Do you want to know that my students are learning? Come to my classroom. Do you want to know how I am doing as a teacher? Come to my classroom. Do you want to see how education is working? Come to my classroom.
But not today.
Don’t come to my classroom today because you won’t see those things. You won’t see my students working collaboratively, learning from me, their peers and making sense in their own minds. You won’t see them growing in their understanding of the world or gaining new information or skills. Don’t come to my classroom today because all you’ll see is us struggling through a test. A test that, in theory, is designed to show decision makers the effectiveness of my classroom but in reality does something far from it.
A couple of months ago when politicians announced a reduction in the amount of standardized tests for my state, my colleagues and I cheered. Not because we are afraid of what such tests show, but because we know that they don’t really show what students can do. We don’t argue with the need for standards and a shared curriculum. We don’t argue that there needs to be accountability and assessment to make sure that students and teachers are doing the best they can. As a special education teacher, collecting data to write goals and monitor progress is my bread and butter, so I completely understand the need to do so for all students and teachers. I understand that to an untrained eye, it is difficult to come in my classroom and see and measure my effectiveness and my student’s progress. Even another teacher might look at one of my fifth graders and see insufficient progress because he is reading at what they’d expect a second grader to be reading on. What they don’t know is that this time last year he was reading at what they’d expect a kindergartener to be reading on. By current measurement and accountability practices, my teaching and his learning have not been sufficient. In fact, by current measurement and accountability practices we are failing below basic. So once again I cheered with the news, because I knew that when they reduced the number of assessments, they were not asking us to reduce our expectations, but rather asking us and our districts to find a better way to show that students and teachers were meeting them. We’d still have to create an accountability measure and report the information, but we’d have the opportunity to make the measure a more accurate portrait.
Come into my classroom today and you’ll see what has been created. You’ll see that that it is a test that copies the very worst aspects of the one it replaces. You’ll wonder if it is really assessing their ability to write, or just their ability to type and navigate a computer. You’ll see a test that tells students that the writing process is one done in isolation and can be completed start to finish in a sitting. You’ll see a test where the spell checker is telling one student to change “got to” into “gotta.”
Last year when I knew my students were being assessed in this way, I made sure to give them plenty of test practice, plenty of writing in isolation and plenty of typing practice even though typing isn’t something in our curriculum. I wasted time I could have been teaching them how to become better writers by forcing them to write in a way totally different from how we learn to be good writers. Good writing comes from collaboration, conferencing and time. There’s sparse time to reflect and revise your writing when it is done under these conditions. It killed me last year like it is killing me now, because they are trying, they really are. I can see one student’s idea face. That’s the face he makes when he needs to talk about his ideas and get them out so he can decide which idea is one that actually makes sense. But he can’t get those ideas out like he’s used to. He has to silently figure it out on his own. I can see one student who’s written this great metaphor, but it’s one that the scorers won’t understand. It’s an inside joke that we as a class would get, but few otherwise would. I can see one student with a smile on his face who asked me if I could read his writing. He wanted to share and get feedback. That’s how we become good writers, but I couldn’t do it. And it’s killing me.
It’s killing me, and it’s not what you should see in a classroom. But I get it. It’s easier for an outsider to understand Pass, Pass/Advanced, Fail, Fail/Below Basic. It’s easier to put a number on achievement so you can say “that’s not good enough.” It’s easier to say that to a number than a person. But come into my classroom when they are learning and I am teaching. If you come into my classroom and still think that is something you need to say, say it. I won’t like hearing it, and I may disagree, but say it and I will work harder to be better. If you want to know how my students are doing, if you want to know how I am doing as their teacher, come into my classroom. Just not today.