Unlike so many schools in New York City (including both schools where I taught previously), my current school is not under the gun in terms of raising test scores. So why did I just receive two stacks of New York State test prep books?
Let’s end the illusion that standardized tests are authentic measures of learning. If they were, the “regular” curriculum would suffice. Yet even for my students who are reading high-school level books, who go home each night and converse with parents who are lawyers or professors, who had sufficient medical care from the time they were in the womb, who can afford to eat all-organic diets instead of chips and soda, test prep is a necessity. They need to be taught the absurd language and expectations of standardized tests. They need to know that each bullet-point of an extended-response question should be a body paragraph, that they cannot do math in their head if a problem asks them to show their work, that they must obey the directions and churn out answers that are clear enough for the graders to understand. That if a multiple-choice question has more than one possible answer, they need to forget about all the lessons I taught on developing juicy, controversial ideas about tests, and instead ask themselves, “What would most people choose?”
During one of my parent-teacher conferences, a father remarked that his daughter was extremely confused by my feedback on her recent essay. The girl in question is a superb writer who I felt was ready to move beyond using sentence frames such as “Another example is…” But dad, the girl had said, that’s what essays are SUPPOSED to have! She had only been exposed to essays as preparation for standardized tests, and there is no guarantee that the scorers will have the ability to detect subtlety or appreciate creativity. When success is defined as following a formula, we are creating formulaic children. Frankly, it’s boring, and my kids deserve better.
Yet we can’t escape the ways we are forced by the “system” to spend time on test prep. For one thing, 5th graders in the city have to apply to middle schools, and the middle schools care about test scores. Hundreds of students apply to the most selective middle schools, so it makes more sense for them to look at two numbers – the ELA and Math state tests scores – than scrutinize report cards. If the teachers, especially the 4th grade teachers, don’t prepare them to do well on the test, it hurts their chances at getting into a “good” middle school.
In NYC, schools are graded using a School Report Card that disproportionately relies on test scores. In an elementary school, that means that there is inordinate pressure on grades 3-5. Furthermore, the report cards weigh “progress” from year-to-year above raw scores, so the fourth and fifth grade teachers and students are especially scrutinized. It is not enough for a student to perform on grade level in 3rd grade and then on grade level in 4th grade (which seems to be a perfectly reasonable goal given that the standards and tests reflect a year of progress) – no, they have to “move” from “low 3s” to “high 3s,” and so on. This year, with NY State’s rollout of the new, Common-Core aligned state tests, it will truly be comparing apples and oranges.
The emphasis on “progress” creates a quandary when high-performing students are given low-ceiling tests: there is little room to “move up” from year to year. This is exactly the reason why a math teacher at the prestigious Anderson School for the Gifted rated as the “worst math teacher in NYC” when the value-added scores were released last year. Her students couldn’t make progress because they had nowhere to go! My school, a wonderful school with amazing teachers, supportive and visionary administrators, highly involved parents, and a wide array of extracurricular offerings, scored a D in this measure of progress.
And guess what—NOBODY cared. The principal hasn’t forced us to pore over test data and pretend that it means what it says it means. We haven’t cancelled enrichments to make room for test prep. Parents are still clamoring to enroll their students and residents of the neighborhood freaked out when our zone size was cut to ease overcrowding. We’re in a rare position of luxury, not having to care about scores, or so I thought.
We may not care about scores, but we do care about children. We cannot escape the feeling of obligation to prepare them for the tests they will face. In a 5th grade faculty meeting, we looked over the latest Testing Guidelines from New York State. The teachers who had spent days last spring working on this year’s pacing calendar realized that there had been even more changes, and our plans were missing crucial elements that would be tested. We may distrust testing as a measure, but my colleagues and I feel an ethical responsibility to make sure our children are ready for them. Speaking for myself alone, it’s because high-stakes testing is already such a stressful situation for kids that it seems unfair to add the stress of testing them on topics they’ve never been taught. With the uncertainty of the new tests looming on the horizon, the fact that the State Education Department is still changing the scope of the tests, how do we know what to do?
One of my colleagues sighed in defeat, “I guess we have no choice but to see what Pearson is offering.”