Fixing the broken.

Some years ago, my first year as a teacher in a real school, I had to take the Praxis exams to get into an education program. I needed to be registered and enrolled in the program to retain my Alternative Type II license. I needed my license to keep teaching. I needed the job because I had a family to support. Since I was eyeball deep in trying to make it through the first year and under more pressure than normal, this test was an added weight that I could barely handle. I hate taking tests and despise standardized ones even more even though I am a top level test taker. These tests help me out but I still can’t stand them. Nevertheless, I woke early one Saturday morning, made my lunch, and made the hour drive to the testing site. I had neglected to sign up for the test sooner so I had to go to Crowley’s Ridge Community College rather than the university two miles from my house. Crowley’s Ridge is a really interesting and beautiful place but out of the way for a testing center. It is a place different from the surrounding delta with it’s own plants and animals.

As I was leaving the city, I realized that I had forgotten a pencil and frantically found a convenience store that carried writing utensils. The corner store never has what you need when you need it and has made my life far less convenient with their promises of ease.

The sky looked and felt a touch ominous and spring has the most violent weather but I really needed to not worry and focus on the mater at hand of getting to the test site and taking the danged test.

Huge spider web at Village Creek State Park.
Huge spider web at Village Creek State Park.

Some time down the road I found the place, signed in, heard the never-ending instructions, and filled in bubbles. Filling bubbles, I can’t imagine how many kids fill in now days. I was only taking one test so I got to leave then; as I was heading to my truck, I could tell the weather was making a severe turn. Tornadoes were definitely in season. I checked my radio on the drive back and realized that I was just in front of a massive storm. It was to be a race and I didn’t feel like getting stuck somewhere outside of West Memphis is such a mess. I also wondered what was happening to all the folks taking the next test. A co-worker of mine who was there told me later that they had to spend some time in the shelter and wait till the tornado warnings lifted.

I did well on the test. I knew I did well when I left and  was just waiting for the score so I could send it along. I had cleared one of the hurdles, though others would get in my way.

Everyone has tales of standarized tests and they will get more because they have permeated to all aspects of professional society since they are quick and easy to grade and a good test is a measure of skills/knowledge. Someone can do HVAC installation or sell fireplace inserts for years, he or she can know his trade but still not be promoted because of a test. These tests have real ramifications for those who take them.

We need to take standardized tests seriously as a skill that students need to learn. As far as evaluations and all the other drama created by NCLB, testing is part of the game and not a measure of our proficiency. We need to prepare kids for future tests so they can always have the skills to get past them. They need to separate their individual worth from test results and see them as part of the game to play. If they really want to change the rules then they will have to play the game before they can reach the point that they can do so. Teachers have been forced to focusing more effort than they should on tests because they are tied with individual and school evaluation.

I don’t know if you will find a more stressed out group than Algebra 1 teachers (at least in Tennessee). The Algebra 1 End of Course always creates the biggest problems and most of the schools at or near failing are doing so depending on that one test score. These are generally freshman and the fate of the school depends almost entirely on what the kids know coming in. I have seen all manner of creative efforts to get kids past the test. So much money, stress, work, time, and resources for one focus that is not the students. This test has been put in place as a major component of teacher evaluation and bad scores should lead to removal of bad teachers.

Somewhere, somehow, someone pushed across a narrative that schools are failing because they are filled with bad teachers. Where are they all? I haven’t found them. There are some teacher better than others but all the ones that I met work hard for their students. They teach and guide the kids in a meaningful way. Their students don’t score drastically higher or lower on the tests. If the scores are too low they are put on surplus and find another school. How can that be! Schools can’t get rid of all of the “bad” teachers because there aren’t enough to fill positions. That problem was somewhat addressed by the influx of Teach For America folks. You know which teachers are the worst? First year ones. They can turn into world class educators but they are most likely going to be chewed up and spit out by the system first. The evaluation system does more to get rid of good teachers than bad ones.

Teachers need to promote the professionalism of the trade. We do not have the money to change minds but we have the numbers and the good will of people. I know I am always proud to tell strangers that I am a teacher and they are always thankful. In a few minutes, I can help this person more deeply appreciate the field and instill more support for educators as a whole. That step is one we can all take pretty easily and one that can have a widespread impact. We have changed the discourse of what learning should look like in the schools, now we need to spread that discourse into the public. When the public dialogue shifts into favor of real reform, then we can face the challenge of doing so head on.

For now, do the best you can and work always on being a better teacher. Focus on what the students need to learn and how you best facilitate them. Tests are part of the game and help learners understand them as such and find ways to succeed on them.

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