Teacher Testing Torture Addendum

Recently, I wrote a blog post about my experience giving the AIMS (Arizona’s Instrument to Measure Standards) this year.  I decided to expand upon those thoughts.


First, let me be very clear that I am not against tests or testing.  After all, teachers invented tests!  I utilize various forms of assessment in my classroom on a regular basis.  I use them to inform my teaching, to decide who needs to be pulled for small group re-teaching because they didn’t quite grasp the lesson, to see who already knows the material and needs enrichment, to plan future lessons, to reflect on which lessons were great and which need some adjustment.  I assess frequently to offer immediate feedback to my students on their learning and goals.  


I do not, however, see much value in one-time, high-stakes, narrow-gauge standardized tests.  I don’t even like to look at my new students’ test scores from previous years because they may have experienced major summer learning loss, or may have had incredible life experiences over the summer, or may have hit a developmental milestone or maturation.  My new students may have had a difficult year in their home lives, experiencing divorce, homelessness, or hunger.  I prefer to use my own assessment of my students as I begin our year together.  I create assessments that give me an accurate picture of where the student is right now, not one day last April.  


Unlike so many “reformers” who are not actual classroom teachers, I do not have faith in the data produced by one time, summative tests.  Not only are the data already outdated, but the test gives me no information on what a student may have gotten right or wrong. They show me no information on what gaps the student has in his learning and how I can effectively address those gaps.


I also hate to see precious, valuable classroom time given to test-prep.  I despise mindless preparation on how to spot the red herring dummy answer to someone else’s question.


In case you think maybe I’m being too dramatic, keep reading to see a few more real life examples of how testing torture affects even our youngest students.


A friend of mine has a son in my daughter’s kindergarten class.  He wrote a note to their fabulous teacher in honor of Teacher Appreciation week.  My friend, being a knowledgeable early childhood educator herself, does not edit her son’s thoughts or writing and encourages invented spelling.  He wrote to his teacher, “Thanks for giving me benchmark tests.”  My friend was heart-broken that that was what her son chose to be thankful for but that was what was on his mind!


A kindergarten teacher friend of mine was wrapping up her first year of teaching.  She was asking her students to reflect on the learning that occurred during their kindergarten year. One enthusiastic young man told her that he learned how to take benchmark tests.  Her new teacher heart broke so loudly I think I heard the reverberations from the other end of the city of Surprise.  


Something really frightened me in my own classroom this year.  In my fourteen years of classroom teaching, I’ve learned to capitalize on teachable moments.  If you’re not familiar with the term, it is when a teacher uses a moment in daily classroom life to teach a valuable lesson that does not appear on the lesson plan.  It usually comes in the form of classroom conversation, a question from a student, or a conversation overheard between students.


There came a moment in this school year where I ignored a possible teachable moment.  Why did I do it?  When I became the Arizona Teacher of the Year, my principal and I were discussing the challenges of the year ahead.  She warned me that my test scores were going to be scrutinized very closely this year because the Teacher of the Year is vulnerable by being the representative of all teachers in their state.  The pressure was on!  Especially because the great irony of being Teacher of the Year is that you are out the classroom a lot.  A LOT!    


So that day in the classroom where I let a teachable moment go by was a rare day that I was in the classroom a few days before AIMS testing was to begin.  My students were still struggling with identifying first, second, and third person points of view despite multiple whole and small group lessons, centers, and tutoring since early in the year.  It was a little frustrating, if I’m being honest.  I know I’m not alone – many 5th grade teachers know that this is a tough concept for kids to really grasp.  One of the text selections to analyze was from one of my read-alouds Wonder by R. J. Palacio.  One of my gifted students (who really already knew how to identify point of view) wanted to talk about point of view as in how we see things from different perspectives.  This is not assessed on the AIMS test, which is interesting because I think it is actually a much deeper topic.  I steered her back to identifying first, second, and third person points of view.



I’m not sure I will ever forgive myself, but I’ve turned my missed opportunity into a teachable moment for myself, and hopefully other teachers out there, too.  


Can you see the sense in reducing what a child experiences in a school year to a single number or score? I can’t. What happens in a classroom during the course of a year is so much deeper than what can be assessed on a test that can be graded by a machine.  Things that are not assessed on high stakes tests are the skills I try to instill most in my students: creativity, productivity, leadership, ability to collaborate with others, and communication.


I look forward to the time again where teachers will be free to teach, and students will be free to learn.  I look forward to embracing teachable moments and the insights they can bring to my students and me.  Those times will be back again; I’m confident of this.  What it will take is more of us classroom teachers sharing our stories with parents, our communities, and policy makers.  Here’s to the end of teacher testing torture!



More Thoughts on Common Core

As Arizona’s Teacher of the Year, I am often asked about the Common Core standards, or as we say in Arizona, the College and Career Ready standards.  I think people ask a lot because they rarely hear much from actual, practicing educators who are using the standards in their classrooms daily.  So I’m going to share my thoughts on my experience in my fifth grade classroom. I’ve been a classroom teacher for fourteen years. I have used the standards for three years and experienced some excellent professional development on the standards through my district, the Arizona K12 Center, the Arizona Department of Education, online, and in professional literature, blogs, and a variety of other ways and places.


First of all, we must remove politics from the discussion.  The education of our country’s youth should be a priority, not a divisive political tool used by people with no educational experience to get or stay in public office.
One of my favorite parts of teaching fifth grade is social studies.  We cover the course of American history from the early explorers to Reconstruction after the Civil War.  Especially dear to me is the Civil War.  The Arizona state standard I would be held to teach in the past was something like, “Name major battles in the Civil War.” The old state standards would focus on basic, rote memorization of facts.  But teaching has changed along with technological advances.  Why do our students need to memorize dates when Siri or Google can pull up the dates for them in seconds? Memorization of isolated facts is no longer necessary to our society and that needs to be recognized by our school system.


I’m more interested in my students understanding the context and the underlying causes of the Civil War, and for them to be able to articulate an opinion based on evidence.  I’m interested in my students deeply understanding the reasons behind facts.  I have found this expectation to be much more engaging for my students.  They are capable of diving much more in depth with their knowledge and understanding.


In a fundamental way, what I want for my students has not changed with the implementation of the standards.  I want them to be thinkers, doers, creative problem solvers, and collaborators.  I find myself having more freedom and opportunity to provide learning experiences to enhance what I want for my students by implementing the standards.


One thing I love about the standards is that writing is emphasized just as much as reading.  In my district we used to be held to a 90 minute block of reading that did not include writing.  I understand that this seems insane, but it could not include writing.  We were supposed to follow a scripted, canned reading curriculum regardless of the needs of the students in front of us.  Many of us realized that this is not good practice and modified the curriculum as we saw fit.


There are many studies that show students learn best when they are fully immersed into a topic and are able to read, write, think, and talk about it.  Using this research to back me up, I was eventually given permission to incorporate writing, science, technology, and social studies into reading.  Now I can teach my students about the Civil War by designing simulated experiences recreating parts of the war.  My students take on the role of people who could have lived during the war.  We research ways of life, clothing, names, employment, technology, homes, and food.  We read primary and secondary accounts of the war.  We view photographs, paintings, and artifacts.  We invent pasts and families of our characters and write bio-poems describing our character traits. We write in journals as our characters, allowing us to experiment with point of view.  During the simulations, we express our thoughts as people on different sides of the war and debate the various and complicated issues.  My students end up with passionate feelings and feel like they’ve lived through it themselves.  Many former students tell me they’ve saved their journals because they have such strong emotions tied to them.  Research shows that learning will enter long-term memory when it is identified with powerful feelings.  (Educators, I run a fun professional development on utilizing simulations and games in the classroom to increase engagement -suitable for 3rd grade through high school teachers.  Contact me for more info.)


An important thing to remember is that the standards are not curriculum.  They give us guidelines on what students should be able to do at different grade levels, but not how to get them there.  Curriculum choices are still locally based from elected school boards, district administrators, and ultimately, teachers.


Of course, not everyone is a fan of the standards and some have valid reasons to support their opinions.  There are issues that need improvement related to the application of the standards, such as rushed implementation around the state of Arizona and in many other parts of the country.  I despise the almost total lack of funding for teacher education, resources, and appropriate curriculum.  I am quite concerned about inappropriate assessments that seem to be following the standards.  Many “powers that be” seem to be rushing to assess our students instead of giving us adequate time for implementation of such an incredible change in our schools.  I don’t take my new hiking boots on a twenty mile hike without first breaking them in on many short hikes first.  Educators and students need time to break in the standards before we are tested on them, especially if teacher pay and evaluation are being tied to the assessments.


I also have concerns with play being de-emphasized in the kindergarten standards, but I am hopeful that the incredible early childhood educators will have their voices heard on that issue.  The standards may need to be revised to be more developmentally appropriate to meet the needs of our youngest students.  As the parent of a kindergartener I’m amazed at how deeply my daughter is learning number sense and reading skills. I just also want to ensure that all five year olds are given the same excitement and love of learning that she is receiving from a talented and experienced early childhood educator.


I’ve heard of some concerns from parents who have heard that the standards are too hard.  My response to them is that struggle is ok.  Productive struggle leads to learning.  It is how learning occurs.  If your child is exhibiting continued, unproductive struggle, that is different.  Talk to your teacher.  Your child may need more differentiated learning and re-teaching.  Your student may have gaps in his/her knowledge that need to be addressed.


Ultimately I believe that the standards put emphasis back on depth of knowledge and quality teaching practices.  Change is always hard, but difficult paths often lead to exceptional progress.  Educators need time and resources for meaningful, thoughtful implementation.