Friday, February 27, 2015

Standardized tests and "failing" schools

The people who run our states and our country must not know.  They can’t, or they would not be leading us down the path on which we are going.  It is inconceivable; because if they do know, then their actions would be cruel and immoral.  And, they must not have asked the people who do know.  If they had, they would not subject our schools, our teachers, and most importantly our children to the overwhelming number of standardized tests that are taking instructional time from teachers and causing anxiety in students while doing nothing to help improve teaching and learning.  

There are several myths about standardized tests that have become, in the minds of politicians and on the pages of newspapers, generally accepted as truth.  Standardized tests will: help parents to know how well schools and their children are doing, aid and inform instruction,  be an authentic assessment of our children’s progress, hold teachers and school systems accountable, and finally, improve our ‘failing’ educational system.

Let’s start with the first misconception: standardized tests help parents to know how well their schools and their children are performing.  I’m sorry, but if you, as a parent, don’t know how well your child is doing in school, then you must never have been to a parent-teacher conference, seen a report card, helped your child with her homework, or scanned any of her finished work.  The same goes for judging or evaluating the quality of your child’s school.  Go to the school.  Volunteer.  Talk to the staff and your child.  Sit in on her classes.  Be active in the school community.  If these actions don’t tell you more than a grade from the state, then you must not understand that you can’t boil an entire school—students and staff—or an entire district down to a letter.

Supposedly, the four PARCC English tests that my freshmen will have to take this year are going to aid my instruction.  This is the worst of the falsehoods bandied around by testing companies, school reformers, and politicians.  I will not get the results of those tests back until January of next year.  Think about that.  A full eight months later.  How, exactly, are these results going to help me teach?  By the time I get the scores, those students will be halfway through their sophomore year, and they will be on the cusp of yet another round of tests.  The scores, when we get them, tell us very little.  They tell us, simply, how well our students are able to figure out the answers to questions that have little practical value in their lives.  

The only thing standardized tests assess is how well your child takes standardized tests.  The only way to authentically assess your child’s learning is by spending 180 days with them, not by looking at bubbled in answers to intentionally confusing questions and hastily scribbled essays on material that has no relevance to your child’s life.  As adults, we only read what has context in our lives—either for work or for pleasure.  Children, however, are forced to read passages on subjects that mean nothing to them—they are reading about yachting or the history of late-19th century Afghan tribal politics.  This is not only inauthentic, it is shameful.  It is destroying our children’s love of reading.

Education today is data-driven.  The data that we are using, however, does not truly measure a student’s learning or a teacher’s or school’s effectiveness.  The tests are designed to be so difficult that 70% of students fail.  And, high-poverty low-resource schools score lower on standardized tests than low-poverty high-resource schools.  This is a researched fact.  Unfortunately, high-stakes testing has done nothing to correct this constructed problem.  In fact, standardized testing has exacerbated the deep divide in education opportunity and success in our nation.  The schools that need the most are labeled failing.  Teachers fired.  Schools closed.  Electives eliminated.  In their place, we are putting for-profit public-financed charter schools staffed with inexperienced poorly-paid teachers armed with a test-prep based curriculum.

Whatever their reasons, I know these things to be true: if the politicians and the general public actually took the tests imposed on our children, then the truth about the unfairness of these tests would be revealed; if we allow testing companies and for-profit schools to create our education policy, then our children will become numbers on someone’s bottom line; if we do not stop making high-stakes decisions, stop judging and labeling schools and teachers, and end the test and punish cycle in which we find ourselves, then we will push teachers out of the profession and take all of the joy and fun out of learning for our children.  

Public education is not failing.  Our government is failing public education.  And, high-stakes standardized tests are just one of the many tools being used to undermine and privatize an educational system that at its best, can be a source of hope for every American and not simply a source of profit for a few.


Teaching is a series of vignettes that shape not only who we are as teachers, but, more importantly, who we are as people.    

1.      Micheon

She was one of my favorite students.  She aced my AP English class in eleventh grade, and was scheduled to be in my twelfth grade class the next.  She didn’t come to school until December.  She had no hair—her cancer had come back and was eating away at her brain.  But, she wanted to see her friends one last time.  I am convinced she knew the end was near, and she was trying to come to grips with the end of her life and to say goodbye to the people she loved. 

She sat in my class Thursday, not strong enough to walk, let alone walk from class to class or tackle the stairs.  She wanted to go home, but her mother was still at work.  Throwing up in a trashcan, she needed to lie down.  I carried her out to my car, buckled her in and drove her home.  When we got to her house, we sat in my car.  Snow coated the ground.  Bundled against the cold, we sat in the car in the heater’s blast.

We talked about the life she might have had, the boys she might have dated, and the babies she would never get a chance to love.  After every sentence labored through a sea of nausea, after every hollow laugh her eyes could not echo, there was spit: thick like love that doesn’t know how to die, medicinal like something kept a brown bottle under the sink, the spoon a cold razor on the teeth, bitter as birthdays unremembered and years unable to be spent.  She wet countless tissues she kept in her coat pockets.

“I’m always cold,” she said.

We talked of her sister, two years younger and a major pain in the you-know-what; they fought because she didn’t understand why her sister was getting all Mommy’s attention--well she knew, but it still wasn’t fair.  She never mentioned her father who left before she needed air.  We talked about her mother and her frustration: five years of this had worn her love thin like the sole of an old shoe.  What had protected her without thought now failed in the face of pain, and the sharpness of rain, and the puddles and puddles and puddles of spit.

We didn’t talk about it.

We talked about the class we shared—the single year of normality in her teenage life.  The only date she’d been on.  Told by her mother in the theatre parking lot, “Remember, don’t get too attached.”

We sat in the car until the cold winter crept in through the seams.  She didn’t want to say goodbye; she knew there’d never be another hello.

“I guess i should let you go,” she said opening her door with a smile forced like play-doh through her loosened teeth.  She coughed spat into a tissue and waited.  I carried her into her house, set her down on the couch with a spit bucket and a blanket, but not before hugging her bones a final time. I sat next to her and we watched cartoons for an hour: a cat, a mouse, a sponge, a sailor.

I held her sticks in my hand, only letting go when the spit got too thick, too bitter, like cold maple syrup, like a 9-volt battery on the tongue.

Her mom came home.   I left.  She turned into a white box filled with satin and bones.

2.      Latrell

Our students often struggle with their sexual identity, and for a trans kid in an urban environment, this is a problem.  Transitioning is difficult—I can only imagine—but transitioning in a high school culture where the words gay and fag can be heard every day, it must be almost impossible.  Latrell did it the only way he felt he could—all at once.

He got his nails done, got weave, got dangly earrings, and heels.  And fake breasts.  Some of the staff and the students laughed and shook their heads.  He didn’t get beaten, but hate cannoned
like fireworks in the hall.

I didn’t notice him at first, didn’t recognize the ram in ewe’s clothing.  And, when I did, I didn’t care.

“It makes me sick,” Ms. Jackson venomed into the staff room air.  “He’s only doing it for attention.”

I couldn’t be silent.  “Teenagers and birds have two purposes for their garments,” I said.  “Either they quail themselves into the background, a camouflaged blindfold, avoiding their
peers’ damnation—I am scenery, I am grass, I am shadow.  Or, they dandify themselves tail feathers and plume, miniskirts and hairdos, peacocking the world’s eyes. ‘Hey!  Look at me!  I am cardinal, I am macaw, I am paradise.’

“So the boy who no longer feels like a boy, and the girl with chain-dragging jeans are not special—they are Mohawk, they are sag, they are tattoo.  They are as normal as the quiet girl
in the library with twilight in her eyes, or the boy in the bleachers during recess, hands without balls in his lap.”

3.      Dominique

A number—24—of my students over the past years have been in trouble with the law.  Some of them are still incarcerated—one for life—and some are on probation.  All of them have a story, and few of them ever get the chance to tell that story.  Most of them hate anything that stinks of authority, which feels like the Man is once again coming down on them.  School, for them, is just another form of prison.  Dominique was one of those students.  He came to school only because if he didn’t, he would go back to jail.  His probation officer took him out of class one day a week, and when Dominique was in class, I had the hardest time getting him to see the value of learning how to write.

Dominique didn’t like writing in the journal I gave him.  He was a lefty, and the wiry spiral bit into his wrist like handcuffs, a feeling that was all too familiar.  He never wore shorts, even in August when the inequities of school financing burn the brightest.  Dominique sat sweating in his sagging jeans.  A ten cent spiral notebook and a fifteen cent pen on his wobbly desk.  His permanently ink-stained hands propping up his armpits.  Dominique thought he had nothing to write about and figured that the wolverine in his face said everything that needed saying.

In first grade, Ms. Ward smothered his first words in blood, red marks and tsks on his story about a boy who turned into asphalt, so he could hide in the streets.  He wanted to take his story home to his mother, but he didn’t want the blood to become real.  Even at six, Dominique knew to never give the belt a reason to viper out of
his mother’s pants.

Dominique thought writing was for fools and the crossbones tattooed on his eyes should be enough to show he ain’t no fool—nothing like the one Mr. Pierce called out in front of the class.  He intercepted a passed note and then read it out loud.  “‘Hey Kayla,’ mock drooling out his tone ‘I was wondering if you want to go to the movies this weekend cuz i kinda like you yer cute.   Dominique.’”  The Greek chorus in the back of the room chanted “Dominique loves Kayla! Dominique loves Kayla!”  She might have said yes; she might have been the one.  But, she turned her eyes to tears and sniffled him out of her life.  Dominique’s knew his heart would have flamed red if it wasn’t already burnt black like rubber stains on the asphalt’s skin.

Dominique thought writing was for wussies, and his ankle bracelet and four babies
testament to his manhood.  Officer Hohl stood vulture behind Dominique’s back as he sat handcuffed to the table writing his confession—his two friends’ names ratting out from his pen. 
Now they were in the pen, and he was walking around with new jewelry.  Dominique knew chains and bars devour a man’s wallet, and the asphalt and diapers are hungry

I stood and walked over to Dominique, put my good pen in his left hand, turned his notebook over, and said, “Write upside-down then.” 

“About what?” he asked.

“Write about why you don’t like to write.”

He snorted and as I turned and walked back to my chair, I heard his pen start to talk.

Then it started to sing.

4.      Four

The worst part of teaching is when a student dies.  We, as teachers, invest so much of our hearts into them, that when they die, something breaks inside of us.  It is not the pain a parent feels—I can only imagine—when they lose a child, but it is pain nonetheless.  It is as if we are watching the sparks we lit get snuffed out one by one before they have a chance to burn bright.

I don’t like this.  I don’t like writing about death.  It doesn’t help.  Nothing ever does.

Four of my former students have died this year: one stabbed--he died in the emergency room, doctors berating his unbeating heart—one had cancer (I don’t know which is worse: genes and luck, or sharpened steel anger).  I didn’t like either of them.  They were not good students, friends, advisees, or sons.  They passed my class, but now they have passed.  Died.  Dead.  One died alone in the sanitized stink of a hotel room, and one drowned yesterday.  He was one of the good ones—a smile he never lost, and a heart big enough for all of us.

And, I see my children, I see all my students in their place: laid down, folded into satin, a lace pillow for their quiet head, their eyes and mouth sewn shut, dressed in their decomposing clothes.

It is not supposed to be this way, not like this.  They are supposed to be peeking their heads into my classroom while they are home on break from college.  They should arrive Army strong, Marine high and tight.  They should be bringing in their kids to meet me and talking about their career.  They are supposed to be: teachers, poets, parents, and friends.  They are not supposed to be dead. 

There have been nine: 3 shot, 1 AIDS, 2 cancer, 1 overdose, 1 stabbed, and one drowned yesterday.

This is what makes teaching a heartbreaking career.  It is not the kids who don’t care and their parents who have given up.  It is not the lack of respect from the government, the media, and the politicians.  It is not trying to teach a generation that is instant—information not something to learn but to look up.  A generation that is self-sighted and near-absorbed.  A generation that has been given everything and been asked for nothing.  It is not the standardized tests and the corporations that profit off failure.  Or, the mandates, or the lack of support and supplies.  It is not the kids who can’t read because they have never been read to--houses barren of books.  It is not even being forced to work with the rare teacher who doesn’t care.

It is this: walking into the office at 7:13 in the morning, coffee in hand, bag over my shoulder, and a plan for the day—copies, grades, lessons, work—only to be met with tears and, “Have you heard the news?”  And, a steel casket gravities my chest.  Hugs replace handshakes, and a pall of sighs stalks the halls.

The teachers who care, care.  We care for your children, listen to them, talk to them, advise them, feed them, teach them, love them, and when we lose them, when they die, all that knowledge and all that love we gave them comes snapping back—a cut string we attached to the future trying to change the world one student at a time.

Nine of my former students have died: 3 shot, 1 AIDS, 2 cancer, 1 overdose, 1 stabbed, and one drowned yesterday.  Trub, Robert, Chris, Michael, Micheon, Amy, Anthony, Julius, and Kwesi—he drowned yesterday.  His heart was not big enough.  His smile lost beneath the waves.

5.      Terrence

I have failed many students in my teaching career.  I don’t enjoy it, but sometimes they do not do enough work, or I don’t have enough evidence, or I can’t convince them to read a book or write an essay, and I am forced to put an ‘F’ on their report card.  Occasionally, but rarely thankfully, this stops a student from graduating on time.  This is not a pleasant experience.  Two or three times, a student I failed has either come back to school or contacted me. 
A student I had five years ago sent me a text Friday night at eleven thirteen.  He failed my class, but I failed him—didn’t reach through his matchhead eyes or his street smirk to help him to see
the importance of language.  I talked to his older sister once or twice, but her name was Pearlie and he was a bit of sand stuck in her craw.  Trouble.  A nuisance.  She’d insulated herself against his insolence for years until the shell she hid him in kept her care locked in a cell, which, as she told me several times, during our two short conversations, was where his butt was going to end up.

According to the text I read—sipping my coffee on a Saturday morning—neither his but nor any other part of him wound up locked up like so many of my former students, busted for getting by in a world that left them behind.

He wrote: “Thank you for all the things you taught me in your class my senior year.  Even 4 the things you taught me unknowingly.”

And, I remembered Ms. Strickland, who dressed as a witch on Halloween.  She gave me The Hobbit.  She said i might find it interesting.  I hadn’t found anything worth staying up all night for before, but Bilbo’s book pitched the flashlight tent on my bed and kept me reading until the batteries died—and I haven’t stopped since.  Or, Ms. Brendel, who every Friday let a different student choose the music for journal time and never flinched through the profanity in my favorite song  even though it was the longest minute of my life.  She read my journal and told me she loved it, especially the parts she couldn’t read.  My scrunched up hand scribbling its way past red lines hasn’t stopped since. 

And, I realized: the curriculum, the lessons, the books, the essays, none of those matter.  The throwaway compliments, the insignificant smiles, the careless questions, the meaningless gifts—this is where teachers change the world and give their students hope that someone cares enough about them to try. 

Terrance thought I didn’t remember him, but I know the name of every kid I’ve stopped from getting a diploma.  I know the name of every student I’ve failed.  His words give me hope that for some of them I gave them enough so they could do more than get by, even if I didn’t know it.

6.      Shawna

Standardized tests measure how well a student takes standardized tests.  I have taught 4.0 students—good writers, readers, and thinkers—who have not been able to get into the twenties on the ACT.  I have taught and tutored students who have not passed the graduation test for my state.  They do not get walk across the stage with their friends.  The decision of whether they are worthy to graduate has been taken out of the hands of the professionals in the building and given to corporations and their testing products.  And now, standardized tests and my students’ scores on them will determine my evaluation score. 

One of my students, in particular, had difficulty with the Math test, which eventually turned her into a non-graduate.  The final time she took the test in March of her senior year, I could see her anxiety and her struggle written on her face and in her white-knuckled grip on her #2 pencil.

Shawna asked me, as I pulled the pencil out her cramping hand, if I wanted her to fail.  She, in the allotted time, had answered under half of the forty five questions on the test she needed to graduate.  She won’t.  She is eighteen, a senior, impoverished, and impregnated. 

This was the fifth time she had tried to figure out which one was the sphere and which one looked like a can--concepts that don’t confuse my nine year-old silence this girl’s pencil—which now spires out my fist like a yellow shank.  “Do you want to make me fail?” she asked again, as I picked up her test booklet and answer document. 

I felt obliged to apologize, but the sorry butted up against the back of my front teeth I chewed on the seventeen thousand hours of her public schooling that had been compacted down into a two and a half hour test ,as I alphabetized her future.

7.      Me

My profession, my students, my school, my district, and even I, are being quantified.  We have all become numbers.  Value-added, standardized test scores, adequate yearly progress, state report cards, and my teacher evaluation score (based partially on my students’ standardized test scores).  This is education in 21st century America.  We are ensnared in the age of data and numbers.  If it cannot be quantified, it is not important. 

I became a teacher, not when I learned how to analyze test strands or to examine trend data, but when I learned that the most important aspect of teaching is the relationships we build with our students.  They may never read another classic piece of world literature in their lives; they may never graph a function or balance an equation; they may never read The Federalist Papers or march in another band; but, they will have to live peacefully with the people in the world around them.  They learn how to do this from their parents and their teachers.  And, as long as I treat my students with respect, compassion, empathy, and love, they will leave my charge better people (I hope).  As long as I don’t objectify them, turn them into numbers, and pigeonhole them based on those numbers, I have a chance to help them. 

Being a teacher is not like being a cook or an accountant.  It is not even like being a nurse or a doctor.  Being a teacher is the most unique profession in the world.  No other career affords you the opportunity to be in another person’s life day after day after day.  Nine months.  One hour a day.  I spend more time with my students during the school year than their parents probably do.  I have the chance to change the world, or at the very least, the chance to help my students to become better people.