Sunday, March 17, 2013

Backwards and Upside Down: A Guest Blog by Del Hansen

As a teacher, I constantly feel as though I have awakened from a bad dream. My latest recurring nightmare is the impending New Mexico Standards-Based Assessment (SBA) that will be administered over four days in March. Not only will this standardized exam kill four days of instruction, but the exacting, meticulous, and compulsive obsession with rules most certainly dooms the results that the New Mexico Public Education Department (PED) so desperately wants.

I currently teach middle school, but this observation will extend to my friends at the elementary and high school level. It would seem that we want kids to fail on these big tests. And big tests they are. At middle school, they do not so much have damning or negative ramifications to the students who take the tests, but the damage occurs to staff, schools, and districts for allowing students to produce unfavorable scores. The whole state educational process is predicated, in large part, on these scores generated by students testing in surreal environments.

We teachers spend an inordinate amount of time, and justifiably so, crafting a variety of evaluation tools to assess student progress. Every educator worth his or her own salt knows instinctively that a single pencil and paper assessment does not go far enough in determining what a child knows about a subject. However, if one has not taught actual breathing children, then this single pressure-packed assessment may make perfect sense. After all, don’t we all function better when the heat is increased under our bottoms and the pressure builds up? No. More than a few people would freak out and brain functions shut down. And even if that scenario seems to work with million dollar executives, air traffic control school, 25 million dollar sports stars, and marines, in this case we are talking about kids — kids who ride skateboards and go to Grandma’s for Thanksgiving. Kids.

So, for the SBA tests, we abandon the premise that to accurately assess student progress one should use multiple approaches and instead place all our eggs in one rather flimsy basket. Then we do something quite bizarre.

We stick students into unfamiliar surroundings, hand-out imposing, almost sterile packets of questions, and read obviously stilted, legalistic directions in the most unfriendly circumstances imaginable. This has been preceded by at least a week of steady propaganda stressing the importance of these tests to the students, their school, their teachers, and of mankind in general. All that is left out is that something might happen to their pet if they don’t do well on the test. And then the proctor coldly announces, “Students, you may now begin part one.” No noise or distractions are allowed. Students sit under blazing incandescent lights for hours on end with only the soothing sounds of trucks passing, an occasional siren, coughs, wheezes, sniffling noses, and a stray stomach growl. Teachers are not allowed to assist students in any way, including if the child does not understand the question. Any poster, purchased by the teacher or drawn by kids, must have been removed from the wall if it has numbers on it or rules for writing. The words on a poster might yield an unfair advantage to a student who accidentally looks heavenward for a second. Students may not put their heads down on their desks after completing the test. They must sit rigidly upright and may only read a book until the time expires. I don’t know about you, but this environment would drive me insane. For kids with the concentration capacity of a gerbil, it is a disaster.

Not only would this scenario probably induce insanity, but every cough, wheeze, siren, and stomach gurgle creates the ultimate distraction. The intent of the Public Education Department is to standardize the testing environment and demonstrate exacting control. The result is to produce an atmosphere NOT conducive to maximum productivity. Kids don’t work well in that kind of sterile environment. I don’t work well hearing coughs and wheezes and shoes squeaking on the floor. It isn’t normal. But, according to rules, the students must test in a situation totally different from what they are used to in the real world at their house, at school, or even on the job. I play Mozart or “Enya” when my students take their math tests for the express reason that they will NOT be distracted by coughs, wheezes, shoe squeaks, sirens, an errant noise in the hallway, trucks passing on the street, or stomach gurgles. Yet, for the biggest test of the year, by attempting to make classrooms like acoustically pure “clean rooms” at Intel, we amplify every distraction imaginable by ten. It is crazy, dumb, and most unproductive. And we do it without a whimper of a protest because one does not mess with the PED.

Legions of executives and their minions in the testing companies, with support, complicity, and even direction from state Public Education Agencies, determine these testing conditions with the intent to perfectly standardize all testing environments. By imposing these Draconian measures, an exacting standardization may be realized, but at what cost? In my humble opinion, it creates an atmosphere which does not elicit the best effort of the student which it attempts to measure. Instead, it creates diversions from the thought process that inhibit or reduce the maximum productivity of the student.

Now here is the critical point: the tests do nothing to assist the teacher in better meeting the needs of her students. In fact, the results are published long after the teacher has instructed the class which was tested. The kids have moved on. Instead, the millions of dollars, hours of wasted time, and undue stress on kids and school persons serves merely to rank order schools and districts on the back of a flawed testing system. With the publishing of the ranks and grades among schools, the old admonition of “Let the punishment continue until the morale improves” comes to mind.

Threat of punishment and standardized testing should not drive the curriculum. In New Mexico, it does. How sad for our kids and teachers. Well, I need to get busy and take down all the posters of student work which have numbers on them. Makes perfect sense to me. Not.

Del Hansen has been a full-time teacher and administrator for over thirty years. He has taught math and physics to high school students and currently teaches algebra and geometry to eighth graders. Del has previously published two blogs on this site: "11 Pretty Good Rules for Teaching" and "School of Rock."

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