Saturday, April 6, 2013

A Few Thoughts on the Atlanta Testing Scandal

As you may have heard, there is a massive scandal in the Atlanta public school system involving 58 schools and 178 educators, 35 of whom have been indicted for criminal activity.  It is a scandal about cheating on the state tests.  It is chilling and sobering.  The Superintendent has been indicted, among others.

As a teacher, about to begin the process of the state tests with my third graders, I can't help reflecting on the events in Atlanta.  Cheating is wrong.  No question.  However, I know the pressures we're under to raise test scores, to meet AYP (adequate yearly progress) goals, and the constant criticisms leveled at our public schools.  I know the anxiety that builds in my gut as the state tests approach.  I know how crushing it is and how much I question my skills as a teacher, my worth as a teacher, whether I even deserve to be in the classroom, when my class does poorly.

During the past 2 years, after brutal rounds of budget cuts that left us with 10-14 fewer school days, class sizes of 35 and higher in the elementary grades, and less support staff, we were told the passing scores on the state tests had been increased.  My results were not good.  I worked hard all year to help my students learn what they needed to learn.  Then I had to watch as they struggled and failed.  And I had to pick up the pieces and encourage them after all of that.

I know what it's like to watch a struggling reader who has not qualified to take a modified version of the test, or a student who is still learning English, try their best to read a text that is way beyond them, try and try and wear themselves down, while I am forced to bear witness, and restricted in what I can say to them.  This year, the very words I can say to encourage them have been scripted for me.  As I watch a student struggle and drown, not because I have not taught them but simply because they are not there yet, it breaks my heart.  Then, while my heart is breaking, that drowning child raises their hand and tells me they don't understand what a word means.  One word.  The word "contain", for example, in the phrase "Which of these polygons does NOT contain a right angle?"  The child knows "polygon."  She knows "right angle."  But that word "contain" has stumped her.  Or the phrase "according to the passage" (a phrase I have learned to use with my third graders throughout the year because the people who write tests can't be bothered to use kid-friendly language).  That child turns to me with pleading eyes, asking for help from the adult whose job, all year, has been to provide support and scaffolding so she can learn.  And I must refuse her.  I must say "Just try your best and choose the answer you think makes the most sense."

Those of us who teach tend to be empathic people.  We tend to be helpers.  It is against our deepest nature to turn away from a child who is struggling and in pain.  But that is what we have to do during the state test.

I try to prepare my students for this reality.  When we take in-class tests, I try to create a similar environment.  I remind them that I cannot help them.  I remind them that the person who learns from the test is me, because I will learn where they still need help and  what they don't understand.  I remind them that a test is just a time to show what they know and what they need to learn.  I try to help them understand that they should do their best and take the test seriously, but they should not be anxious or worried or make too much of it.  Mixed messages?

I try to teach my students what they, as third graders, are expected to learn.  I try to help them overcome the gaps that result from poverty and language differences.  I try to give them skills to outwit the tricks of the test.

And then testing day arrives, and my role suddenly changes.  I warn them in advance that I'm required to read certain directions and that there are rules about what I can say and do during the test.  I tell them that it might seem like an alien teacher has invaded.  And then, I become a Test Administrator.  And I watch as the wheels fall off.  I watch as a student who struggles with attention begins to simply click on answers and whip through the test (In Oregon, we take the test on computer).  I can no longer tell him or her to slow down, take a break or take their time.  I watch as their video game muscle memories kick in and they click on answers the way they would click on moves in their favorite game, rushing to get to the next level, not stopping to think and problem-solve.  I bear silent witness, hands tied.

Eventually it ends.  Back in the safety of our classroom, away from the inviolate space of the testing room, I remind my students that, while I want them to do their best, the test is still nothing more than a test, one measure of their learning.  It does not measure who they are in their hearts, and that is what matters.

And then, in a staff meeting, we look at the data.  All I can see is how far I still have to go.  I find myself getting jealous and resentful of colleagues whose scores are better than mine.  Later, I sit alone in my classroom and wonder what I did wrong, what I could do better, where I failed, and I forget the very words I told my students.  I forget that I am not my test scores any more than they are.  I forget that it is just one measure of my worth as a teacher.

So as I read about the Atlanta scandal, I cannot help but pause.  Cheating is wrong.  I would never change my students answers or tell them which answer to choose.  But I'd be lying if I didn't understand, in some part of me, how so many educators found themselves going down such a wrong road.

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