Category Archives: Standardized Testing

The Irony of Our Times

A grad professor of mine always talked about an assignment one of the student teachers he oversaw did with her class.  She was reading The Age of Innocence with her students and asked them to complete the sentence, “We live in an age of ________.”  In other words, she was asking students to come up with one word to define the times in which we live.

I love telling people this story because I usually tell people that the perfect word for our times is “retraction.”  This is because I always think people say what they mean, what they’re really thinking, then when the world (or sometimes just a few) disagree, they retract their statements, apologize, and vow to be less offensive later on down the line.

These days, though, perhaps the word for our times is “contradiction.”  Why?  Because the world we live in is filled with people who shop at Whole Foods and buy Fair Trade products, but who no longer support labor unions.  Because the world we live in has people who would never put their child in a school that had 35 days of testing (in fact many of them would pay exorbitant amounts of money in tuition to avoid it), but they would force that amount of testing on people who have no choice but to public school-educate their children.  Because we have a president who is a Democrat, a traditionally pro-union party, but who seems to be joining his Democrat friends in demanding union money for their campaigns, but leaving unions hanging with silence and lack of support when it comes to the laws that want to rip unions to shreds.

I don’t know how to fix the world or its problems, but I do know that a lack of common sense seems to be plaguing many of those around me.  Perhaps the easiest thing to do to change the age we live in is to simply start using some more common sense and encouraging others to do the same.  Perhaps we could put it in a letter and send it to the President himself!

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Anna Chao Pai (b. 1935)

I have a friend who always says, “Data is what you want it to be.”  Truer words have never been spoken, especially in the field of education.  When I first entered education, I was shocked, SHOCKED at the way data was compiled and used.  Since I entered Chicago’s public school system, I’ve fought back on the use of data to drive instruction.  I’ve repeatedly said that real statisticians would  simply laugh at the way schools use data.  We manipulate it to make it what we want it to be and make sweeping judgements about the state of our students’ learning based on these numbers.  And we only consider what we want to consider.

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An Interesting Idea

My husband suggested I read this NY Times Op-Ed on how to fix schools.  Truth be told, I think the author’s suggestion that good teachers should come from a strong educational background and rigorous training is an important part of the puzzle that often gets overlooked.  That being said, I think it is rather short-sighted (and perhaps a little naive) to leave out the testing and funding aspects of public education that are also extraordinarily different than the public school systems in Finland or Ontario.  The reality is those are HUGE pieces of the puzzle that seemingly no one wants to acknowledge.  How we fund schools in this country needs to change.  Funds for schools should not come from property taxes.  Schools should not have to play Russian Roulette for resources.  Standardized testing helps us learn some things about our students, but frankly, I learn more about them from the classroom.  Standardized tests are tools to help me assess my students’ needs, NOT tools to assess me as a teacher.  Oh, when will we learn?

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Flattery Will Get You Everywhere

Ummm…peeps, the most awesome thing happened.  Diane Ravitch, THE Diane Ravitch, blogged about ME.  Crazy no?  It was about this post.  And she asks some important questions and of course does it beautifully. Check it out!  This and meeting Michael Shannon on the streets of Chicago are probably the two most awesome things that have happened to me. I may have sat in the same room as many celebrities in my lifetime, but these two experiences are the ones that make me act like a total fan.  Oops.  : )

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Some Thoughts on Standardizing Teacher Effectiveness

Last year, I gave up approximately 35 days of classroom instructional time to give tests.  These tests included ACT-style, common assessments given by grade level teams (i.e. all the sophomore English teachers gave the same ACT-style test to their students) every five weeks (these tests usually took 2 days for students to finish), practice ACT tests given by the district, the EXPLORE/PLAN (a standardized test required by the state), the actual ACT (a standardized test required by the state), in addition to all the regular content-based exams (i.e. chapter quizzes for a novel, end of unit exams, etc.).  In a school year that is only 9.5 months long, that’s a TON of days to suck up just to give tests. The whole point of these tests is to help prepare kids for other tests.  But where does the time come to actually learn?

At my old school, when my former principal told my English Dept. chair that he had to integrate more test prep and more non-fiction, he replied, “But if we spend all this time preparing them for a test, when will they ever have the chance to just appreciate something beautiful?”  Remember that?  Remember that feeling when you would read or learned something in a class that just resonated with you and made you sit up a little straighter and pay attention a little more?  I know the text that did it for many of my students over the years.  I see the difference in them.  All of a sudden, something got their attention.

In my first year of teaching, I had a rough, rough 7th period class.  This class had become a dumping ground for bad students.  All the middle of the road students were in inclusion classes (these are classes that by law have a certain ratio of SpEd students and regular students so that SpEd students can be taught in the least restrictive environment) and the smart kids were in honors classes.  This meant that all the rough kids, the kids who didn’t care, and a handful of poor souls who actually did want to learn all ended up in my 7th period class.  I HATED those kids.  I dreaded going there every day.  I spent a lot of days yelling or standing around waiting for them to get the hint that I was ready to teach.  It was soooo frustrating.  One girl in particular, we’ll call her Ruby, hated me.  Every time I asked her to put her phone away or stop talking, I was met with such hostility and anger.  Finally, I just kind of left her alone.  I tried to focus more on the 10 kids who were there and doing work and really wanted to learn.  One day, I was teaching Benjamin Franklin’s The Autobiography.  This was around the same time as Tiger Woods’s big cheating scandal and I remembered my old professor telling me that Ben Franklin was quite the flirt and ladies man.  I decided that in order to get these kids to care about Ben Franklin, I had to up the ante.  I started telling them that Ben was like the Tiger Woods of his time.  That he was not only an incredibly intelligent inventor and writer who played a role in the founding of this country, but he was also a big time celebrity.  He dined with powerful political figures and held court with kings.  About halfway through my spiel, I looked up to see Ruby watching me closely.  She was rapt with attention and was hanging on my every word.  About ten minutes into class, I started to teach just for her.  I could see she was excited by the story and what I was reading to them.  Her excitement fueled my own teaching and the whole class started to get really interested in, of all things, Benjamin Franklin.  She was appreciating something beautiful.

After that, Ruby seriously improved in my class.  She took it more seriously, working hard to really improve her grades.  At a later report card pickup, she even told her mother I was her favorite teacher.  That’s the power of teaching.  It’s not something that can be replicated in every classroom because my approach, my teaching style, and my humor cannot be replicated; I cannot be replicated.

In everyone’s quest to “reform” public schools (aka privatize public schools), they claim the most powerful indicator of students outcomes is teacher effectiveness.  They think this can be measured by standardized tests.  That moment with Ruby?  That cannot be measured by a test.  Sure, you could point to her “growth” over the year, but what I did was probably more permanent than her ability to walk out of her sophomore year a better reader or writer.  Those things are important and they are somewhat measurable by a standardized test, but what is not is the passion I gave her to stop fooling around and start investing in her education.  She walked out a better person because of me and that will never be measurable by a standardized exam.  Unfortunately, this seems to be something everyone forgets.  I’m not just effective because of my ability to get kids to be better readers and writers and thinkers.  My efficacy lies in my ability to inspire.  And that can never be measured.

PS.  That 7th period class that I hated so much?  It ended up being my favorite by the end of the year and I won over almost all of those students.  Standardize that.

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