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Saturday, February 17, 2007


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.


Mamacita (The REAL one) said...

You'll get no positive comments about testing from me, apologies in advance.

I was written up three times for cooking breakfast for my testing group. My kids were poor and their parents were far too ignorant to know how to fill out the paperwork for free meals at school, so by nine thirty a.m. their stomachs were growling like mad, and no way in hell was I going to force them to take a big test on empty stomachs.

However, feeding them was forbidden, so I got written up for it. Since I did it again, two more times, you can see that I am a person who believes in following regulations to a T. Not.

Mike in Texas said...

Man, this sounds like some kind of bad idea the administrators at my district would have.

I myself get to watch over 6 incorrigibles, kids with behavior and learning problems so bad they are exempt from the test.

My boss told me I'd need to provide some kind of structure to their day .


Kimberly said...

Most of our students do get breakfast at school, but our administration is also buying them cereal, milk, and juice. That will be served in the classroom from 7:30 - 8:00.

I'm doing small group testing. But I can't use my computer lab - because they put another group in there. That would have been easy for me, because the only thing I have on the walls are the Capturing Kids Hearts Social Contracts.

On Monday I have to go into the G&T teacher's and speech teacher's shared space and figure out what needs to be covered.

Originally I was scheduled to be in the library. Our administration had decided to do the benchmark tests (last years TAKS test) as a dress rehearsal for the real TAKS test. Thank God it rained on a benchmark testing day. The library turned into Grand Central Station, because it is the fasted and driest route from the 5th and 3rd grade portables to the restrooms. No one could concentrate.

Our AP found several other problems, and solved them. The lunch room is in the middle of the school and the noise was disruptive to several testing areas. So K - 2 will get sack lunches served in the gym. Then they can go outside through the gym doors to have recess and never pass any testing area. One 1st grade is going to move to the science lab next to the gym, and their room in a quiet area will be used for small group testing.

Teachers are staying with their homerooms. We have a large number of kids that require small groups either because of an IEP or 504. A couple of lower grade teachers, will be having subs and the teacher will be administering the test to small groups.

I feel sorry for the other members of my Specials Team (Music, Art, PE, Library) because they are going to be stuck outside in the garden, or portable area. Hopefully it won't be raining or cold. When students have to go to the restroom. The teacher watches them from the classroom door to the Pod door. The pods all open onto the garden. Then the specials teachers hold them and send them one at a time into the bathroom.

This is an improvement over our old system where the bathroom monitors would sit in the pods (groups of 4 classrooms) and escort kids one at a time to the bathroom. I had kids, 5th graders, who nearly had accidents after waiting more than 1/2 an hour for a bathroom monitor.

I hope all goes well for you.


IMC Guy said...

I agree completely and have not understood many of the testing rules I had to deal with when testing my Wisconsin 3rd graders. At some point, let's all hope someone wakes up and gets rid of the standardized testing as the main measure of learning.

Mrs. T said...

Do you know that homeschoolers in Iowa have the option of having their kids take a standardized test or submitting a portfolio (reviewed by whom? on what standards?) that shows the students are making "adequate progress"? What would that do to our lives if we had such an option?Adequate progress? What exactly might that entail?
On the standardized testing, my school opted to have us test our 4th block classes, all in one shot. The school provided bottled water- I brought healthy snacks (granola bars, cheese, fruit, crackers) for them to munch on during the breaks. Unlike Mamacita, I didn't get in trouble for it, either.
We were instructed not to provide any additional explanation of test items, nor were we permitted to "clean-up" any of the answer sheets- erase stray marks, fill in the bubbles better. At the end they each got a ticket on which they could write their name and then submit to a drawing for fabulous prizes.

Anonymous said...

You mentioned kids that were exempted from the test.....I had head that Federal guidelines for Spec. Ed. under IDEA were now calling for all students to be least that's the mandate in my district.

Mister Teacher said...

Elementary, special ed kids DO get tested, but they don't take the TAKS. They take a test that is modified for their needs. From what I've heard, though, NEXT year, everyone might have to take the standard TAKS.

Mrs. Bluebird said...

Great post - loved the comment about differentiation. Beautiful.

And you're also on target about the science test basically being a reading test with a science bent. I teach 7th science and every year we shake our heads about the fact that the kids' science scores are a mirror image of their reading scores. It's almost not worth testing science because what's really being tested is reading!

Mister Teacher said...

That's exactly my problem with that, Mrs. Bluebird. I don't know how the other teachers can stand it. Like I said, THANKFULLY we are allowed to read words and phrases on the third-grade math test, if they ask for help.

Anonymous said...

yeah, testing is a bum deal. here, all students are tested, regardless of ability, at grade 3 and above. our district also does MAPS tests at the beginning, midterm and end of each year. this is a required short cycle assessment, and the data is to be used to drive instruction. it measures student growth based on state standards. however, this set of tests has NO bearing on our state standardized test. our school is in corrective action and if we don't raise our school wide scores by an insane amount we will be in danger of having our school taken over by the state. they have done this for one middle school and the students there take 3 reading and 3 math classes each day. the last class is a science class (since science now counts toward our AYP but social studies does not). yikes. since i teach music, this really scares me.
i also agree that these are mostly reading tests. there is not a single computation problem on our math test. every math question is a story problem and almost all of them require at least 2 steps to arrive at a correct answer. some of the questions are totally bogus and i would love to share them, but i had to sign this right away on a paper that says if i get caught discussing specific test material (even with my spouse) then i can be fined and lose my license. sorry you won't get to laugh at what constitutes a proficient student.

Mister Teacher said...

Don't worry, I know about that oath you have to sign as well as the ridiculously phrased questions. Culturally biased? You betcha.