There’s No Test For That
Last week was Teacher Appreciation Week. This week is the one in which the state of Washington tells me that what my students accomplish every day isn’t quantifiable and therefore doesn’t matter. It’s the first day of standardized testing for my fourth graders.
In the eyes of the state, there is only one thing that matters, and that is whether or not a certain percentage of my students achieve a 3 on each portion of their SBA (Smarter Balanced Assessment).
The test doesn’t show that almost all of my students have multilingual abilities, with 13+ languages spoken among them.
The test doesn’t care that five have been in the country less than 14 months.
It doesn’t matter that we have such a high rate of student transiency that only five started kindergarten at our school.
The test doesn’t take into account that at least 6 are missing a year or more of K-3 education, or that two had never attended any school until 2016.
The test doesn’t recognize that eight are refugees, that some have watched family members be killed, or that some are worrying about loved ones who are still in danger.
The test disregards longstanding education research that shows it takes English Language Learners 5-7 years to acquire the academic language needed to succeed on standardized tests, and up to ten if their prior education was interrupted. The test gives newcomers a year and a day to pass the English Language Arts assessment before the school is held responsible. (No such grace period exists for the math portion.)
The test’s judges won’t know that one of my girls cried because this test is so hard. She still worked her hardest for five HOURS, but isn’t finished with even the first of 5 assessments.
They don’t know that I differentiate to a range of 7 grade levels every day. It doesn’t matter, because the test is the same for all students.
The test doesn’t know that 81.5% of our students taking it can’t afford school lunch.
I told them to go to bed early and get a good night of sleep before the test, but the test doesn’t know that 20% of the students at our school don’t have a permanent nighttime residence.
The test doesn’t know that one of my students was thinking about his mom, who he hasn’t seen since he left her country 3.5 years ago.
The test doesn’t know that one of the students taking it has missed about 40% of school days for PTSD counseling and cancer treatment.
The test doesn’t measure resilience.
It doesn’t know that at the beginning of the year three students were reading at grade level and now 12 of them are.
It doesn’t know that 14 of my students made one, two, three, or four years of reading growth in less than six months.
It doesn’t know that some of my struggling readers turned out to be the stars of our debate competition.
It won’t register that my new student from Iraq is a math genius because the math questions are in English and have more words than numbers. The test doesn’t know that she hosts her own YouTube channel on which she gives tutorials and narrates excursions.
The test doesn’t know what an achievement it is that one of my students with extreme anxiety sometimes takes his hood off now, or that when I asked him how he feels about school this year he said, “It’s AMAZING!”
On the test, it doesn’t matter that my feistiest, formerly-friendless fighter recently confessed, “I used to beat someone up every hour and I didn't have a lot of friends but then I learned to be nice and now I have a lot of friends!” It doesn’t matter that at the beginning of the year I counted her go to the bathroom 11 times before lunch and now she goes once or twice a day. The test doesn’t tell the state that she now has dreams for the future including nursing school, buying a house for her parents, and adopting two kids.
The test doesn’t measure character and virtues. It doesn’t know that one of my students lectures other students about the value of education and the necessity of compassion.
It didn’t see one of my surliest students soften when I asked him about his little sister who passed away; it didn’t read the poem he wrote about her.
The test doesn’t show that my students used to be mean and now they’re kind.
All of these things matter – but they don’t matter on the test.
All that matters is one percentage. That percentage gives our school a score, a grade. We’re a three out of ten. An F. Families don't want to buy houses in our neighborhood because the schools aren't Good. The conclusion is simple: our teachers aren't as effective as the teachers at the Good Schools.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m not opposed to standards and accountability.
You might be surprised, but I love Common Core, Next Generation Science, and Washington’s K-12 Social Studies Learning Standards. These standards push students to the outer limits of their creativity, develop their critical thinking skills, expose them to advanced and engaging subject matter, and rigorously prepare them for success in the real world. It's crazy and amazing how much we're pumping into their young minds - concepts I didn't study until college. They soak up knowledge like sponges, faster than I can dispense it. In fact, I plan to start taking summer community college courses in geology, biology, political science, history, and electrical theory just to keep up with the new standards. And I'm excited about it!
I don’t mind TPEP (Teacher/Principal Evaluation Program), observations, and student growth goals. It’s tedious, but it allows me to capture, describe, qualify, quantify, and narrate all the successes the SBA can’t show.
I hate administering an undifferentiated, multi-hour, 5-day, developmentally inappropriate battery of assessments to nine and ten-year olds and upon receiving the results being told that my school is failing, my students are failing, and I’m failing, with no regard for the realities of our students’ lives.
I hate how the state uses the results to reward Good Schools with accolades and extra resources while threatening sanctions against the schools that need those resources the most.
I hate that our paraeducators, ELL staff, special education teachers, interventionists, and classroom teachers spend weeks of instructional hours testing, when we could be teaching.
I hate how we are tested on end-of-year standards when there’s more than a month of school left.
Maybe we should have short, weekly standardized tests that cyclically test the same skills to show growth over time. The IABs (Interim Block Assessments) are a step in the right direction and could be expanded to replace end-of-year testing.
Maybe we should evaluate teachers by the distance their students have covered, rather than their aptitude by a given deadline (growth over proficiency).
Maybe the text of reading tests selections shouldn’t be about camping trips, national parks, vacations, and other luxuries my students haven’t experienced. Maybe the passages should be related to the science and social studies standards for our grade level so students are equipped with equitable background knowledge.
Maybe we should recognize that the English language development of ELL students is already assessed annually on the similarly-lengthy ELPA21 and wait to administer the English Language Arts SBA until they at least reach Level 2 or 3 of English proficiency.
Maybe we should recognize that teachers in highly-impacted schools have to work harder and then mitigate those demands with smaller class sizes, more training, and more paraeducator support.
Maybe we should use portfolio assessment and other alternative methods to evaluate children and their diverse talents, rather than their ability to navigate an inauthentic, intentionally convoluted computerized assessment.
Maybe when the results show that a school needs more help, we should give them more help, not threaten them with less.
Caroline Doellefeld taught English Language Development for 5 years at an elementary school in Tukwila, WA and now uses GLAD strategies to teach 4th graders in a general education classroom at the same school. She earned her B.A. in Elementary Education from Whitworth University (with minors or endorsements in Spanish, ELL, and Reading Instruction) and received her M.A. from Western Governors University in English Language Learning in 2016. She believes an effective solution to the statewide substitute teacher shortage would be to require every elected official to serve one day per year as a guest teacher in a public school.