Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Testing, the Blob, and the Great Escape

It is a monster.  I've seen it terrorize thousands of children.  They can't run.  They can't hide.  It will catch them eventually.  I've seen it kill kids...or at least kill their love of school and learning.  Like the movie monster Frankenstein it is a freightening patchwork, but in this case not one of used body parts but of misdirected education policy of our own creation that sparks fear, misunderstanding and even panic among people.  But Frankenstein wasn't bad...just a guy that got a little over nervous and freaked out.  When I was little Frankenstein didn't scare me,  what scared me was the blob.  Testing is worse than the blob. But the description from the 1958 movie poster of "Indescribable! Indestructable! Nothing Can Stop It!"  sure does fit.

By now you certainly know that large scale testing has had a dramatic effect on American Education.  It has literally change the way we learn and teach.  Depending on who you believe, or trust, that is either a really good thing, or a really bad thing.  The voice from educators who work directly with kids seems to express the consensus that it is not so good.  Surprise surprise. 

"Testing Season," as it is un-affectionately known, begins in May and basically normal school grind to an abrupt halt.  It puts parts of the school and large portions of our student body on lockdown for weeks on end.  Testing brings any real learning to a halt.  We do testing in 3 or 4 main locations but during that span our gymnasiums(we have 2) are sealed up tight.  Student routines and teacher days are changed to feed the monster.  We all are forced to proctor.  And forced to do worse.  I am always thinking there is a certain indignity involved when you have to escort a student to the restroom for both us, and them. I won't even begin to enumerate the actual number of tests kids take in our state...but we're well into the thousands just at our school alone.  It makes everyone grumpy.

 Testing leads to a curious phenomenon...testing fatigue.   It overcomes a usually vibrant and energetic group of people.  It is a real monster. Upperclassmen "check out" both mentally and physically.  The courses I teach with underclassmen become ineffective as on any given day half of the students or more may be missing.  testing has forever altered the end of school.   I stated before how unfortunate it is that the days of engaging and interesting activities serving to tie everything together have been undermined by all the crap we have railed against on this blog.

Radiation ...reform...what's the diff?
Lange's + Bridges' best work :)
Testing arguably destroys schools and the people within them.  It's the worst of all the most famous monsters.  Like Godzilla it is a beast of our own creation.  Like the blob it grows more powerful and entrenched the longer it is around.  Like Dracula it sucks the life out of victims.  It has the potential to yield great profit like King Kong and that is what causes the problems.  Like Kong it is hard to control but unlike Kong it is unsympathetic.  Like the Mummy it has the potential to be around for a very very long time.  It has tentacles that reach out and cling to just about every aspect of education, like the Giant Squid from 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea.  It seems to function as an agent of some greater diabolical purpose like the creatures from Alien.  Have I made my point about it being a monster?

  Like I said it can be destructive.  This is not an assemblage like that of Disney Pixar's Monster's University.  Fortunately the standardized testing has not overtaken that fictional campus yet..  But in our
I put this image in for my kids
public schools this destruction is incremental and hard to perceive.  I have witnessed many times just as I did this year the reaction of students when they learn they didn't pass.  They are certainly disappointed, even upset, but that deflation is quickly replaced with a callous "I don't care."  I think that on one hand they really shouldn't.  The test does not define them.  But I always want my students to care.  So when they say that they don;t care  sometimes it is true and often was long before any test.  But when it is not, and students do care about results, it is sad to see their earnest  efforts go unrewarded.  I'd unnecessarily add here that there's more to learning that just being able to pass a test. It can't measure so many immeasurable things.  But it does matter according to our state's policy.  A whole lot.

For a teacher, the monster might mean that they literally no longer have a job or a school to work in. It is a very helpless feeling watching your students take a test.  In my state, as I suspect in many others, there is no real way to improve the students efforts.  The test results and accompanying feedback don't give much insight.  Worse yet is once they have taken the test, there is no real way to target remediation so they could pass.  I can't tell what they did well, I can't tell what they didn't.  If it is merely supposed to be one of many tools used by teachers.  We pay for this tool and I hope we kept the receipt.  I would also offer we should stop buying things off late night infomercials.   Tests, even standardized ones, have a place and a role.  But I suspect this monstrous of using tests in ways they were never intended.

Proof it is a poor tool is evident in the Student Performance By Question(SPBQ) report.  It is even more non-descript that the blob.  It is arguably less useful.  This despite the "helpful link" on the VDOE website intended to make this report useful.  I can find out the number of questions a student got correct or incorrect, but I cannot with certainty find what that specific content or concept that student did or did not know. So since they have to pass the test, I feel rather helpless and cannot outrun the monster. I am forced to stand by and watch it consume more victims.  Allow me to share a few other gems from my efforts to make such a report useful:

This one illustrates the non-specific language that all our testing efforts produce.
So a couple million  $ buys you some "maybes"?
So once they take the take I should be wary of using it to figure out what they do and do not know.
So its OK for everyone else to overstress SOL results, just not teachers.
Well, I might teach differently if I knew where to start.

Fighting the Monster
There are literally thousands of examples of teachers crying out against the testing machine.  But it must be fed.  Raw Scores, Scaled Scores, Failing Scores, Remediation, and Online Testing all took time to entrench themselves in our schools.  But maybe there is light ahead and we are entering a new era of education where parents and students, even districts like our own join teachers in saying enough is enough.  Is it likely that we can together defeat the monster?  I don't know.  There is a lot of money tied up in all of this.

The testing monster will be tough to rid ourselves of.  It will take a collective effort and not be an easy task.  Even still it is likely to be a worthy foe.  Reliance on political leadership from statehouses and capital domes will likely mean we'll just confront sequels of the same terror, in scarier form.  testing has its place.  But massive, poorly done, standardized testing is nothing but a destructive and undesirable force that must be stopped.  Maybe if we had a champion like Steve McQueen was in the 1963 film, he could lead us in The Great Escape.   Lest we not forget in that one he didn't actually escape.  Maybe one day we will.