It’s the most wonderful time of the year: the final press and grind to the finish line that is called, where I live, the PSSA. That miraculous, mysterious month when our attention and resources are focused to laser-precision, honing our children so that during test week they are bright, shiny, and sharp, ready to take on any multiple choice question that is thrown their way, fully prepared for meeting the challenge of making the school look good in the newspaper next year.
That paragraph is only partly sarcastic. Over the ten years that I have been working within this system of accountability, my thinking and beliefs about it have gone around in circles. I’m ambivalent about it all at this point, because I have seen first-hand both the benefits and the detriments. I have seen schools that all but ignored the differences between their white students and children of color shift to a mindset of actively watching the achievement gap and determined to do something about eliminating it. But I have also seen thoughtful, creative teaching reduced to monotonous drill for weeks or months on end.
Most of the year, I manage to live with the cognitive dissonance of being an administrator in a public school district. As the elementary math supervisor, it is my responsibility in part to monitor and analyze the regular benchmark assessments we give and support principals and teachers to work with the students who are lagging behind so that they will be ready for the state test come March 13. But as the gifted supervisor (my other hat), I am charged with seeing that the most highly able students in the district always have their needs considered and are able to work at an appropriately high level of challenge. These two goals are usually not in conflict, but at times, like during this month before the state assessment, I sometimes feel like any effort I make on one front is counterproductive on the other.
I am not a fan of high-stakes testing, and I believe that despite the positive focus it has brought to making sure every child is successful, the overall effect has been to make instruction narrower and shallower. We have replaced striving for excellence with striving for adequacy. (Another negative effect of this is that we end up labeling and categorizing kids, as I discussed in my last blog post.)
But I have become more aware of how these tests do help us recognize when students aren’t succeeding (at least in the narrow range of reading and math skills we test), and I do recognize that if some students aren’t even meeting these minimum expectations, we are remiss if we don’t do something about it. What pains me, though, is when limited resources are shifted radically to serve the few students who are most likely to help us look good.
The dichotomy came out of hiding this week when I received my weekly email newsletter from Edutopia. I am a big fan of their work and their web site, and I particularly appreciate their dedication to certain Core Strategies, including project learning and rich, comprehensive assessments. I was shocked, therefore, to see this headline emblazoned across the top of the email: “Test Prep Season: Tips for Surviving and Thriving.” The first two articles were on how to do “better” (if there is such a thing) test prep. One was written by a test-prep specialist, whatever that is.
I felt betrayed. Et tu, Edutopia? I couldn’t imagine that this organization which stood for higher principles and true innovation would stoop to the level of the test prep workbooks that I have worked hard to avoid bringing into our district. “Practice Bubbling,” crowed one of the articles, and “Teach Them To Speak Test.” One article encouraged us to take advantage of the multitude of dedicated test-prep websites available on the internet. I actually became physically ill scanning the material. I couldn’t look at it any more, and sent out this tweet:
Disappointed in the latest @edutopia newsletter. Test prep strategies do not align with these: is.gd/YeGm3Z
— Gerald Aungst (@geraldaungst) February 9, 2012
Later that day, Edutopia responded:
@geraldaungst Thanks for your comments. We’d love to talk to you more about what you’d like to see. If you have time, pls DM us.
— edutopia (@edutopia) February 9, 2012
A brief private exchange followed, which prompted me to both re-read the newsletter articles and reflect on my own thinking. First, the suggestions in the articles, though still not as rich as what I normally find in Edutopia’s materials, were practical and at least made an attempt to find ways to keep the test prep in its larger context and not reduce it to an absurd mechanical drill.
Second, I recognized many of the same thought processes, and yes, rationalizations, that I have used over the years to justify why a gifted teacher, and now administrator, would bother with anything as mundane as how to do better on a test of basic skills. I argued that I would only focus on the higher level thinking and problem-solving that was necessary for responding to open-ended questions. The reality is that much of what I taught as problem solving was applicable to very little beyond the kind of structured problems we see only on these tests. There were certainly some legitimate communication skills, for example, and metacognitive practice, but for the most part, it was not much deeper than “Practice Bubbling.”
I go back and forth on this all the time. The tests are important, if only in the limited sense that any artificially imposed consequence can be important. I certainly wouldn’t call them Important in the grander scheme of the world. But given that they exist, and given that we have no choice but to accept them, how wrong is it to quit swimming against the tide?
I hear teachers every day who feel crushed by the burden of the state test on their shoulders, who dream of a day when they can once again teach more than just the microscopically segmented skills and facts that we need to pump into kids to make sure our school names are printed in green ink in the newspaper, and not red. Those teachers point their fingers at us administrators who tie their hands and send them packets of worksheets and calendars titled “Countdown To PSSA” and ask them to work miracles with the two-fers and three-fers. Those are the students who are borderline proficient and who fall into more than one of our AYP reporting categories: minorities, IEP students, and economically disadvantaged.
I can’t even begin to count all the kinds of wrong that this is, and yet I find myself flowing with that tide. Is it because I, along with my other administrative colleagues, am really a hypocritical, narrow-minded bully who is only intent on getting better scores at all costs, no matter how many student and teacher bodies are piled up along the way?
No. But we ourselves are stuck. We want what is best for all students. We want our struggling students to succeed and thrive, just as we want our high-achievers to do. We are not willing to give up on any student. Do we like this system more than the teachers do? Not particularly, but it’s what we have, and railing against the test by steadfastly ignoring it is counterproductive.
So I can now see that Edutopia did not fail me. Not much, anyway. What I would truly love to see, however, and what I hope to begin thinking about myself, are ideas and strategies to:
- help administrators to keep the focus on kids and not scores
- use data to inform but not drive decisions and instruction
- keep the importance of the test in its proper context and scale
If you are an administrator, what have you done to support your teachers in these ways? If you are a teacher, what would you want from your administrators to help you with this? What about parents: what can your school do to create the appropriate atmosphere for your child to learn and grow?
I enjoyed this post, because I have many of the same thoughts about accountability testing that you discussed. As an administrator, I try to make it clear to all of our teachers that while we may not agree with it, accountability tests are our district’s primary measure of achievement. So, we must do all that we can to prepare our students to score proficient on the test, which takes place every May in NJ.
Each year about this time, stress levels among all staff begin to increase. I sent out this email earlier today to all of our certified staff to help lighten the load.
I don’t remember if I sent this clip to you, so here it is again.
I think it sends a powerful message for all. If you view it and think it is worthy, consider sharing it with your students. Maybe we’ll ignite some creativity during this time of test prep mania.
See, to me, the whole question of “what is achievement?” is an entirely different, and much bigger, one than “should we prep kids for tests?” I wholeheartedly do not believe that any standardized test even comes close to measuring achievement. And the fact that we lay all of our achievement cards on the reading and math testing table worries me a great deal. That every research study about what works in education eventually points back to the same small set of data points should be a huge concern to us all, but we typically just accept that “research says” and move on.
But that’s another blog post for another time.…
I am a parent and a learning coach who found you at Educon (virtually) via Twitter. Just for fun, I did a Wordle of this post. As I suspected, the word I was most sad to see missing didn’t show up. It’s the same word that goes missing when we buy into the false paradigm of test scores as end-all, be-all. The word is LEARNING.
In a few short years, traditional brick and mortar school took my gifted 12 year old who had always LOVED learning, LOVED school and morphed her into a stress-ridden, school-phobic, anxiety-ridden child who sometimes became physically ILL over tests. Even though we have always wanted her only to give her best effort and though we repeated time and again that school was NEVER about the grades or test scores, those were nevertheless the markers that defined her perception of self-worth and success. It happened before our eyes; it was tragic and shocking. Everyone saw it, everyone agreed it was a tragedy, but everyone also threw up their hands: “oh well — that’s just how the world works and she’ll just have to learn to deal with it.” This was NOT a situation with which I was willing to live.
After TWO YEARS (5th and 6th grades) of soul searching, parental angst, and sheer desperation, we — whose family had several generations of traditional school teacher on both sides — pulled her from traditional public school and went to an online public charter (for 7th grade, this past fall). It has changed our lives profoundly in just 6 short months. Her love of LEARNING came back IN FORCE and stronger than ever. She is more confident, FAR less stressed, learning MORE and more DEEPLY and — wait for the irony — testing even HIGHER and stronger than she ever did before.
So please, I BEG you, keep railing against the test because there is simply no way — NO WAY — that in the current environment, learning is NOT being sacrificed, beaten and bloody, on the altar of accountability. And when learning dies, our society dies. The candle is flickering, but it’s not out yet. Let’s all cup our hands around that feeble flame of LEARNING to keep it shining brightly. Our future depends on its light.
Please know that if there is one thing that I care about, it is learning. Understand, though, that not even the administrators in a district are in a position to take a stand against the state assessment. Our district’s funding and our jobs are on the line. It is always interesting to me that parents are of two minds, too. When we talk about their own individual children, they are focused on the learning and on what we can do to maximize their love of learning. But when those same parents see in the newspaper that their school has lower scores than the other district schools or those of the neighboring districts, they show up to board meetings and call the administration building asking us to do something about it.
I do not disagree that these tests are detrimental–I said so in the article. But it is like being under water. I can’t simply tell myself to breathe. Some parents have the option to swim to the surface and bring their children with them. More power to you. But my responsibility is to the children that are left with me. I have to make the best of the situation I’m in. Can I try to carry all those children and teachers to the surface with me? Sure I can, and I will continue to do so. But it is a slow swim, and while I’m still under water, we have to accept the artificial air that is provided, even if we have to pay for it with some test prep.
Isn’t it frustrating, feeling like you as an administrator are being held under the water? I understand. I felt it as a parent. We ALL need to keep swimming for the surface as hard as we can. And you are VERY right — parents need to be educated and refocused as much as teachers and admins. Too often we ALL say we want one thing, but when push comes to shove, we advocate for something completely different. In our personal case, we actually left a school rated “Excellent with Distinction” for a school rated “Effective”. It was a deliberate choice and it was very much like holding our breath and jumping off a cliff, only to find out we had gills we never knew we had!
Let’s be frank. A bit of test prep is necessary. I’ve taught my daughter what clues to look for and how to approach tests in order to reduce her stress. She takes tests every day now — yet the focus isn’t on the tests or the testing or the scores. How’s THAT for more irony? Many of her “tests” are 5 questions — and the school requires 80% or better to pass, so she can only miss one question. In reality, she can’t miss ANY because her parents require 90% or better to “pass.” The first few weeks, she almost hyperventilated when she got 50% or 60%. But we went back EVERY TIME a question was missed and reviewed the material, talked about the larger concepts and context, and integrated the concepts she had more trouble with into PBL and field trips.
How would this model scale to an entire school? That is for people with more expertise than I to discuss. If I were a classroom teacher, I hope I would try to give a “test” every day — one question, two questions, a few sentences of writing even — to 1) reduce or eliminate the fear of the word and 2) demonstrate that tests are no big deal and not the focus of school — that the LEARNING and the PROCESS are the focus.
It’s an uphill climb — and swim. But we have to try because there is no doubt that the system is broken and it will take courageous administrators, teachers, parents, and policy makers to change it. Thanks for being on that team!
Here’s the thing. I have said to the other administrators in my district (including my superiors) that we can take the current climate either as a reason to ditch the system and bail out, or as an opportunity to hang in there and reinvent education. I’m committed to the latter. But while we are building the new submarine, we still have to swim. That can’t wait for the system to be fixed, because it is going to take a very long time–likely much longer than we want. This is the dilemma I outlined in the original post: how do I in good conscience do both at the same time and make both work for the benefit of kids. And, of course, learning. 🙂