Month: May 2015

Do Standardized Tests Boost Student Performance? Middle School Students Respond

Once the dust settled after the last surge of standardized testing for the year,students, teachers, and administrators finally got another chance to exhale. Prompted by my own curiosity of how students view education, I posed this question to my students in the form of a journal entry: “Does knowing that you have to take a big test at the end of the year encourage you perform better in class? Why or why not”

Now, I posed this question because I believe that in the midst of all of the hustle and bustle of yearly testing, we’ve lost sight of the fact that actual learning is a three-tiered responsibility pyramid, with a good teacher occupying the top and smallest tier. The next level of responsibility lies with the parent, but the bulk and foundation of the learning pyramid lies with the student in a forgotten area called “personal responsibility.” The standardized testing craze was perpetuated by an assumption that our school systems were flooded with teachers that neither taught nor cared about students, and even I’ll admit that in some cases this was true. However, with the changes in accountability policies that have steadily increased over the last 12 years it is impossible for a teacher to remain in the classroom for any period of time if they do not take the profession or student success seriously. Imagine, if you were only in the classroom to collect a paycheck, how long would you put up with discipline issues, formal and informal observations, test administration, student learning targets, and time outside of work devoted to lesson preparation before you decided that you could find a easier way to earn a paycheck?

So let’s assume that most teachers teach because they are subject matter experts and they actually do care about kids. What happens to a child when he leaves the school? For most of us, we concentrate best when we are in a stable and secure environment. As a matter of fact, I’m writing this blog in the quiet comfort of my home. If there were people arguing or fighting in the background, steadily walking in and out, or engaging in illegal activity nearby you best believe that focusing on writing a blog would be among the least of my concerns. Yet, we have children in our schools that are expected to practice a skill at home under these conditions. It is the parent’s responsibility to provide a safe environment for their children that is conducive to learning and psychological development. Without this leg, the “stool” of learning is unstable.

Lastly, the individual student is the ultimate decider of whether or not learning takes place. Ironically, testing has an adverse effect on learning because after testing is over, from some students’ perspective learning is over. Incidentally every effort made throughout the year is only directed towards a test, not to foster life long learners. As I stated before, I gave my students a writing topic to respond to as candidly as they could. The nature of the responses vary from students who struggle with discipline and those who are self motivated:

“Kind of because I will play (in class) at the beginning of the year and do good going to the end (of the year).”

“I don’t think testing changes the way a person acts, they have to change themselves. I think testing makes a person nervous because there are so many questions.”

“No because you have to wake up in the morning and prepare to take that test, and after the test they try to make us do work. That’s too much pressure on us kids.”

“No because most people come to school for their friends or to bully somebody. Some kids come to school just to get away from the house.”

“No because the test is big, but it’s really not a big deal because we pass by our grades.”

“Yes it does encourage me because I don’t want to fail the test, so I will try my best not to associate with my friends so I can pass the seventh grade.”

“Why wouldn’t it? You need to do good to get into a good high school.”

Yes, it encourages me to be better and to test myself on my skills.” 

“No because the test really doesn’t depend on your behavior.”

And the list goes on…

The truth is that legislators and board members see big, standardized tests as a way to determine if teachers are worthy of their paychecks and if students are benefiting from the system. Ironically since teachers have been trained to see “the test” as the determining factor of their employment, students have been trained to see the test as the sole purpose of learning.

The trickle down effect at its worst.

Tipping the Scale: HB 418 and How It Affects the Average Teacher

Last month, I had the honor of standing with my union to oppose HB 418 before the House Labor Committee. This passing of this bill would eliminate the teachers, firefighters, and police unions from collecting membership dues through payroll deduction. Despite hours of testimonies from teachers, school superintendents, firefighter and police chiefs, and other taxpaying public servants, the House Labor Committee voted in favor of the bill. Common sense would say: The members of these unions choose to have their dues deducted from their payroll, so why is this an issue. The counter argument posed by Alan Seabaugh (R) on the House Labor Committee was: Union dues should not be paid with taxpayer dollars (like we’re not taxpayers). What’s wrong with having the dues drafted from the members bank accounts by filling out this simple form?

I’ll tell you why. As a public school teacher who is constantly bombarded by the state to prove that I do my job in six different ways, a simple form can be literally tip the scale.

By the way, that “six different ways” comment made in the previous sentence was not an exaggeration. We have student learning targets (SLTs) that we have to complete at the start of the school year, in which we administer a benchmark test to the students, and then use those results to predict what gains will be made at the end of the year. We have two formal observations throughout the year, and evaluations based on these observations. We are also expected to allocate 20 minutes of class time to Response to Intervention (RtI), in which the teacher works directly with a group of about four students, while the other 24 students are working independently on an assignment. Wait, let me restate that in a way that paints the picture more clearly. The other 24 middle school, seventh grade students are doing exactly what they’re told, and working on an assignment while the teacher pays special attention to a small group. Needless to say, in a best case scenario RtI can be a beautiful thing, but in a typical low-income populated middle school it can morph into a mental nightmare. Along with RtI comes progress monitoring, for which the teacher must test the small group students every two weeks, record the data from these test, and make a separate set of lesson plans to teach the small group. We also administer a DAZE, CARI, or DIBELS reading test three times a year which must be scored and analyzed. Finally, we have the godfather of test-mania, the PARCC, or iLEAP, or whatever the next assessment “savior” is that will rescue student achievement from the depths of idiocy.

If you read the previous paragraph closely, you may have noticed one thing missing–actual teaching. My students are so mind-numb from excessive testing that learning is a burden, not a joy. Sadly, teachers are feeling the same way about teaching.

As a public school teacher, I feel as though my voice is muffled by the heavy political donors of the state. Which is why I need my union to be a strong, well represented voice in the legislature. HB 418 took away my union’s option to deduct my membership dues from my payroll in efforts to weaken the membership of the union. I now have one more form to fill out, on top of the many other forms that legislators have tacked onto my profession and one more red number on my online banking statement.

The most disheartening aspect of HB 418 is that it costs the state nothing to allow unions to deduct membership dues from payroll. Our legislators have used taxpayer money to focus on taking away an option to pay dues to organizations that specifically exist to protect the workers that serve our communities.

Keep in mind that our systems work because of the workers, but if we allow legislators to continue to pander to wealthy donors instead of listening to voices of those on the front line the future of our state will be in extreme peril and we will fail as active citizens.