The toll high-stakes tests take on non-traditional learners (and their teachers)

Bobbi Snow is the co-founder of  The Community Public Charter School, an arts-infused, literacy-focused school for non-traditional learners in Charlottesville, Va., open to all Albemarle County middle school students. ​​​​​​​​​Snow wrote the following piece while recently proctoring Virginia’s high-stakes Standards of Learning exams, which students took over a period of three weeks. The tests about which she writes were math and science, each with 60 questions. At Snow’s school the tests are untimed. Students, who get lots of snacks to fortify them, take the exams in small groups, though Snow wrote in an email, “they still get so disregulated.”

This piece describes in painful detail how the high-stakes SOLs affect the non-traditional learners at Snow’s school. But, of course, the students at Snow’s schools are hardly the only ones who have trouble taking high-stakes standardized tests, non-traditional and traditional alike.

By Bobbi Snow

He was already exhausted and had 58 questions to go. On the second problem of the 8th grade math exam he was stuck for almost 30 minutes.  This is the state standardized test given to all 8th graders in Virginia. Jim is a visual learner and needed to draw the answers for each possible option. Pausing a moment Jim reached into his snack bag and announced “Help me out here Pringles.”  Turning to me he commented, “I hear salt helps the brain.” I smiled.

I was drained watching Jim’s agony, as he thought out every problem and bounced from question to question.  But if I was drained, Jim was miserable.  He wanted to do well.  He stayed at it for five hours. The computer doesn’t fit Jim’s style of learning or showing what he knows. He is a hands-on, multitasking young man who likes to verbalize aloud what he thinks and figure out multiple solutions. He is an outside-the-box big thinker.

Melissa had a similar experience taking her SOL test.  Melissa thinks like an artist and has the kinds of skills we will need in this  century.  She asks questions that connect to other questions and has trouble with information that is separated into decompartmentalized chunks.  She just kept drifting off the test into some other world more interesting to Melissa.  She tried to engage me in pondering some of these bigger interesting questions but I am a seasoned proctor and I gave my Buddha look and reminded her I could not have discussions during the testing.  I brought my sewing in to establish a calm environment and stitched away.  In the middle of the test Melissa said in a panic, “What if I fail this?”  My heart felt touched knowing how scared she was at that moment. She returned to the test muttering, “This is a disaster.”

These are two students who do their work, have good analytical skills, and an intense desire to do well in school.  Their families support them to use their minds well. Teachers did adequate review and they were well prepared for the tests. They both felt like terrible failures. So many of their peers felt the same.

And so did I.  I know as a charter school we are being judged by the outside world to do well on high stakes testing.  The mission of our school is to help students who have been unsuccessful in their previous schools become thinkers and creative problem solvers.  Our goal is to prepare young people for the real world and as a public school we also accept the responsibility of preparing students for their testing lives.

But there are so many consequences that come with this acceptance.  One of our first year teachers reviewed the results of the writing tests and felt devastated by a few of her student’s scores. She felt that she had let them down by not preparing them well enough to pass. She sunk into her own feelings of failure as a teacher and considered shoring up the curriculum to be more aligned to the test.  This was because three perfectly wonderful students who are able thinkers and creative beyond what most adults we know could ever contribute to a conversation much less a class were deemed not worthy of scoring the necessary 400 points to pass the essay test. They were close. But no cigar. Was their prompt they were given too off target for their life experience?  Was it their anxiety that day that kept them from a good sequencing of ideas?  What exactly was their issue?

One test, one day of a test, made this gifted teacher second-guess her whole year of teaching.  How will it affect her next year when she has to make decisions about our arts infused project-based activities?  Will she want to reduce the class to worksheets and drill to review concepts and skills?

I believe in accountability and knowing what works for students to be successful. There are better ways than this one-size-fits-all testing to assess and record what students know.

As educators, are we seen as so limited that we cannot be trusted to create our own rigorous assessment tools and be judged by them?  Let us become the agents of our own work and design how to define mastery and be held accountable to our standards.  We will invest ourselves to figure out the mysteries of what a quality education means and can provide.  Until then we are held hostage to a system that is archaic, harmful for many students and teachers and missing an opportunity to involve local stakeholders in addressing the crisis in education.

For now we will just have to hope that Pringles can help.

 

 

Valerie Strauss covers education and runs The Answer Sheet blog.
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Valerie Strauss | May 30, 2013