, many children still live on a lonely island of poverty in the midst of a vast ocean of material prosperity. Ten years later, many children still languish in the corners of American schools and find themselves an exile in their own land. And so we’ve come here today to dramatize a shameful condition.

When the architects of our education system wrote the magnificent words of every state standard and the questions and multiple-choice answers on every state test, they were signing a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir. This note was a promise that all children, yes, all children of America, would be offered a quality, rigorous education. It is obvious today that America has defaulted on this promissory note, insofar as her children and schools and teachers are concerned. Instead of honoring this sacred obligation, America has given its children and schools and teachers a bad check, a check which has come back marked “insufficient funds.”

But we refuse to believe that the bank of education is bankrupt. We refuse to believe that there are insufficient funds in the great vaults of opportunity of this nation. And so, we’ve come to cash this check, a check that will give us upon demand the riches of learning and the security of education.

I know that not all of my students come from homes where parents have read to them, fed them nutritious meals, engaged them in healthy activities, sat together at the dinner table and spoken with them.  I know that many of my students come to my classroom from places of great trials, homes that are cold, kitchens that are lacking family meals, walls that do not hold shelves of books, conversations wanting in warmth, support and a rich and varied vocabulary.  But I continue to work with the faith that I, a middle school teacher, have the power to make a difference in the lives of my students.

Let us not wallow in the valley of No Child Left Behind.  And even though we face the difficulties of mandated textbooks and standardized tests, I still have a dream.  It is a dream deeply rooted in the dream of the American school system.

I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that although all children are created equal, and although all children have the right to a quality education, this does not mean that all children should have the exact same books and the exact same lessons and the exact same assessments.”

I have a dream that one day children will learn to read by reading literature of great variety; that teachers will read to them from great books; that children will choose books to read that ignite great passion and that inspire them to read even more; that reading will be made a pleasure for all children, not a task, not a race, not a recitation of meaningless sounds and chunks of meaning.

I have a dream that all of my students will one day attend a school where they will not be judged by the bubbling of a test answer but by the unique demonstration of their talents and abilities, of their knowledge and understanding.

I have a dream that one day even the state of California, a state sweltering with the heat of overflowing classes, sweltering with the heat of one-size-fits-all curriculum, sweltering with the heat of annual assessments that tell more about a child’s parents’ income than about the child’s learning or the teacher’s teaching, yes even the sorry state of California will be transformed into an oasis of authentic assessments and project-based learning, a refuge of writing workshop and reading for pleasure, a sanctuary of art, music, woodshop, cooking, theater, languages, film making, journalism and life-long learning.

I have a dream today!

I have a dream that one day, in Washington, D.C., with Education Secretary Arne Duncan having his lips dripping with the words of “merit pay” and “data-driven” — one day right there in Washington, D.C. teachers will be able to join hands with one another as sisters and brothers working together to build the best schools for America’s students based on the knowledge and experience and wisdom and practice of the teachers who know children and curriculum better than any fly-by-night CEO whose only education experience is playing basketball with the students of his mother’s after-school tutoring program.

I have a dream today!

I have a dream that one day every child’s accomplishments shall be exalted, and every so-called-researched-based scripted curriculum shall be made low, the cash-strapped schools will be fully funded, and every library will be staffed with a credentialed librarian where the shelves will overflow with books; and the glory of a quality education for all shall be revealed and all flesh shall see it together.

This is my hope, and this is the faith that I go back to my classroom with.

With this faith, we will be able to hew out of the benchmarks of despair a student-designed project of hope. With this faith, we will be able to transform the jangling discords of API and AYP into a beautiful symphony of respect for the teaching profession. With this faith, we will be able to work together, to read together, to write together, to experiment together, to design, build, create, perform together, to stand up for education together, knowing that all children will have the opportunity to learn one day in classrooms fully funded where respected professionals are empowered to do their work.

And this will be the day — this will be the day when all of America’s children will be able to learn with new meaning, to write for understanding, to read for personal growth, to explore their interests and feed their curiosities.  This will be the day that my dream of enthusiastic, joyful schoolchildren taught by empowered, professional educators in classrooms stocked with books and paper and technology and dreams and opportunities and joy will become a reality for all.