Let me paint a bleak picture for you: twenty-six ten and eleven year old students hunched over their desks, in rows like little soldiers, each an island unto themselves. Occasionally they make eye contact with me, to use our pitiful attempts at sign language to signal for tissue, bathroom, or drink. They know better than to ask for anything else because they know I’m not allowed to grant it. I glance around at the bare, stark walls. They are usually vibrant with posters, charts, and the evidence of our learning but all that had to be removed for the test. So much for what I always say to my learners: “Smart people use the resources around them!” The only sound in the usually boisterous room is the buzzing of overhead fluorescent lights and deep sighs of mentally exhausted children. I speed walk over at the familiar crack of a snapping pencil point to alleviate the nerves that usually accompany that sound. I trade pencils with a sleepy eyed boy and notice that his pencil has bite marks on it. I heave a deep sigh myself and keep on pacing, slowly wearing deep grooves in the carpet, wondering what my trusty pedometer will read at the end of today, Day 4.
Rewind to Monday, Day 1 of AIMS (Arizona’s Instrument to Measure Standards) testing. Motivation starts out high. I tell their beautiful faces over and over again, “You are so much smarter than this test! It tests low level knowledge- we are way beyond that!” We have sharpened #2 pencils straight up in a bucket with slogans like, “Do your best on the test!” and “I believe in you!” We have energy, enthusiasm, and bags of snacks to fill nervous tummies and mints to suck on to help maintain focus through the long sessions ahead.
Then the inevitable happens…the dreaded helpless hand raiser. Normally questions are allowed, no, encouraged in this classroom. After all, we usually sit under the amused eye of a poster declaring, “Even Einstein asked questions!” Not this week. Not during testing. We have been warned against even speaking to students during testing time, fearful that it may leave others to wonder about cheating. No talking for us, hence the sign language. So I speed walk over to the hand raiser, a darling girl I’ve had the pleasure to know since she was tiny and who’s sister was in my fifth grade class. She points down at her thick testing booklet and looks up at me, wide blue eyes filling with terror and tears.
“Mrs. Maloney, there’s a mistake in my test. These two answers are the same! How do I choose? What should I do?” she pleads up at me.
And here is the moment of teacher heart break. Although I cannot look at the test, having signed a waiver stating just such a promise, I have to do something for this poor child before the tears start to flow…hers and mine. So I do the only thing I can do, take a deep breath, look her in the eyes, and say, “Make your best judgement,” although it goes against every fiber of my teacher being. I can’t tell her to read carefully, look for clues, or even take a break and look at it again with fresh eyes.
It struck me again this year, like it does every April, just how crazy this week is. It used to feel silly. One test that measures such a narrow set of criteria is going to tell me what my students learned this year? I don’t think AIMS will tell me how Jorge moved up three grade levels in reading comprehension this year as an English language learner but is still not on grade level and fatigues easily.
Then it started to feel scary when our school label was tied to the results. The state is going to put a label on Karen, who came to me as a selective mute and is just now beginning to trust her classmates and me enough to let me hear her words? She just whispered in class last week, “I’m glad to be a Bobcat.” Will she still be proud if we get a C label?
This had a different, more sinister feel. This year our evaluations and status in the district are partially tied to how our students measure up during AIMS week. I’m nervous about Makenzie, who stopped coming to school for the past few weeks and suddenly showed up out of the blue today. I’m worried about Alexander who normally stands to learn because he learns best when he has freedom of movement. Today he is twitching while anchored in his chair, foot tapping a mile a minute.
I wonder how many people know we sign a contract promising to not even look at the test, let alone help a student. Our teaching credentials are on the line. I bet it is not common knowledge that many teachers wear pedometers during testing week to count how many miles we walk while proctoring the tests. I wonder how many people agree that our pay should be tied to the results of this teaching testing torture.
But I sigh another deep sigh and continue wearing grooves in the carpet of my classroom. I’m looking forward to tomorrow when teaching and learning can begin again.
*Note: all students’ names have been changed.