Monday, March 31, 2014

Standardized Tests: The recipe for creating passive and shut down students

In teaching writing to Middle and High School students,  I've found that with growing frequency, students sitting with pencils or pens over sheets of paper will jot down a sentence, maybe two, then look up and ask "Am I doing this right?  Did I write the right thing?"  English teachers can't really teach writing, we can only guide kids to get in touch with their thoughts, get them down on paper and take steps to elaborate.

Writing is hard work anyway, but when a student is immediately filled with doubt, and doesn't trust his own ideas or thought process - a teacher's task in helping a student coax those ideas out to deliver them to the page is extra arduous.  The teaching becomes helping kids to first trust themselves to be willing to take a risk with a beginning sentence, before even approaching the craft of writing. I've turned into a writing therapist. "Go ahead and write it, even if you think it's wrong. You've got to start somewhere. You can always edit that out later. Trust yourself."

I find the same disturbing trend when we have Socratic Seminar or fishbowl discussions.  We begin with student composed questions about the novel we are reading - I put the question out there, and the students, sitting in a circle, uncomfortably stare back, many, like deer caught in the headlights. I give appropriate "wait time" - then frequently, say: "Somebody throw the first pitch. Offer up an idea. Don't worry about saying the wrong thing.  Get it started!"  Finally, after a minute or so, a student  steps up (often trepidly) and gets the discussion started.  Clearly, we need to have more of these discussions, so I include them as a regular classroom practice, in spite of time constraints, to give as many students as possible to  hear their own voices and often, once they begin, some of them are able to take the idea baton from another, and run with it.  But, such an effort to get them to speak, and to write!   Maybe an idea is well-grounded, maybe not, but offer it up kids, say it.  Give us something to work with here.

For students to collectively have such self-doubt at ages 12 and 13, an age where verve and an exploratory spirit are natural characteristics and necessary to growth-  is a troubling symptom of something or someone putting that self doubt there.

I sure didn't put the self-doubt there. Nor do most English teachers.

The something that invites a kid's self-doubt is the standardized testing culture that had accelerated with No Child Left Behind and is further amplified now with Race to the Top Even teachers and administrators who reject these tests as viable assessment tools find that the encroaching  Culture for Testing is creeping into their schools and classrooms more insistently, like a paralyzing virus in a science fiction movie.   

Tremendous energy and resources are fed to test prep and standardized tests, which are filled with the reading of passages that are in no remote way meaningful to students' experiences or prior knowledge.  The questions invite no conceptual understanding, or even a gutsy try: They are focused on the scavenger hunt of finding micro-facts within the passage.

Any child who happens to think differently, interprets a passage differently, or, has her own connotation of a word or phrase - runs the risk of getting the answer(s) wrong. (But wait a minute, doesn't our real life culture emulate those who "think different"?  What kind of mixed message is being sent?)

As one of the crustier, more voluminous passages in last year's ELA exam was all about striking gold in the Klondike - I watched my students, bent over this passage, puzzling over, I imagined, the word Klondike. To many 7th graders, the connotation of the word Klondike is, cream wrapped in a thin layer of chocolate.  I got distracted myself, thinking about the package of Klondikes we had in our freezer at home.

I'm going out on a limb here to "play" with this test passage topic:  Hypothetically, if we were having a "regular" discussion about the Klondike gold rush - (a stretch, because it had nothing to do with the novels or contemporary social issues that we discussed and wrote about in my "regular" curriculum) as we were focusing on close reading - we'd approach the word Klondike, as my kids knew it.  Ice cream.  My question: In what ways does the Klondike gold rush connect to Klondike ice cream?  Why do you think the people who created the ice cream bars chose the name Klondike?

The Common Core touts what "it" refers to as "close reading" as a standard, and we had a number of sessions when as a group, we engaged with what that might mean. (I used Francine Prose's excellent book Reading like a Writer as a blueprint for approaching this.)  We worked with denotation and connotation - and how our experience as individuals affects the way we might think of a word like Klondike.   Once my students (by January) had mostly shed their fear of saying the wrong thing, we had great fun with word talks.

But---back to the test: The actual Klondike passage was so long and onerous to read, that nobody had time to read it closely, or thoughtfully, and complete all the micro-fact answers. I'm willing to bet that lots of students had to try to back away from their distractions to be able to finish the test.  Most of my students did not finish it.

In spite of all our attention to close reading, from September to March, under my guidance, my students were not prepared for what awaited them.  As a teacher, I didn't get it "right." For a few moments,  I had a complete flash of identification with my 125 students who had felt the discouragement of not "getting IT right".  Fortunately, I'm an adult with a Masters in Education and Arts (where "the right answer" doesn't exist) background, so that identification quickly passed and I went back to my usual quirky thinking patterns.  I have empathy for new, young teachers who don't have the kind of resources or experience or backgrounds that veteran teachers have.  These teachers are being conditioned to solicit the "right" answer from students. Their careers are at stake.

To sum up this anecdote - there is no opportunity for authentic close reading on these tests. The tests lie, the CC "standards" lie.

You can't get it "right" as a student or a teacher when the test game is rigged this way.  You can never get it right when you have to leave who you are and what you know at the door of the classroom on test day.

When students are conditioned in this way, year after year after year to "get the correct answer" - is it any wonder that they are blocked in their writing, and afraid to throw an idea into the discussion circle?  What are our students being groomed to be?  Compliance is now valued over originality and risk taking.  

Like my students, I felt demoralized after these tests were completed.  Who wants to play this game anymore?  

The day when the last exam had been collected and packaged, one of my most conscientious and curious students approached me and said "Ms. Willis, can we get back to our novel discussions now?"

I said "You bet. It does seem a long time since we looked at the novel together."

"Julie" sighed and said "We're used to these tests. We've been doing the test prep and tests since 3rd grade."

The resignation in her voice was haunting and something I will never forget. The growing sense of alarm I had felt over the passivity and compliance of most of my 125 students- was addressed in her comment. I understood that these kids had been conditioned just to get through the tests, and to put as little of themselves into the whole process as possible.

They have been taught over the years by the test culture that it's easier to be silent and comply than it is to take a risk and put some of your real self out there - in writing - or in discussions.

For some kids, many kids, it's easier now, under this test cloud, to be invisible, or, just let somebody lead you through it.  It's okay to be a sheep.

This is frightening.

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