Here's a brainteaser for you. What are the two favorite numbers of every third through eighth grader who resides in New York State during April?
Stuck? Here's a hint: any teacher of these students has the same favorite numbers.
Still stuck? The answer is 3 and 4.
A 3 or a 4 are passing numbers on the English Language Arts and Math exams which measure a student's competency in those subjects.
If a student earns a 1 or a 2 on the tests, than the school must provide some kind of remediation, as these scores determine the child is not working at grade level.
Doesn't sound so bad, right? Accountability is important and state tests provides us with the necessary data.
Unfortunately, over the last decade, the state tests have taken on a life of their own, shaping the culture of public education. And with a movement toward national standards on the horizon, and the state instituting a new performance evaluation tool (APPR) for teachers, this culture of the test is likely to get worse, not better.
What began as a way to test kids one day every couple of years on their skills, has morphed into a multi-day, multi-week, multi-subject testing extravaganza.
As a teacher and a parent I am frustrated, even though the subject I teach doesn't have a test. (The eighth grade state Social Studies exam will be reinstated in 2014). The tests usurp too much of our valuable teaching time as students must be prepared, and therefore lessons need to cater to the skills on the test.
Although it varies from teacher to teacher and district to district, let's assume an instructor spends two weeks just on test prep. Even for a child who reads at or above grade level, no instructor wants their students to go into a test without knowledge of what to expect. So it is necessary to alleviate their anxiety and get them accustomed to the type of questions they will see on the test.
Then, comes the actual exam, which is 2-3 days depending on the grade. Now, while one might argue that the test is only two hours a day, which leaves another 3-4 hours for actual instruction, my students were drained of energy after the test.
Even with a game of Simon Says and a snack, they could not focus on Lewis and Clark's expedition. So, I lost a week and a half of teaching time between the ELA and the Math test. And I need to get to the Civil War by June. It's the end of April. I just began westward expansion.
Maybe this year's group won't suffer irreparable harm if I cover Appomattox in thirty seconds, but for next year's seventh grade it could have dire consequences as there will surely be a related question on their Social Studies test at the end of eighth grade. And then again in eleventh grade on the Social Studies regents.
Less time to teach, more material to cover, higher stakes for both the children and the adults. Are we having fun yet? Is education supposed to be fun?
Well, yes it is. Learning is hard work, but it is also supposed to inspire, and build a community of life long learners who understand how to ask questions, and solve problems. I'm just not certain we can achieve this through the use of tests which are largely constituted by multiple choice questions. Education necessitates creativity from its teachers if it is going to produce citizens with these skills.
In her April 20th article in the New York Times, Claire Hollander, a public school English teacher in Manhattan, astutely notes that "We cannot enrich the minds of our students by testing them on texts that purposely ignore their hearts."
Tests are not creative. They do not inspire. They do not make children want to learn.
None of this of course means that we should abandon testing all together. Teachers want to know their students are learning. We got into the business to affect the lives of kids and nothing is more thrilling for than when a second grader finally cracks the code and begins to read.
But why not trust the individual school districts to devise their own assessments? As an elementary school student in the Bedford Central Schools, my daughter was given district-wide benchmark exams in math a couple of times a year to monitor her progress, and her teachers kept track of her reading level with individual assessments as well. This seemed to be far less intrusive. And just as instructive. It provided a way for the teachers to identify the students that might need help as well as inform them about topics they may need to teach more thoroughly.
And isn't that what we want to know? Which one of our kids might have fallen through the cracks, and what areas we may need to re-think our own pedagogy?
But the state doesn't trust us. In addition to the multi-day testing extravaganza of our students, their scores will soon be tied to our evaluation. Between 20 and 40 percent of a teacher's yearly evaluation will be tied to how her students do on the state tests, under the new APPR laws. This is fraught with so many problems, I will have to save it for another article. But suffice it to say, it will do little to inspire teachers not to "teach to the test."
There is so much more to say, but it's 9:50 a.m. on Thursday and day two of the math test is almost over. The students look bleary, but there's no time for that. I need to muster all my creative energy and entice them with the story of the Alamo.
It's almost May, after all.