Posted in Teaching Career, Testing

An Open Letter to Indiana Educators on the Occasion of ISTEP 2015

Dear Indiana Educators…

TESTING, TESTING, TESTING

The new ISTEP, which, when both parts (applied skills and multiple choice) are combined, averages more than 19 hours for grades 3 through 8, is most likely on your mind right now. The people who developed this test are obviously not the ones who have to spend their day with children. If they were they would know that the test is too long and therefore, by definition, developmentally inappropriate for all grades in which it is given. For comparison, the SAT takes three hours and 45 minutes (not counting breaks), the ACT takes a little over four hours (including breaks), and the Indiana Bar Exam takes thirteen hours…

Still, we’re all required to administer the tests and the dates are approaching quickly. Third grade teachers have the added burden of IREAD-3 immediately after ISTEP. Then there’s Acuity and, for secondary students, ECAs.  It sometimes seems like the entire year is spent trying to squeeze in a tiny bit of teaching among all the days and weeks of testing. [If you’re interested you can see a list of all the tests with all their dates at Indiana Assessments on the Indiana DOE web site.]

It’s a shame that schools, teachers, and students are blamed when outside forces contribute so much to student achievement. David Berliner, in his study titled Poverty and Potential: Out-of-School Factors and School Success, tells us that there are factors which contribute to a student’s achievement which are completely out of the control of schools and teachers.

  • Low birth weight
  • Medical care including dental and mental heath services
  • Food and shelter insecurity
  • Environmental pollutants
  • Family relations and stresses
  • Community stresses such as violence and drug abuse

Schools and teachers have no control over any of those things, and teachers’  impact on achievement is surprisingly small. Yet schools and teachers are held completely accountable for students’ successes and failures in the classroom.

When the ISTEP scores are published in the papers, and school letter grades are determined and published we hear about so-called “failing schools” and “low performing schools.” No one speaks about “failing communities,” “low performing policy makers,” or “low performing parents.” The schools get blamed…and because of the State of Indiana’s teacher evaluation policies, so do teachers.

Many teachers are leaving the profession rather than work under conditions such as these. Teachers who have the option might choose to avoid working with hard to educate students — those with special needs, or those whose home environment leaves them unprepared for academic success. Some of the teachers who stay are struggling to hold on to their jobs and their self-respect as they are asked to participate in more and more inappropriate educational practices like test-prep and curriculum trimming.

We know that Indiana is overusing and misusing standardized testing. We know that what’s being forced on schools by policy makers in Washington D.C. and Indianapolis is not in the best interests of children.

What can you do?

You can fight back, write letters to the editor, give testimony to the State Board of Education, write legislators and the Governor, but for the next few weeks what’s most important is helping your students deal with the massive, stressful, and overwhelming amount of testing. For your own health and emotional well-being you need to find ways to relieve your own stress as well.

Elementary grade teachers especially, your students are still new to this, and even if they weren’t, it’s hard for children to sit still for hours and hours, even when it’s spread out over March and April. It’s not what they should be doing. You know that…and your administrators know that.

ROUTINES

Most ways to help students survive the stresses of high stakes testing are just common sense. Still, it helps to come up with some ways to let students relieve the stress. I don’t have all the answers and there is no way to change, just in the next couple of weeks, the massive injustice being done to your students. You probably have suggestions of your own. Please share with each other, especially with newer teachers who might not have had this experience before.

A few suggestions…

As much as possible, continue your normal school routines. Humans become comfortable in familiar settings, so encourage your building administrators not to cancel any special area classes like PE or Music. Continue to spend time each day talking to your students about upcoming events, school assemblies, field trips, and so on. Don’t cancel recess if you teach in an elementary grade. Continue to teach when daily testing is over, but keep in mind the level of stress the students are under and make sure that new concepts are kept to a minimum.

If you don’t already read aloud to your students, testing time is a good time to start. No matter what their age, no matter what the subject, reading aloud to students is beneficial. If you need help getting started try looking around Jim Trelease’s web site, trelease-on-reading.com. There you’ll find lists of books to read aloud listed with appropriate ages and helps on the how-to’s of read aloud. Choose something light and entertaining (like Sideways Stories from Wayside School).

Most of all remember that the students are under unusual stress…as are you. Be a good role model of patience and help them learn ways to take the extra stress in stride.

TESTING IS NOT TEACHING (reprinted from last year)

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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The narrow pursuit of test results has sidelined education issues of enduring importance such as poverty, equity in school funding, school segregation, health and physical education, science, the arts, access to early childhood education, class size, and curriculum development. We have witnessed the erosion of teachers’ professional autonomy, a narrowing of curriculum, and classrooms saturated with “test score-raising” instructional practices that betray our understandings of child development and our commitment to educating for artistry and critical thinking. And so now we are faced with “a crisis of pedagogy”–teaching in a system that no longer resembles the democratic ideals or tolerates the critical thinking and critical decision-making that we hope to impart on the students we teach.

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Stop the Testing Insanity!
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Author:

Retired after 35 years in public education.

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