Amy Roberts has been teaching English to speakers of other languages in New York City since 2002. She currently teaches 11th-grade English at International High School at Union Square, where the entire student body includes recently arrived immigrants. She is a native of Alexandria, Va., and a graduate of T.C. Williams High School. Roberts recently wrote what turned out to be a popular post on Facebook about things she has learned from what she says is a dehumanizing standardized testing process, and she has given me permission to publish it. It is a slice of life in a high-poverty school that is not often seen.
This is Amy Roberts’ Facebook post:
Standardized tests are the worst. No doubt about it. Excruciating. Torturous. Bad. Not good at all. But I do have to say that there are a couple of aspects of the system that you might not know.
First, you’re getting the students ready, and you ask them to stay after school to prepare, and a die-hard crew actually does. They stay and practice with you, even if they didn’t eat all day because they hate the school lunch. And you say, “You guys done, or do you want to keep going for another half hour?” And they say, “Keep going!” So you do. And, a whole bunch of those kids that stayed after school with you, actually pass the test the first time they try it. And a whole bunch of others don’t pass, not even close, really, but they stayed and tried to do it in a language they have only known for two years, for up to six hours. And, of all the kids that tried it, never gave up, no matter the result, you’re proud. Beyond proud.
Second, you get sent to another school to grade the tests, and you’re in a building full of English teachers, nobody but English teachers, for 4 days straight. English teachers from all over New York City. And English teachers like to talk about stuff, so it doesn’t take too long before everybody’s talking. English teachers like to listen too, so you hear everybody’s story. You hear about all the schools in New York City. You hear about the good ones, like the one downtown where the principal tells the teachers they can work from home on professional development days, because he trusts them. You hear about the bad ones, the horrific, can’t-make-this-up ones, like the one where the principal had all the teachers spend their days sitting in a storage room while he worked to revoke their licenses.
In the downtime, when there are no tests to grade, you and your fellow graders talk. Your two table-mates discover they go to the same church in Brooklyn, and then they’re showing you YouTube videos of their choir. You hear the new teachers planning what books to teach next; the old-school, radical, leftist teachers talking about the bad old days; their favorite union leader, the finer points of the teachers’ contract.
Third, you read the tests, and think, for some of the schools, “why do our city schools get such a bad rap, because some of these kids can really write.” You think, one day this kid is going to write something that’s not standardized, not a test, just because they have something novel and interesting to say. At least you hope they will, that they’ll write not only for test scores and graduation rates, but for fun, for clarity, for persuasion, for peace. And maybe they’ll recognize, some of them at least, that buried under all the test scores and ratings and rates, they had a teacher who loved that stuff. To write and create and express and connect–the unspoken reasons we’re still there, the secret code recognized only by a few…”Shh, don’t tell anyone, we actually do this because of…love.” “Shh, don’t worry, we know. We do too.”
You read other tests and send up a little prayer for the kid, because all their troubles are laid out there–you know they’re not going to school. Or they didn’t get to go to school in their native country, native language, and most likely, they just are not going to be able to catch up. Or their teacher doesn’t know how to teach this, or is demoralized, or exhausted.
Or you know that the kid sat his desk and looked at the test and thought, “I hate this horrible crap,” and so when he’s asked to use the quote “A sickly sheep infects the flock” to analyze two works of literature, he writes about “10 Little Monkeys Jumpin’ On the Bed.” “Because that one monkey that fell off and bumped his head got all the other monkeys jumpin’ off the bed and now look what happened, they all bumped their heads and it was all because of that one monkey that got all of them jumpin’ on the bed in the first place.” And you think, “Well, he does have a point.”
All you know is this–there are a whole bunch of things that standardized tests will never tell you. No test score is going to tell you that there are kids across New York City who are bright and insightful and funny, or cynical, or tired, or angry, or really sad, or thinking of plans, big plans, way beyond these tests. No test score is going to show that for some kids it’s a major victory just to be able to read the directions, or to write their name on the test, or to stay awake on the day of exam after working all night. Or that one of the graders memorized the poem “The Raven” over our lunch break, and that another sings at his church like one of heaven’s angels. Or a whole bunch of other things that the raw scores and the rater numbers and conversion tables don’t show, because to know, you must understand that the light, the light of knowledge, is not on the paper or in the numbers, but in the stories you hear and the relationships you build. In the strong, quiet voice that says, “I believe in you. I want to know you. Your story and my story are all the literature we need to know.”