George Lucas Educational Foundation

Powerful Little Bubbles

Powerful Little Bubbles

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            The latest round of district testing is finally over after spending two hours each morning for the past five days in complete silence surrounded by bubbles and number two pencils.  Ten hours.  Over.  At least until April when the State assessment arrives in sealed cartons under heightened security.

            Back to our regularly scheduled program...

            It is now time to dissect the data, label the kids, organize them into new groups and provide a new round of interventions to meet their individual needs.  Modern technology has provided my team with near-instant information.  With trepidation each day, we accessed our data and, like little kids, raced to each other's room asking, "Wad-ja-get?"  Yes, we know that we all had a part in each other's students' progress, and we accept and celebrate that group effort.  However, we also know that our individual professional reputation is firmly attached to the new ratings and that our individual credibility as teachers will, itself, be dissected, analyzed and evaluated.  Appropriate interventions will be created for us as well.

            All of this from ten hours of testing.  Quiet, yet very powerful little bubbles.

            I truly understand the value of student assessment, and I do not argue its necessity in the educational process.  How else can one know where to proceed next in lesson planning and instruction if there is no progress check on the concepts previously taught?  I get it.

            But I also know that assessment encompasses much more than paper/pencil tests.  A teacher can employ a variety of assessments all in one day which will give a more detailed, more accurate, more FAIR evaluation of the progress of their students.  One-on-one conferences with students, teacher observations, student presentations, essays, student demonstrations, exhibitions, portfolios, journals, individual and group projects, small group tutoring, homework, quizzes...and so many other options...exist to give teachers a much clearer picture of the ability levels of their children. 

            But these methods are not as "clean" as standardized testing.  They take time.  They vary from classroom to classroom, from student to student.  They are individualized.  They happen throughout the school year - everyday - not just during special weeks that remove ten hours away from the learning process. 

            Believe me, I get it.  Standardized tests can provide a quick barometer of a student's reading, writing, and 'rithmetic knowledge base.  It's quick (well, ten hours...) and it is intended to extract the same type of  information from every child.  But this type of assessment only provides a snapshot of one moment in time and does not provide teachers and administrators with an overall picture of each child.  Skills, talents and qualities such as artistic expertise, athletic prowess, team-building, public speaking, social and emotional development, technology integration and authentic problem-solving, as well as subjects such as history, geography, civics, and science, are all too often IGNORED.  Sixteenth century standards revolving solely around a child's ability to read, write and "figure" are limited standards for twenty-first century children.

            The blackened bubbles on last week's computer sheets do not adequately (if at all) inform me of the thought processes or problem solving strategies of my students.  The quickly scanned graphite marks give no indication of the physical or emotional well-being of each child on testing day either.  A computer cannot assess these qualities, but a caring teacher most definitely can.

            For example:

            Miguel has spent most evenings during the past two weeks with his mother and father, visiting his dying grandmother in the hospital.  He valiantly attempted and completed all tests this past week.  On Friday, after finishing his language assessment, he rested his head on his desk and fell fast asleep.  His scores for two of last week's tests earned him an "Approaching" label.

            Lizette came to school sick with the latest virus telling her mother she could not miss the test.  (She didn't make it through Thursday afternoon and stayed home Friday).  Her runny nose, coughing and sneezing affected this intelligent child's testing ability such that she received a "Falls Far Below" label in one subject and an "Approaches" label in another.  Who knows how much better the others at her table may have scored if they weren't distracted by Lizette's germs and related symptoms.

            Corrinne came to school clearly agitated Monday after having an argument that morning with her mother.  This young lady whose vocabulary greatly surpasses that of any other student, is now, as a result of her assessment, labeled "Approaches" in the area of writing.

            Lonnie, a behaviorally- and academically-challenged boy, rarely completes any assignment.  Numerous conferences with his mother and a multitude of interventions have yet to be effective in getting much of his work to my desk.  On Tuesday, as we were leaving for the day, Lonnie announced to his friend, "I just guessed on all of the questions."  He guessed well.  He has an "Exceeds" label in the area of reading. 

            The tests we took last week did not address such factors as fatigue, personal loss, sadness, illness, anger or stubbornness.  Yet, labels were assigned and interventions will be crafted to meet the needs of these and so many other children in accordance with the standardized test results achieved.

            And in April, we will test them again to see how much they learned.

(All student names have been changed).

Copyright, Tim Ramsey, 2014. 

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Gaetan Pappalardo's picture
Gaetan Pappalardo
Teacher, Author, Guitar––Word.

My son's good friend spent the day with us. It was a snow day in February. His mom couldn't find a last minute babysitter. After we had all the snow play we could muster, I suggested we do some quiet reading time. My son went straight for the non-fiction.

His buddy looked at me and said, "Do you have any B books?"
I asked, "Books about bees?"
He said, "No, I'm a B. Do you have any B books?"

Everything you said in this post is true. It's our reality. We have to learn how to navigate this assessment crazy time in order keep ourselves and and students from going crazy until the shift happens again, which I do believe will happen.

It's a very difficult situation. You can be very outspoken about testing and risk losing your job, completely embrace testing (lose your soul?), or fall somewhere in the middle and keep your focus on the kids in front of you, regardless of what the bubbles say. It's not easy. It's an emotional roller coaster. I struggle with this every day.

Here's some humor for you. Tiny Bubbles by my friend Barry Lane.

Brian Sztabnik's picture
Brian Sztabnik
AP Literature teacher from Miller Place, NY

I admire how honest, perceptive and skilled you are as a writer. The topic that you address -- the hidden consequences of testing -- is one that needs more voices like yours to bring to light its effect on students.

I recently interviewed a teacher, Josh Waldron, who had the courage to take a stand against these distorted values in education. Josh was in the sixth year of his career and was already named a teacher of the year by his local Rotary club. Yet he saw slashing budgets and an overwhelmingly unnecessary emphasis on testing diminishing his students' experience.

So what was his stand?

He quit. He left a profession that he envisioned lasting for an entire career. In doing so, he hoped to create greater awareness about what's happening to students and teachers around the country.

You can listen to the interview here:

Tim Ramsey's picture
Tim Ramsey
Retired School Administrator / Teacher

Thank you, Brian for your response! Thank you also for the link to Josh Waldron's interview. Hope your new school year will be great!

Tim Ramsey's picture
Tim Ramsey
Retired School Administrator / Teacher

Thank you, Gaetan, for your response! I loved your personal story about the B books. Thank you also for the clip of Barry. I saw him several years ago, but never saw him perform this song. So appropriate! Thanks again! Have a good year!

Gaetan Pappalardo's picture
Gaetan Pappalardo
Teacher, Author, Guitar––Word.

Just a few thoughts.

Does quitting make a bold statement? I don't know. If the government wants robot teachers to administer tests without questions, then quitting doesn't shake the Boss. The Boss will replace the questioning teacher with a drone teacher. No questions. Boss happy.

Does quitting help students? Most likely, the teacher who takes issue with too much testing will inspire kids to rise above the tests and will try to deliver real instruction for life. If they quit and are replaced with drone teachers, then....well, you know.

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