Hello, readers! I apologize for the long gap between my posts. In addition to just generally trying to figure out some things in my life prior to moving out of DC and starting law school, I took a trip to Brazil, a country that provides an equally compelling case for education reform.
I’m starting my next string of posts with some thoughts about testing. April is the month of standardized tests for many districts across the country, and my roommates and many other friends teaching in DC recently administered the DC-CAS to their students.
I’m not opposed to testing – or at least, I’m not opposed to the idea of assessing what students have learned over the course of a year. I think that we test both too much and too little; I just learned that the DC CAS covers only math and reading, even at the high school level – surely, we should be looking for student levels of learning in more than just those two subjects given that they take many other classes! At the same time, I deplore the amount of time spent on practice and real testing over the course of the school year and the teaching to the test that inevitable occurs when there’s pressure to perform.
Shaun Johnson’s piece in the Huffington Post brings up a point less often discussed: what happens in classrooms once testing ends?
This is the last week of April. DC-CAS testing ended two weeks ago, and school doesn’t wrap up until mid-June. That means that students have about eight weeks of learning left – not an insignificant amount! – but that their teachers no longer have to worry about a test to prove that they taught something. The situation improves only slightly in Maryland, where I taught and where the state tests are given in May.
Actually, before I get to what happens after testing, let me take a moment and talk about what happens during testing at the high school level. In Maryland, only 10th graders take the High School Assessments (HSAs). There are four tests: English, Algebra, Biology, and Local/State/National Government. Schools dedicate one week to testing and give one subject on each day. Most teachers receive assignments as administrators or proctors; the rest essentially get to be babysitters for the children in other grades who bother coming to school. (At my school, even the assistant principals encouraged the non-tested students to stay home. The alternative was for them to come to school and spend almost the whole day in the gym, auditorium, or cafeteria with the others in their grade and watch movies.) If you think about it, this means that high school students in Maryland (and probably most districts) will lose three weeks of instructional time over the course of their high school experience just because their teachers were busy testing others. That’s pretty ridiculous.
Now, to get back to the post-testing learning, or lack thereof: Shaun Johnson points out in his piece that the ideal would be for teachers to think “okay, I taught everything I needed to teach before testing; now I should use this opportunity to get my students ahead by starting them on material they’ll see next year.” I think the likelihood of that happening is very, very small. At this point in the year, even the best teachers get lazy – I remember thinking “I just have to make it through HSAs!” Not that I intended to just stop teaching, but there’s no question that in life things just seem easier when you’re in the home stretch. At least in Maryland the home stretch starts about a month away from the end of school; I’m not sure how I would have reacted to testing two months away.
I kept teaching because, aside from the fact that it’s just wrong to stop teaching after testing, Teach For America expected me to give a final exam that proved my students had mastered what I had taught (and that I’d taught more than the minimum number of objectives). I don’t have as much of a grasp on what other teachers in our building were doing with the post-testing time, but I don’t think it would be a stretch to say that some of them definitely taught less than they had before. It’s hard to show movies for an entire month, but it’s also hard to keep going at the same relentless pace (hopefully) as before when you know that you’re not going to be held accountable for it.
Wouldn’t it be great if the time after testing could just be used to do cool, creative things that have nothing to do with the curriculum? I don’t like testing because I think it’s creating a generation of kids who lack critical thinking skills and other skills that don’t necessarily come with memorizing facts for a test. It would be awesome to organize projects that students could do during the last month of school. They could be community service projects, mini internships, or a series of field trips designed to give students some hands-on and/or in-depth experience with a particular topic. I’ve written before about allowing students to choose more of what they learn in high school; this would be an ideal time to let students choose an option that really interested them. For example, as a Spanish teacher, I might offer a one-month seminar in which my students learn medical vocabulary and use that to help in area health clinics, or I might seek approval to teach a film seminar – my sub-specialty within my Hispanic Studies major was film, and that would be a great way to expose students to other culture while also promoting critical thinking, discussion, and writing skills. The possibilities are endless for ways that teachers could use their own interests/skills to make learning more fun and applicable to what students want to learn and need to learn how to do.