Okay, so it's a ripoff of the Seinfeld-created Festivus. But since a main ingredient to Festivus was the Airing of Grievances, I figured it was a good fit.
WARNING: If you have come to Learn Me Good expecting the usual moronic wit, sophomoric humor, or lame jokes, be prepared. Today's post is a more serious musing on the current standardized testing system in place.
With the 2007 TAKS (Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills) going down on Tuesday, I thought I'd get a few things off my chest. To paraphrase Poppa Costanza – I gotta lotta problems with this test!!
Okay, let's go ahead and get the little things out of the way, and then we'll move to the big picture. Thanks to a few idiot teachers who decided to cheat in years past, us honest teachers now face the repercussions. In a move akin to the cartoon elephant shrieking and jumping up on to a high chair when it sees a mouse, the state of Texas has profoundly overreacted.
On Tuesday, I will not be allowed to administer the TAKS to my own students. Neither will any TAKS- grade teachers. I guess they're afraid that one of us will reenact the scene from Spies Like Us, complete with faking a heart attack as we point to the correct answers. I'll be in a 5th grade classroom, with kids I barely know and where the heart attack gag doesn't have a chance of working.
In the meantime, my students will be taking their test with a virtual stranger. Sure, they know Ms. Five, and they've taken a few practice tests with her in the room, but what ever happened to the benefits (or even necessities!) of a familiar presence? Whether you subscribe to the "nurturing presence theory" (the kids know their teacher is there and they feel comfortable) or the "menacing presence theory" (the kids know their teacher is there and so they had BETTER try their hardest), there's a lot of validity there. And "presence" can hardly be considered cheating.
Or, maybe it can. For anyone who thinks that not only should the kids not be helped in any way, but that they should actually be hindered as well...
Which is probably why we have to cover up just about everything in our classroom on test days. Not just visual aids; EVERYTHING with text on it. I can understand not wanting the kids to be able to look at a poster with an example of a Venn Diagram or a sequencing chart. But what possible unfair advantage is a kid going to get from a cursive alphabet chart or a motivational poster that says, "Make Good Choices!"? And yes, I even have to cover up my solar system poster. Nobody wants the kids pulling any answers out of Uranus.
I also have a problem with the whole school ranking system. Exemplary, Recognized, Acceptable, and Unacceptable are the grades bestowed upon campuses based on their overall TAKS scores. But the guidelines and requirements for hitting these marks are rigid and uncompromising. With all of the talk and training on Differentiation at the student level, where is it on the campus level? All kids do not learn at the same rate, and all students cannot perform at the same level. We have to modify our teaching to reach all abilities. But then why is that not taken into account during standardized testing? Why isn't there a sliding scale for school rankings based on demographics and location?
On the 3rd grade math TAKS, a monitor is allowed to read a word or phrase to the student if the student asks them to. This is brilliant because it makes the test about the student's math ability, NOT their reading ability. However, beyond the 3rd grade, this is not the case. Take 5th grade science, for instance. The kids are given absolutely no reading assistance on the science TAKS. This is ridiculous, as it effectively makes the test a reading assessment with a science bent. How many kids know exactly what photosynthesis is, but they don't know how to read the word "photosynthesis?" Or who could tell you with precision the difference between a mixture and a solution, but who can't recognize those words on paper? Except for on the reading tests, the kids should absolutely be allowed to ask for reading assistance. That's just common sense.
But let's move to the big picture now. In my ever so humble opinion, the TAKS is not an adequate measuring stick for a student's growth. It's more like the “height stick” used at Six Flags and other amusement parks. You know the one -- "You must be this tall to ride." The bored coaster-jockeys put it down next to a kid and give it a twirl. If the crossbar slides through the air, the kid doesn't get to ride. If it whacks the kid in the head, he gets to ride. It's a go-no go affair. The kid is either taller than the mark or shorter. As to the actual height of the kid? Who knows?
The TAKS is the test-equivalent of the height stick. It will tell you whether a kid has surpassed a set mark or not. It says absolutely nothing about improvement, or growth, or -- dare I say it -- gain.
But what if there was a system that actually gauged each student's achievement, instead of just indicating pass/fail? Why not have a test at the very beginning of the year and a test at the very end of the year? That way you could see true progress. Let's face it, there are some children who are never going to be able to pass TAKS. They just don't have the skills or the IQ. But that doesn't mean they're not learning anything. Here's an example. Consider a child who scores a 10 (out of 100) on my proposed beginning-of-year test and a 50 on the end-of-year test. In the current system, with just the end-of-year test, that child is just another blip in the "Failure" column. But if a beginning-of-year test had been given, it would be clear that the child had made a gain of 400 percent!! To me, that's much more impressive than the child whose score went from 80 to 85. But as things stand, the kid with the 85 gets praised and moves on, while the kid with a 50 gets retained.
One argument against a beginning-of-year test is that it's too expensive. I understand that these tests cost money, and the education budget is always being trimmed. But in the grand scheme of things, I'm not convinced that it really WOULD be more expensive than what we have now. For one thing, there wouldn't need to be three chances given on any test (right now, some tests are given three times for those who don't pass on the first or second try) because we'd be measuring growth, not just pass/fail. Also, I think it would ease special education's load quite a bit, as teachers would not be requesting resource testing for so many students, trying to get them exempted from a test they have no chance of passing. And on top of everything else, is anyone really going to respect an education system that says, "Yeah, we know what would be best, but we're not going to do it because it's too expensive?"
Anyway, I'm just a lowly peon in the Texas public school system. But here's my two cents, for what it's worth. Any comments are appreciated.