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.