On the Eve of Testing

Tomorrow, in the state of Georgia, High School state testing begins. All across the state High schoolers will be taking the state tests for various subjects. In Georgia, after certain core classes a state created end of course test (EOCT) is given in lieu of a final. Ninth grade English is one of those classes, and Ninth grade English happens to be the love of my teacher soul. Before my students take this test, before my numbers are run, there are some things I want said, some things I want you to know.

The teachers are already doing everything in their power to ensure their student’s do well. Even when a teacher disagrees with the validity of the test, even when they wish that they could skip this test prep stuff to teach an extra novel, they don’t. They taught the things the state has mandated every way they know how. Lately, with states clamoring to get federal funding and Obama’s race to the top, a teacher’s pay is being linked to student test scores with the expectation that this will somehow improve test scores. This expectation of improved test scores is based on the assumption that teacher’s aren’t already doing everything they can think of to make sure our students succeed. I need you to know we are.

I need you to know about everything the tests aren’t going to tell you. You see, I am in an interesting position. When I taught at schools that are likely to be far below and just below the lines, I taught tenth grade, a grade that isn’t tested. It was not until I moved to a succeeding school that I started teaching a subject with a test. It would be so easy for me to shrug my shoulders, show you my test scores, and tell you that I am in fact an amazing teacher, that my colleagues at the schools I left behind are simply not as good as I am.

This would be easy, and this would be a lie. The colleagues I left work harder than you could ever imagine. They turn around entire sets of 100 plus papers in 24 hours, they track the strengths and weaknesses of their kids week to week, they offer tutoring sessions before and after school. They are doing more than you can imagine to give their students a chance, and their scores will not be as good as mine. I work in the suburbs now. They’re still on the front lines.

But theirs aren’t the only stories that aren’t told in the testing data. I think of my colleagues who teach ninth grade honors three doors down from my on-level class. I think about what a hard year it has been for them. Their job, as ninth grade honors English teachers, is to challenge students who have likely never been challenged in their entire academic careers. Students who expect A’s don’t take their first C lightly, often nor do their parents. Students who have never been pushed before sometimes resist the push these teachers give.

But these are students who could have passed the EOCT the first day of class, and they are students who have come so far. Yet the tests won’t show the challenging questions my colleagues come up with, or the meticulous way they grade papers. It won’t tell you how many drafts they grade in the interest of making their kids better. Writing isn’t even tested.

The test is not going to tell you about my English as a second language kids. It won’t tell you how their first year in ninth grade was also the first year in the general population of the school. It won’t tell you about the way they work twice as hard as everyone else, complain less, and watch out for each other. It won’t tell you about the poetry they can write if you just give them permission to use five words in their original language. It is beautiful.

And the test is not going to tell you about my favorite triumph this year. It won’t tell you about my student on the autistic spectrum who says hi to me in the hallway. It won’t tell you about the way he works in groups voluntarily. It won’t tell you about his peers who accept him for who he is and how he won their hearts by fixing their cell phones. It won’t tell you about the peace of mind his mother now has, because of the work he and his teachers have put in this year. It won’t tell you anything about him or the mountains he has climbed. The test will only tell you that he is proficient in English. There is so much more I need you to know about him and how hard he tries.

Some will argue that the EOCTs are on their way out. In two years in Georgia we will have a state test that is designed to track growth and not just proficiency. That my concerns are already being addressed. While I think we are headed in the right direction, if the answer to this country’s educational woes could be found in something that makes a profit (and make no mistake, these tests are making some  people very wealthy) it would have already been found. Unlike the tests we hand our kids every spring, there are no easy answers.

I’m not against testing, or holding teachers accountable. I am not against common standards being set. I am against using one set of data to determine the worth of a teacher and her students.  I am a teacher, on the eve of testing, who wants to make sure you get the whole story. Before the kids sharpen their pencils, before the numbers come back, these were just some things I needed you to know.


17 thoughts on “On the Eve of Testing

  1. I love your heart. I love your story! You said what I have felt so many times as an English teacher. I taught all the grades. Testing used to not be so stressful. I used to get a kick of out those light bulb moments my students experienced. I was beautiful to behold. Then came higher stakes testing, and it all but sucked the life and creativity out of teaching no matter how hard I tried. I fought for students to see the relevance of literature on their lives beyond a test. It’s a hard sell when you make the test the god rather than allowing students to grow and develop voice and skills that go beyond the basics. Testing only tells one side of the story. You never see the teacher who walked a student through the pain of divorce, cancer scares, loss, abuses, being kicked out – things that happen on the eve of testing. No one sees the hurt your students walk through. No one see how hard a teacher tries to help students see past their pain to the future.

    There are so many things ya’ll don’t see when I’m standing before 30 bright eyed or worn out little faces. Thank you Accidental Devo for shining the light and exposing your heart. You are not alone. Love and love!

  2. Such good information. I appreciate hearing from a teacher’s perspective. There are always stories (from teachers and students) that the tests will never, ever reveal. My youngest son struggles with standardized tests, and last year his teacher wanted to use the tests to advocate for retention (as a fourth grader). But the tests didn’t tell the story of how my kid had triumphed over the adversity of living in an Indian orphanage until he was three, and learning English only after he arrived here, and using orphanage coping strategies to negotiate struggles in the classroom, even seven years later (which influenced how he took the too-hard-for-him tests).

    I appreciate your acknowledgment that students carry their stories into the classroom, and that while we need standards, we must recognize this, too. As a college professor, I try to remind myself of this reality, too, especially when I’m ticked at students who seem lack slackers. At any rate, thanks for sharing this.

  3. Tell it, Ms. Norman! I loved teaching Spectrum reading for a number of reasons, but one of them was that it did not have an EOCT or state standards.

  4. Thank you so much for sharing this. I teach English Language Learners, so I’m in the middle of testing. My 3rd-5th graders finished last week (except for a math constructed response this Thurs) and now the kinders and first are up. I have been overwhelmed at how little this will reflect of the progress my kindergarteners have made this year. I needed this reminder that what we do matters, even beyond the test scores. I needed a reminder that we’re all in it together and every teacher experiences the same frustration. Thank you for that.

  5. Thank you so much for these words. Having retired over twenty years ago, you would think I would no longer have such an interest in these ideas, but that is certainly not the case. In the years that I taught eighth grade mathematics, I was closely involved with the state testing program and upon retirement, I became a consultant with the state in testing. Even then when there was so much energy spent trying to make the test assess the new state goals in a meaningful way, I had so many concerns about their use and their misuse. I can’t begin to understand how difficult it is now when the goals are being set by those so far away from the students that sit in your classroom. The search for simple solutions to complex problems has always taken its toll in education. Thank you so much for taking your very valuable time to at least raise some of the more significant issues in assessing what is taking place in our public schools. May God continue to bless you and your efforts as you serve Him in such a meaningful way day after day in your classroom. You and I know there are many others like you in classrooms throughout Georgia. May your numbers increase!!!

    Sent from my iPad

    • Ray, thank you so much for this reply. It is so strange to be in a place where I believe so fiercly in what I do and yet the only thing the people who sign my pay check care about is one set of numbers on one day. When I started my college education I was told this trend would end….and hear I am….

  6. Ohio testing is this week also. It is sad that the nation sees students as test scores from the time they step into the classroom.

  7. Abby,
    Testing can never measure impact that a teacher has had on a student’s knowledge or life. My daughter is a teacher and reaches out to special needs children in her school and makes friends with them. One boy drops by her class frequently to say hello. One day he ask her if he could sing her a song and she said sure. He sang Swing Low Sweet Chariot and when he finished and as she was standing in her doorway her class erupted in applause…. how do you measure that impact?

  8. Speaking as a parent who was intimately involved in her children’s public school journey through classroom and school volunteerism, I want you to know this: YOU MATTER. What you teachers do matters way beyond the test scores. The good teachers will leave a lasting impact. Sadly also true, the bad teachers will leave a lasting impact.

    Choose your impact wisely. And you good teachers do.

    But what the test score ratings are taking away is your time and ability to pursue the passion of teaching, of lighting fires in the minds of our young.

    How can a test score reflect the passion of the teacher who gets her students so excited about something that they go to the library and check out books on the subject? It can’t. What kind of teacher do I want for my kids? The ones who inspire my kids to learn more on their own!

    Keep on keepin’ on! Until a better educational model is found, we parents have to depend on the fact that our kids will at least a few times in their educational journey come across a true good teacher.

    We’re counting on you!

  9. Amen Sister! I’ve included the conclusion of The Blueberry Story by Jamie Robert Vollmer

    “I have learned that a school is not a business. Schools are unable to control the quality of their raw material; they are dependent upon the vagaries of politics for a reliable revenue stream, and they are constantly mauled by a howling horde of disparate, competing customer groups that would send the best CEO screaming into the night.”

  10. Well said. I am a teacher in Florida and I can tell you we teachers are in the same boat. We are in jeopardy of having our standardized test (FCAT) trump in-class evaluations if it doesn’t meet an extremely ambiguously determined state number. Teachers who have 30 years of experience are being told, you’re not doing well because of this test number even though you teach low-performing readers and follow a scripted program. Teachers who are former teachers of the year are being told you are not good enough even though we evaluate you in the classroom and tell you you are doing everything right. It’s time for teachers and supporters to speak out to legislators and tell them that no test taken one time on one day can define a teacher or student. It only degrades all the work they do.

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