Monday, June 4, 2012

Beyond The Numbers

Grown-ups love figures.  When you tell them that you have made a new friend, they never ask you any questions about essential matters.  They never say to you, "What does his voice sound like?  What games does he love best?  Does he collect butterflies?" Instead, they demand:  "How old is he?  How many brothers has he?  How much does he weigh?  How much money does his father make?"  Only from these figures do they think they have learned anything about him.  -Antoine de Saint-Exupéry

Children ask better questions than adults.  "May I have a cookie?" "Why is the sky blue?" and "What does a cow say?" are far more likely to elicit a cheerful response than "Where's your manuscript?" Why haven't you called?" and "Who's your lawyer?"  -Fran Lebowitz

The 3rd-6th graders at my school took the MCAs recently, the required standardized test Minnesota uses to measure the success and progress of its schools. It's really not a measure of my school's success though, because half of our students are new this year. How can you say, oh, you're a good/bad school when some students have been with us for not even a year? Our scores are not a measure of what we're doing, but of our students, whether or not they've had the opportunity to learn much here yet.

Next year, we're getting a science teacher, as are a lot of St. Paul schools. I'm pretty sure the only reason we're getting science, is because we'll be tested on it. How sad is that? Yeah, there are some science standards, but no one cares if our kids are learning science, because we have to make sure they can pass the MCAs, which don't (but might in the future) include science. 

So much of a focus on the tests, that you lose what's important: instilling a love of learning and critical thinking skills necessary to problem solve on your own. There is something to be said for cultural literacy. Also, making school interesting. Some of the passages I sort through to read with my kids make me cringe. How can I get my students excited about reading when even I can't muster up the enthusiasm to read a boring "story." If you can call it that. My dad sent me this article that I think really speaks to this problem.

"Better yet, we should abandon altogether the multiple-choice tests, which are in vogue not because they are an effective tool for judging teachers or students but because they are an efficient means of producing data."

It's becoming very clear to me that the standardized tests we have in place might be doing more harm than good. I understand the importances of quantifying/assessing teaching, but it needs to be more comprehensive, and depend on more than simply one day in a year. Yes, that's more work, more complicated, maybe a little less objective than a multiple choice test, but it's more accurate, and more fair to teachers like these who put their hearts and souls into their work, see amazing growth in their students only to be told by some outside party who probably hasn't set foot in their school that they're failures.

Thinking about the MCAs versus the weekly progress monitors I've done made me realize that testing should be more ongoing, than based on one day. Even if my student doesn't do well one week, I have a lot more data and context to look at, and I can still feel like I'm a success as a tutor. So on this one arbitrary test day, a student doesn't do well. Is that a reflection of his school? Possibly, but maybe he was sick for a week and missed school. Maybe his grandfather died. Maybe he's not getting enough to eat. Maybe he had a rough morning. Who knows? Well, the teacher does. And if there were ongoing assessments, we would know that the trend of his learning may still be at or above grade level, even if this ONE specific day out of the year was below.

Plus I can feel happy knowing the difference that I made was significant, even if my students are still reading below grade level, because I know where they started. The gains they made are sometimes equivalent or greater than what an "average" student makes in a year, they just started way further back. If I just looked at the 3 scores from fall, winter, and spring, I think I'd feel like a bit of a failure. But when I take the time to look a little deeper, at my weekly assessments and at each individual kid's story, well, I feel good about what I've accomplished this year. I'm a success, and I've made a difference.

Probably one of my happiest-this-is-why-I-do-this moments in the past month was when the first thing one of my third graders said to me at the beginning of our session was "I like reading with you Ms. Amy." It was nothing extraordinary, and doesn't make for a great story. But it was the best thing I could possibly have heard, and made my day. I love my job.

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