Finish Line, by Mad AfricanIt’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:

Later that day, Edutopia responded:

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?