Friday, April 19, 2013

ELA Testing at the We Are All Going to be A OK Corral

It’s ELA test week on the ranch. Or across the state to be exact. Perhaps across several states… I imagine this might be the equivalent of tax week for accountants, flu season for doctors, or the way first responders feel as they arrive at the scene of a large scale crisis with too many victims and not enough responders.  You get the picture.  Dread.  Grueling episodic fits of dread and the insurmountable knowledge that this will not end well.  Or start well.  Or feel much better than taking a sip from the well that has been poisoned by ill-informed, zealous data collectors, bean counters, and other back-slapping corporate type “suits”with little experience in a classroom, or playground, or any recent, direct contact with the small, fragile, developing psyches of children.  

am a teacher.  I work with students with learning disabilities.  The very students that districts spend gads of money on determining their individual needs and providing customized individualized services to support those needs.  Price-tags follow these students around and the staff supporting them.  An entourage for some; Speech Pathologists, Occupational Therapists, Physical Therapists, Social Workers, Psychologists, Teachers of the Visually Impaired, the Hearing Impaired, and the Academic Variety abound.  Neon colored flashing cash dollar signs.  Tests and observations and data collections fill file cabinets and flash drives and national networks with Individualized Education Plans (IEPs).  

Scientific data is collected to specifically isolate and target the strengths and needs of these students.  We know their reading levels.  Their cognitive abilities.  Their individualized abilities to memorize, and their processing speeds.   We know how to support and strengthen some of their skills, we know what we will not be able to alter or fix or remediate.  We know, without a doubt or perhaps within one or two standard deviation points, the vast majority cannot take grade-leveled tests.  We rally and cheer on those that can.   

Generally speaking, here we sit, or pace, or rock in the back corner of our classrooms because it’s ELA testing week on the ranch and this week we get to heat up our branding irons and scorch their very tender hides with the brand we already know they have.  0, 1, or a few random 2’s.  These are the scores they will achieve. We could add catchy ranch names to make us feel a little more light-hearted, or a lot less transparent; Hidden Valley Low Score. Circle R LetdownWild Bull-bleep Plateau. Of course, a little shout out to the Big 4, as in test producing corporations never hurt no one, y’all come back, y’hear!  Or just go, mighty thanks and bushels full of cow patties!  Pearson’s Overflowing Abundance Ranch. Harcourt Capacity and Cattle Hoarding Farm, McGraw-Hill of Beans and Bounty Hacienda, Riverside Rancho.  Reading, Writing, Rollin'….Rollin'....Raw Hide....

During testing week, we get to be the mother, or father, at the pediatrician’s office holding down a toddler in need of shots.  Right about the time the toddler becomes aware that it will hurt and they look to us for help, and register, momentarily, betrayal.  Only these tests don’t have curative qualities or provide preventative protective measures of any kind.  We hold them against their will as they get this unnecessary shot in the arm. We attempt to comfort and encourage and go deep into the fetal position in our minds, knowing we are simultaneously powerless AND harmful to those very fragile and developing students as we dole out their tests that they cannot read, or understand, or make any sense of.  We are not permitted to help them read or understand or provide individualized supports.  

Some students have long ago given up and refuse to even try.  At 8, and 9, and 10 years old.  The older students are more generally angry and recalcitrant and appear defiant, but they too are hurt.  Some cry and break down and bang their heads on tables as they are reminded that they are not smart enough, or good enough, or fast enough to keep up with others.  Some break pencils, and turn over their desks and curse out the teachers that are handing out the tests that harm the students they are otherwise committed to helping, teaching, supporting and encouraging.  

What are we doing to these students?  And why?  This week I worked with a student with dogged determination and the propensity to burst blood vessels and invoke a tornado with his boiling over frustration.  He would not give up, but he also knew he would not “succeed”.  Not by the measurements decided by highly trained scorers, but by his own measurements of not being quite skilled enough.  I want to rescue him from this trap I have helped set for him.  I want him to stop feeling defeated and incapable.  I want him to know as clearly and surely as I do that he is not “the dumbest kid in the school” as he believes and shares when he cannot find the answer to the question he is being asked to respond to.  This question, and all of the others that are not provided at his reading level, the reading level that he has been slowly, doggedly, improving across the past several months.  Each day after the test he approaches me, to apologize for a behavior that he feels bad about, in response to a test he cannot master, or feel good about.  Each day I remind him, with eyes swelling with moisture that he is the most incredible student I have ever met.  Dogged.  Determined. Gifted and talented beyond a test that will not ever measure a hill of beans or add any value to his life.  

I want to say a great deal of things or break some pencils and curse the moon or the powers that be.  I want the varied stakeholders to understand that this is not a meaningful measure of growth for some students, most students.  For the students I work with, it feels frankly, abusive, sadistic, developmentally brutal and insensitiveDetrimental to their well-being.  It does not encourage them or motivate them or make them feel valued.  

In turn, this test does not measure my value or worth or ability to teach these incredible students.  The students that come in each day knowing they will face their biggest challenges and be expected to work at them in one way or another.  Imagine that? Imagine what it takes day after day to come to a place that measures you against all the things you are weakest at? I cannot teach students that read on a first, or second, or third grade level how to read on a sixth,or seventh, or eight grade level, no matter how spectacular I may be, or how many trainings I attend.  

We are losing this Race to the Top.  We have allowed others to “fix” the game.  “Suits” with interests in corporate investments in testing companies, and political backings that want to break up unions, as opposed to determining how and if unions may be accountable for a small part of the issue that has become The Great American Education System in a nation that has been outsourcing jobs and blaming teachers for the mess that has become The Great American Decline.  Ill-informed tax payers that can no longer carry a load that is impossible to sustain, are angry. Unemployed laborers, technicians, service workers, administrators, engineers and everyone in between, even unemployed teachers are frustrated. Testing students in this way is simply making test companies richer and school districts poorer and students less skilled and tax payers ill-informed and teachers less motivated and it is making the students I work with defeated and sometimes angry.

Why aren’t we giving these students tests on their ability level?  Why not meet them where they are and work from there?   Why spend the gads of money that deplete the coffers and create a sense of resentment at the loss of funds for other students if we aren’t going to support students with the findings?  In the end the scores that my students achieve through dogged determination and at times apathetic disinterest impede the overall scores of the school.  Which leads to more testing.  More training.  More time away from students.  Less funding for materials that could benefit and support and provide applicable skills, individualized and appropriate for all students.

Today, finished with testing, I take my students out to the track.  We walk around it. Happy for the air, for the break.  For the knowledge that we all can go on this course and make it to the end.  Some of us run, fast and furious.  Others jump hurdles, or attempt, and fall and get up and continue on to the next one.  Carefully sizing it up and encouraging themselves to leap over it this time, and clear it, and land running forward.  One or two walk slowly, ambling about without complaint, they too will make it, eventually on their own terms and just as happy as anyone else that made it around.  A few of us will continue and decide we can go much further than we ever thought possible.  My dogged student walks back toward the school with me and says, “Why can’t they test us on what we are good at?”  I think for a moment and smile.  Proud at his ability to reflect and be thoughtful.  I answer,  “Well, for one thing, they would need too many tests for you.”   He stops and looks up at me, smiling.   I say this sincerely, he knows I value his creative abilities.  He has crafted puppets and rockets and a ship with working electronic components.  He can sing, and laugh and invoke smiles on the faces of his peers.  Gifts few of us use, enough, but all of us benefit from.  His reading level has improved and his pride in this, when he stops to reflect about it could fill up several test pages, flash drives, and file cabinets.  

I don’t have the heart to remind him to get ready for next weekit will be Math Testing Week at the “In the End We Are All Going To Be A OK Corral”.

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