Saturday, March 25, 2017

Statewide Testing

Schoolchildren all over our state are involved in massive, complicated statewide testing right now.  All of our regular routines and patterns have slammed to a stop while we give kids a these required tests.

A colleague of mine, describing the event at his (very large) high school, said, “It’s a friggin’ production.  Like a full-scale movie set, everyone buzzing around trying to wrap this up.  We’ve got proctors and subs and small groups all over the place; we’ve got custodians and support staff and the office staff, all on board, and on call, and on deck, and just on.  All helping out in some way.  A production, I tell you.

I think of the process of testing a little differently.  To me, it’s a belly flop from the high dive—everyone hears it, and everyone feels it, and everyone emphathizes.  Because it hurts.  For a long, stinging while. 

A friend of mine who works in the southern part of our state called me the evening she’d proctored one of the tests for little girl named Dashi.  My friend works closely with Dashi every day because she needs extra help in learning to read.  Dashi’s eight.  She rides the bus 45 minutes to school through long and windy country roads.  Many days, when the bus pulls up to school, Dashi gets off first; she needs to hustle over to the bushes and vomit because she gets so bus sick. But she’s a relentlessly tough and positive child, and so she pulls a tissue from her jacket, wipes her mouth, and walks into school with a smile—albeit a wobbly and bluish one. 

Last Tuesday, my friend dutifully retrieved Dashi from her regular classroom, walking her and a couple other students to her office to take their required test.  Dashi dug right in.  Not long after she’d started, there was a question that required her to respond by typing several paragraphs. 

Did I mention—?  Dashi is eight.

But she’s mighty and willful, so she went at it, slowly picking her way across the keyboard to find her letters.  “I….n….. t….. h……”  Several minutes, it took her, and finally, she’d finished this much:  In the story theyre were 

She looked at my friend with despair and hope, as if she knew she couldn’t continue and didn’t have much else to say, yet simultaneously hoping someone would tell her this whole thing was over. 

My friend gave her the almost-expressionless smile she knew she was supposed to give.

Dashi worked a bit longer, slowly tapping away, tap-pause-look-tap-pause-look.  Then she put her head down and closed her eyes.  “I’m going to take a rest,” she said.  She sat for several minutes.  My friend saw Dashi’s body rise and fall with her breath. 

“I can’t do this to her,” My friend wailed to me over the phone.  “This is so wrong.  So.  Wrong.  I don’t know why we haven’t stopped this, somehow.” 

I didn’t know what to say, just like I’m not sure how to lead my teachers through this anxiety.  They are the ones who carry the heaviest weight.  Testing children this much goes against everything we know about teaching and learning.  The standardization feels unfair and unreasonable, especially at these young ages when the students don’t have the stamina and focus to show who they are as thinkers.

So I’ve mostly just been listening.  I can’t tell them to stop giving the tests—that’s not an option.  I can’t tell them not to care—again, not an option.  I can’t tell them to call their senators because we all know how fruitless and exhausting that can be.  (Betsy DeVoss, anyone?)

At night, I think about Dashi, and so many other kids like her, and how they are being asked to do something their brains aren’t ready to do.  I think a lot about this lady, about how courageous she is, and how I’d like to do something like that, but I can’t, for lots of important reasons.  

My teachers don’t have that option, either, and if they did, it wouldn’t make a difference anyway.  The legislators, the massive and powerful and wealthy testing companies, the legal mandates—the toothpaste is out of the tube, there, and we can do nothing to stop it. 

So when I talk to teachers, I choose my words carefully.  I tell them to stay focused on the things they do know—their teaching, their differentiation, the young people that come into their classrooms every day.

I say, “It’s just a law we have to follow.”

I say, “It will be over in a few weeks.”

I say, “I know.  I know.  I know.” 

I say, “I understand.” 

I say, “I’m sorry.”

It doesn’t feel like enough. 

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