Posted in Indiana, Personal History, Testing

An Open Letter to Indiana Educators on the Occasion of ISTEP 2014

DEAR INDIANA EDUCATORS,

As most of you know, the next three weeks are going to be stressful for Hoosier students in grades three through eight. That’s because the window for administering the first part of the Indiana Statewide Testing for Educational Progress-Plus (ISTEP+) begins this week.

Not only does this testing system assign a score to your students, it also is the basis for your school’s A-F Ranking, your evaluation, and in some cases, the evaluations of teachers who don’t even teach tested grades.

Third grade teachers have the added prospect of administering the IREAD-3 test during the last week of the ISTEP+ testing window.

Sadly, this is only the first of two parts of the ISTEP+ assessment regimen. This month’s tests are the Applied Skills. The Multiple Choice assessment takes place in the Spring.

ISTEP+ and IREAD-3 are not the only tests that Indiana teachers are required to administer. There’s also…

  • CoreLink
  • ECAs
  • IMAST
  • ISTAR
  • LAS Links
  • NAEP
  • mCLASS
  • Acuity

In addition there are tests chosen by local school boards which teachers are obligated to use…things like DIBELS and NWEA. Finally, teachers still design and administer their own chapter tests, midterm and final exams and other in-class quizzes.

Some tests are administered multiple times during a year (like mCLASS). Some tests are only used for certain grade levels (like IREAD-3), certain subject areas (like ECAs), and certain groups of students (like ISTAR and LAS Links). Not all students take all the tests, however every student is required to take at least some of the tests each year.

THE COST OF TESTING

Testing occurs frequently in Indiana schools. Some would say too frequently. How much time is spent on test prep and actual testing?

As an example, this year the third grade ISTEP+ tests (Applied Skills) takes about an hour a day for three days. That’s not so much, until you factor in things like

  • time spent on test prep before the tests
  • time spent on rearranging the room before each test and again after each test (an arrangement needed for testing is not necessarily the best arrangement for teaching)
  • time allowed for the students to “wind down” after the tests
  • time spent by teachers in meetings before and after the tests
  • time spent by teachers gathering and returning tests daily during the testing days
  • time spent by administrators, counselors, and other support personnel in unpacking, sorting, distributing, processing additional materials (like #2 pencils), securing the tests, more sorting, and finally repackaging the tests at the building and corporation level.

[And don’t forget those same third graders will take IREAD-3 at the end of the month, and then the multiple choice portion of the ISTEP+ later in the Spring.]

There is more cost to testing than just the cost of the test booklets. Personnel costs…the loss of instructional time…the cost of paying teachers, administrators and others to fiddle around with testing chores instead of actually working with students…and the cost in emotional and physical stress related to the tests.

If you’ve been teaching for more than a year in Indiana, then you probably know all this, so let’s move on.

EVALUATE THAT

We all have stories…some more dramatic than others…that demonstrate how important we are as professionals. Here’s one of mine…

I taught in Indiana’s public schools for 35 years. Over the years a number of my former students have contacted me to tell me that something I did was helpful to them…from reading aloud to their own children, to remembering a classroom event or incident.

One student, Joe (*not his real name), wrote to me more than a decade after spending his third grade year in my classroom. I remembered him as an average, quiet student who worked hard.

The adult Joe wrote to tell me that his father had recently died. He said that, at the end of the year in third grade, I had helped him create a Father’s Day card. I remembered that. It was common for us to make Mother’s Day cards in May each year, but Father’s Day takes place after school ends for the summer. For some reason, I decided that particular year, that I would have my class make Father’s Day cards as well. I don’t think I had ever done it before…and I don’t remember doing it again. I told the students to save the cards after they got home for the summer…and to give them to their fathers (or another important male relative) on Father’s Day.

Joe’s letter reminisced about the Father’s Day card. He wrote how I had helped him think of things to write, spell words he didn’t know, and illustrate the card. Then he told me that the card he made that day was the last contact he ever had with his father. For that young man the fact that I had decided to make Father’s Day cards with my class became a significant life fact a few years later.

He didn’t write to thank me for teaching him how to multiply. He didn’t write to thank me for teaching him enough so that he scored well on the standardized tests we took. He wrote to tell me about the impact that short activity had made on him as a 9 year old.

What Joe experienced on that day in my third grade classroom never showed up on my “performance evaluations” nor did it ever show up on any standardized test he took. We can’t measure the importance of that event. How important is it to have a memory of contact with an absent parent? How important is it when we consider that the letter Joe wrote was from his cell in the state penitentiary where he is serving a life sentence for killing someone during an armed robbery?

#evaluatethat

TESTING IS NOT TEACHING

Don’t tell us that the only way to teach a child is to spend too much of a year preparing him to fill out a few bubbles in a standardized test…You didn’t devote your lives to testing. You devoted it to teaching, and teaching is what you should be allowed to do.” — Candidate Barack Obama, 2007

Testing is not teaching and a child (or a school/state/nation) is more than a test score.

Here are some things to keep in mind when you’re administering tests this month — or at any time during the school year.

1. You have already prepared them as much as you can. No matter what you do you can’t (legally) add more to their knowledge once a testing session begins.

2. Standardized tests measure knowledge, but you have provided your students with growth opportunities, experiences and skills which aren’t (and can’t be) tested such as (but not limited to):

creativity, critical thinking, resilience, motivation, persistence, curiosity, endurance, reliability, enthusiasm, empathy, self-awareness, self-discipline, leadership, civic-mindedness, courage, compassion, resourcefulness, a sense of beauty, a sense of wonder, honesty, integrity

3. Understand that the increased importance of standardized tests — the fact that they are used to rate schools and teachers, as well as measure student knowledge accumulation — is based on invalid assumptions. As a professional your job is to teach your students. Standardized tests add nothing to that task. Standardized tests measure knowledge. If knowledge were all that were important in education then an understanding of child development, pedagogy, and psychology wouldn’t be necessary to teach (and yes, I know, there are people in the state who actually believe that). We know that’s not true. We know that one of the most important aspects of teaching and learning is the relationship between teacher and child. We know that well trained, caring teachers are better educators than computers.

4. People who make rules and laws about teaching, from legislators to billionaires to presidents, don’t understand the teaching and learning process. For most of them, their understanding of teaching comes from the point of view of a learner.

They don’t understand what it means to be a teacher in a classroom. They learned about teaching by watching their teachers.

They don’t know the planning that takes place before the first day of school. They don’t understand the thought behind creating an entire year’s worth of lesson plans. They don’t know the emotional responses a teacher feels when a class leaves her care at the end of a school year. They don’t know all the time and effort spent preparing at night, on weekends, and during “vacations.”

They have never helped a child decide to remain in school only to lose him to a drive-by shooting. They have never gotten a letter from a former student thanking them for supporting her during a family crisis. They have never tried to explain to a class of Kindergartners why their classmate who had cancer is not coming back. They have never felt the joy of watching a student who they helped all year long walk across the stage to accept a diploma.

State legislators who come from jobs as attorneys, florists, or auctioneers don’t know what preparing for a class — or half a dozen classes — of students, day after day, for 180 days, is like. They have an image of what a classroom teacher does based on their childhood and youthful memories, but they don’t know how it really works.

Understand that. Remember that you are much more valuable to your students than what is reflected on “the test.”

5. Do what you have to do to survive in today’s classroom. Make sure your students are, to the extent that you are able, ready to take “the test.” Then, let it go and return to being the best teacher you can be. Keep in mind that the most important thing you will do for your students is to be a person they can respect, learn from, look up to, emulate, and care about.

One looks back with appreciation to the brilliant teachers, but with gratitude to those who touched our human feelings. The curriculum is so much necessary raw material, but warmth is the vital element for the growing plant and for the soul of the child. — Carl Jung

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All who envision a more just, progressive and fair society cannot ignore the battle for our nation’s educational future. Principals fighting for better schools, teachers fighting for better classrooms, students fighting for greater opportunities, parents fighting for a future worthy of their child’s promise: their fight is our fight. We must all join in.

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Stop the Testing Insanity!
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Author:

Retired after 35 years in public education.