The school year is drawing to a close. It’s always a bittersweet time. It is good to bring the year to a close, to finish all that we’ve worked on for a year and to take some small satisfaction in all we’ve learned. But it’s a sad time as well, for all too soon, each of my classes, made up of all of my students, will never meet again. Each class has its own unique personality made of the personalities of all of my students. I’ll miss them.
But this year, more than any other, I’ve badly failed them. How? Here’s an example. Each year I keep track of all of the inadvertently funny things my students write. I normally collect around 120 of these gems, but this year, I have only about 70.
Why only 70? State mandated testing. This year, Texas switched from the old TAKS tests to the new STAAR tests. Why would we change? Are you sure you want to know? You won’t like the answers… Very well, but be sure to take your blood pressure meds.
State mandated tests are absolutely perfect, you see, the best human beings can create, absolutely the state of the art. And so it was with the TASS tests that came before the TAKS tests. And the TAKS tests were the pinnacle of perfection, which is why they have now been replaced by the STAAR tests. So perfect are they, the state paid the company that authored them—Pearson—just under a half billion (yes, billion with a “B”) dollars just to buy the tests for the next five years. Even in Texas, that’s real money.
And the STAAR tests? So perfect there are no words to express their perfection—until the next batch of new and even more expensive tests is required, and of course, a new acronym will have to be dreamed up by the state education agency for acronym dreaming. We’re big on acronyms in education. They are so perfect there were originally to have been some 15 of them that kids would have to pass to graduate from high school, but the public—damn them anyway, what do they know? They’re not educrats!—rose up and threatened the reelection of state representatives and senators, and lo and behold, perfection has been pared back to only five tests in the future.
I’ll be dealing with many testing related issues in the next, related article to be posted on the same day next week, and perhaps, a third. But this article is focused on one of a teacher’s most precious resources: time.
State law requires a school year of no less than 180 days, which is common around the nation. And this takes me back to the comic writings. This year I collected only about 58% of the usual number of comic writings. That’s significant in that these come to me as a result of unintentional mistakes made in a variety of writings. This means, in essence, we were able, as a direct result of mandated testing, to write only about 58% as much as usual. In other words, my students lost 42% of their writing opportunities this year. Were you the parent of one of my students, would you find that acceptable?
Because we were in a transition year, we lost even more time. Junior students were taking the TAKS tests for the final time, and sophomore students were taking the STAAR tests for the first time. We knew what to do with TAKS, hard-won lessons puzzled out over many years, for the state educrats throw a veil of secrecy over all testing, ostensibly to prevent cheating. So irrational are they that teachers aren’t allowed to so much as look at any of the tests or the student’s answer documents, and we are absolutely prohibited from saying a word about the tests upon pain of having our teaching certificates revoked. But wait, it’s even better than you imagined. We’re also simultaneously required to look at their answer documents to ensure they’re not cheating and they filled them out completely and correctly, but we can’t actually look at them to do it. They actually tell us things like “glance at the answer document…” You see the difference, don’t you?
While test security is important, we all know what’s going on. They don’t want teachers—people who actually know how tests should be constructed—to see the tests, so badly constructed are they. They absolutely don’t want parents to know.
The other interesting factor is that the state refuses to tell teachers the content of tests. Oh, they hand out hints about the form of some sections of the tests, but the actual content, well, that’s a secret too. To be absolutely fair, the public uproar about the tests has forced the state educrats to promise to release the tests given this year so teachers can actually have some idea what to teach the kids, but that won’t be until later this summer, and who knows how they’ll decide to change things for next year now that they didn’t get their way in forcing 15 tests on the kids? I’m sure any errors on the original test will be sanitized before they’re released to the public.
So this year, we had only a vague idea of what to teach the kids to pass tests that would, in large part, determine whether they would graduate from high school. There were a variety of Internet sources purporting to have some idea, tests given by other states that may or may not have been similar, but we could not be sure. Add in the fact that the legislature was in session and rumors were flying about how many tests would be required, how they’d be scored and what that would mean for students, and you begin to understand the teacher’s dilemma.
One particularly ugly problem was the legislature required that the tests be 15% of each student’s grade for the year in those subjects. This might sound reasonable, but it was an absolute nightmare. Schools have varying schedules and methods of grading, and for students moving or otherwise changing schools, it was impossible. Consider too that the test results wouldn’t be given to schools until the very last days of the year—if then—and it’s not surprising this provision of the law was deferred for several years, and finally, done away with. No one would know if a student actually passed a class until the state got around to posting the scores at the very end of the year or sometime during the summer, and by then, it would be far too late to turn things around.
Consider too that STAAR tests are supposed to be “end of course” tests, but actually aren’t and can’t be. Yet, much depends on that fiction, and many mandates emanate from it. The English tests—there are two—are given at the beginning of April and the rest weeks later. The English tests take much longer to grade, so they have to be given earlier.
We did know that the essay portion of the English tests was completely changed. The old TAKS test required a single, two-page essay, but the new STAAR test requires three single page essays. Why three? Pearson, the company writing the tests, also does the SAT test. STAAR is basically the SAT format. It’s quicker and easier to grade, and one of the essays is a developmental essay that does not contribute to a student’s score. In other words, kids are required to write an essay that will help enrich Pearson by lowering their future test development costs. Of course, no one knows which of the three is the developmental essay.
Basically, the essays have been dumbed down to make it easier for temporary graders and to increase Pearson’s profits. Kids have to put together only 3-4 paragraphs, but because we had no idea exactly what the test graders would be told to look for, we were guessing about that too.
But there are additional problems. Because their jobs ride on test scores, our school administrators demand that we do “benchmark” testing to give them an idea how the kids might do on the STAAR tests. Like the state educrats, local administrators, more and more, are all about data rather than education. It doesn’t matter that since we had no real idea what to expect, we had no real idea what to test with benchmark tests, or how the STAAR test would eventually be graded, therefore, benchmark test results would be essentially meaningless. However, we were producing data, which is now the entire point of education.
Now, about time: the benchmark tests cost us five days of classes. That’s 180-5=175 or about 3% of the school year. Those tests alone cost us three percent of our potential time for learning. Understand that when I speak of lost “days,” I mean that I see each of my classes for 50 minutes a day, five times a week. If that class doesn’t meet or is testing, at a pep rally, etc., I’ve lost a day of learning opportunity for that class. As I’ve often noted, all any teacher can do is provide the best possible opportunity to learn—we can’t make anyone learn anything—and the most important factor is time. Much of what we do isn’t accomplished in 50-minute blocks. Killing one 50-minute class can disrupt or even wipe out the effectiveness of instruction for an entire week.
We also lost eight days to state mandated testing this year, and I’m being very conservative in this, as the number of days was actually greater, but let’s give the educrats the benefit of the doubt. That’s about 4.5% of the year so we’re down to only 167 days.
We also lost eight days to pep rallies, assemblies, other testing, and similar matters. Again, I’m being conservative. That’s another 4.5% of the year, and we’re down to about 159 days.
But wait, there’s more! In order to construct a 30 minute tutoring period in the middle of each day so students could be drilled in various subjects in the hopes of passing the tests, the content of which was a secret, we took five minutes from each of our 50 minutes classes, which is the equivalent of 20 days of classes (5 minutes times 180 days = 900 minutes, divided by 45 minutes (the remaining class time) equals 20 class periods/days or 11% of the school year). We’re now down to 139 days.
Because we had so little idea of the content of the STAAR tests, and because we were actually doing two testing regimes, we spent two solid months before the tests doing nothing but drilling for those tests. That’s actually 34 days of avoiding the curriculum entirely, so now we’re down to 105 days. In a “normal” testing year, I would spend only about six, rather than eight, weeks of test drill, but that would save only 10 days.
All of this means that as a direct result of mandatory, high stakes testing, we had only 58% of the entire school year available to teach the normal curriculum. Now do you see why I collected only about 70 comic writings rather than the normal 120? Those mathematically inclined readers will, by now, have noticed that 70 is also 58% of 120.
It’s actually possible for many students to have less than 50% of the school year available for learning due to activities of various kinds. An article I wrote for PJ Media explains how.
Imagine being given 42% less time to accomplish any job, yet being held accountable for the same, even enhanced, results, and you have some idea of what’s happening in education these days. The problem is we’re not talking of lessened profits, but of lost learning opportunities. All of those days are forever gone, the opportunity for kids to learn all they should have learned and to grow as much as they should have grown are also forever gone.
But so what? Aren’t kids learning something worthwhile in all of that test preparation? Not much.
In learning to write very brief, terrifically simplistic essays, they’re not developing the analytical and writing abilities they need. When I’ve lost 42% of the school year before the first class of the year begins, my kids will miss a huge amount of literature and a huge amount of their classwork, which includes not just writing, but reading, analysis, and the exercises necessary to build bigger, better brains. Instead, we’re making them whizzes at passing highly specific tests of middling difficulty.
This year, that meant that instead of acting out at least three acts of Julius Caesar, we had time for only one. It meant not reading three novels we normally do, and drastically cutting short the few we managed to read. It meant drastically curtailing the discussion of those works necessary for true understanding. It meant doing only about half of the poetry we normally do. We did not do story writing, and read only a few short stories. We didn’t make vital neural connections, but oh, we produced data! Data that with only 10 days of school left, we have yet to receive. We probably won’t get it until school is out.
And because the kids won’t get the results, and because the tests are changed each year, what will they be able to do to improve? The fact is that in order to teach them to pass the tests, we teach a small amount of actual skill and content, but mostly, specific tricks and methods that provide the answers for temporary test graders that will be spending minutes, perhaps even seconds, grading their tests. And for all of that, all that is produced is a tiny bit of data that tells us nothing more than how a given student fared on a given test on a single day. Considering how much that tiny bit of data cost in taxpayer dollars, I suspect most people, if they knew the truth, wouldn’t be pleased.
Don’t think for moment, gentle readers, that my experience in Texas is substantially different than where you live. It’s not. And while my students told me they felt they were well prepared for the tests and the exercises we developed to prepare them seemed to be like the tests, we won’t have any real idea until we finally get the test scores. Even if we guessed right, we have no idea how the temps will be told to grade the essays, which are always the most heavily weighted portion of the tests.
That’s my failure, forced upon me by considerations political and financial, not educational.
Stay tuned for the second in this series of articles, to be posted next week, which will explore the philosophy of testing, and what they can, and cannot, accomplish.