Testing Testing One-Two-Three

Testing Testing One-Two-Three

On page 58 of the January 26th issue of The New Yorker, there is a cartoon showing a numb-looking teacher sitting in front of five Pre-K students. Each of these students is clutching a crayon and has several sheets of paper spread out on the floor in front of them. The teacher, with a weary expression upon his face, is checking his watch. “Time’s up,” he informs the room of equally weary-looking five year olds, “Crayons down.”

After having my private chuckle, I took this cartoon downstairs to show one of my colleagues, a veteran kindergarten teacher in our school. When I came into her room with the magazine under my arm, I found her sitting at her desk looking a bit weary herself. Her twenty students were not on the floor, but at low tables spread around the room. They were clutching not crayons, but the oversized pencils the younger grades use. They all had test papers in front of them. The room was silent, a bit tense.

She read the cartoon, threw her head back, and laughed a desperate I’m-laughing-rather-than-crying sort of laugh. Then she looked at the clock on the wall. “They have five minutes left.”

Tests have always been an important part of teaching. But these days teachers and students spend an awful lot of time doing an awful lot of tests (yes, even in Pre-K). These days teachers and students often feel like there’s not a lot of time between these tests to get some teaching and learning in.

I have, for example, since arriving back to school from Christmas vacation on January 5th, not taught a single lesson, not instructed one student in reading, not even had time to ask my students to write the obligatory essay on what they did over the Christmas break. All I have done is administer tests.

The first test I gave was a test we actually give three times a year. This test determines a student’s reading level. Technically, an ESL teacher isn’t responsible for administering this test, but we are short-staffed in our school and the regular classroom teachers cannot do all of them. Thus, my ESL colleague and I were asked to do some of the January reading testing. No problem. Always glad to take one for the team. Taking one for the team in this case required learning how to use a new online testing program that our district recently purchased. This testing program both assesses and monitors student reading growth. It does produce, I have to admit, some very nifty data that we can use to target our reading instruction (when we get to it). The educational testing company, just one of the many that have sprung up like mushrooms after a heavy rain, is called Amplify and is owned by Rupert Murdoch.

To administer these tests, both my colleague and I got an I-pad and a stylus to press ever so delicately against our tablet screens to record our students’ answers. My stylus is shiny and green and encrusted with faux diamonds. I love it. It looks like a tiny fairy’s wand, or some delicate little concoction by Fabergé.

When we finished giving the reading tests, my colleague and I moved on to the tests we administer every year to measure the improvement in our ESL students’ English proficiency. This test has four subtests: speaking, reading, listening and writing. Effectively, this means that I give 35 students four tests each. My ESL colleague gives about the same number. Don’t feel sorry for us. There are ESL teachers in the district who administer far more.

About a week ago, as we were nearing the end of these English Proficiency tests, I got an e-mail from the District Testing Director. This e-mail brought the glad tidings that it would shortly be time for the Smarter Balanced Tests to start. The Smarter Balanced Tests are what replaced the CMT tests. For those of you who are fortunate enough not to know what a CMT is, the CMT was and the Smarter Balanced test is the “high-stakes test” we now take in Connecticut. It is the test that determines how schools and students are “graded”, the test that tests the concepts and content of the Dreaded Common Core.

In my school, we did a field test for the Smarter Balanced test last year. After a few questions, a lot of students put their heads down and cried, or looked like they were going to until we flew to their sides and soothed them with kind words and promises of treats. This year, they say, the test will adjust the difficulty level if the student gets the first few answers wrong. This year, we shouldn’t have any criers. I’m looking forward to that.

So I went to the training and sat in a cold corner of a junior high school library with rows of other lucky chosen ones and listened to the twenty-page Power Point presentation from our District Test Coordinator. I won’t bore you with the details, but the bottom line is that from the middle of March until June, I can be pulled from instruction at any time for days at a time to make sure these tests get administered properly. My ESL students may or may not be in the group of students testing. My school has no choice but to do this. Neither do any of the other schools who are pulling Reading and ESL and Special Education teachers. Someone has to administer the tests. If our schools don’t get the tests done properly, we’ll all be in hot water.

Testing, testing. And I only told you about three of the big tests we take. There are more.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not against people being held accountable, or using data to drive decisions, but from ground-level, from the classroom (when I manage to get into one) it’s starting to get a little wearying. It’s starting to feel a little like bait and switch. I got hired to be a teacher, but these days I’m more of a test-giver, tests that tell me things, yes, they do, but tests that are slowly sucking the pleasure out of the job, the pleasure of teaching a child something they didn’t know before you told them, the pleasure of watching their face light up when they’ve finally understood.

Today we did something in our school that’s becoming increasingly rare. For one afternoon, the fourth and fifth grade didn’t take any tests at all! They went down to the gym. Some students were cheerleaders, others played basketball, others just watched as the principal refereed. It was our annual teacher-student basketball game and with a little creative overtime and some self-restraint on the part of the teachers, the students won. No one had to put their head down and cry. No one had to be soothed with treats. We all experienced the joy of being together with one another doing something everyone liked. How great was that?

And when I came upstairs afterwards, I found a fresh transfer paper on my desk. A new student just in from Florida. Hurry up and get started. There are a whole bunch of tests he has to take.