Standardized Testing, Day Three

The students are tired and irritable.

The teachers are tired and irritable.

The entire school environment is tired and irritable ... even the ones who haven't begun testing yet.

We've had to take down or cover up all hallways displays, greatly increasing gloom.

We've had to adjust lunch schedules, grouping students together in new ways causing extra cafeteria chaos and noise while simultaneously rescheduling teachers form lunch duty to testing hall monitor duty, increasing cafeteria stress and chaos.*

It's just unpleasant.

That said, during these stressful times a smile can go even further than usual. I appreciate everyone's hard work and try to remember to say so. Yesterday I brought in cupcakes -- red velvet, even!

I know it's not any easier on the students or anyone else. One more day of testing this week. Then a brief break before we start again on Monday.


* I could share an incident here, but won't.


Standardized Testing, Day Two

The NJASK test is subject to security that I think would rival any document handling procedures at any top-secret government agency.

All teachers in each building in which testing will occur, regardless of whether or not they will actually in any likelihood handle any testing materials must be trained and sign acknowledgement of a district-wide Security Plan.

You'll find instructions such as: (Note: grammar, phrasing, spelling, and capitalization are not mine.)

 "Authorization to Receive Secure Materials form is located in the file cabinet next to the secretary's desk. Only those listed on that form will be permitted to receive test materials. The form must be presented to the courier at the time of receipt."

"In the event a student becomes ill during testing, the examiner will complete an Irregularity Report noting the situation and which section the child became ill in. This report will be turned into the STC* when testing materials are returned that day."

You don't even want to know about the sections regarding Fire Drills & Bomb Scares or about the state-mandated regulation baggies and seals used for testing materials which become "soiled" by an ill student. Let me just say that all testing materials must be returned to the state.

Testing materials (test booklets, answer sheets, instruction booklets, approved manipulatives, etc) all arrive at the building and must be signed for by someone on the Authorization to Receive Secure Materials form. Everything is sealed with sticker tabs on each section and then sealed inside plastic bags and then sealed inside the secure shipping boxes. The STC stores the materials in his or her office until testing begins. On the first day of testing, official test examiners only may go to the STC and sign out the testing materials. Both the STC and examiner must sign a sheet indicating how many of which item were taken for that day's testing.

At no time may the examiner leave the materials unattended. When the class takes their bathroom break, the examiner must collect every item personally. Students may not pass them to the front of the class. If there is any sort of emergency, the examiner must first personally gather all the testing materials before exiting the room. At the end of the day's testing, the examiner flags down a waiting hall monitor who comes and watches the students in the classroom while the examiner returns all the testing materials to the STC. The materials are counted and both again sign that the materials were returned. I cannot imagine what happens if anything is found missing.

At no time are any students, teachers, staff, etc permitted to discuss the contents of the test. Even when the testing is over for the day. This is pounded into the students' heads at least as much as the actual subject matter upon which they are tested.**

Our school is under particular scrutiny as one of the other K-8 schools in the district remains under investigation for allegations of cheating on last year's test -- these allegations come up periodically throughout the state, but are usually dropped within a few weeks ... not this time.

So, that's just a brief look into the byzantine Wonderland of standardized testing security.


*School Test Coordinator, there's also a DTC or District Test Coordinator

**At dinner last night, Emily -- who is testing this week as all New Jersey 7th graders must -- replied to my inquiry about how the day's testing went. "It was good. I had to write a persuasive essay." Her eyes expanded and her voice dropped before she intoned, "But. I. Can't. Tell. You. Anything. More." Um ... ok.


Standardized Testing, Day One

For the next three weeks the state of New Jersey will be forcing public school teachers and students to undergo the institutionalized nonsense torture process known as standardized testing. The New Jersey Assessment of Skills and Knowledge or NJASK is administered to all 3rd through 8th graders in the state, in order to determine which schools should receive even less funding are underperforming.

This week is 7th and 8th grade. My own Emily is going to spend hours this week filling in little circles with her number two pencil. She'll also have to write a few short essays and answer some short-response word problems in math. Her high scores will prove to the state that she's naturally very intelligent that her teacher is exceptionally skilled that her school is performing adequately well at preparing its students to take standardized tests.

The tests are the focus of the entire school year. Even impressively skilled and remarkably creative teachers are locked into the drudgery of teaching test-taking skills in the weeks and months leading up to The Test.

I can speak to the ineffectiveness of the writing prompts, in particular. I spent two years teaching Basic Skills composition at two area community colleges which draw from a dozen or so school districts in two counties. I have taught the students who have been deemed incapable of success in the standard college-level courses, at least where writing and grammar are concerned. I have also received hours of professional development at the elementary school level in how to prepare students for the language arts literacy portions of The Test.

And I can tell you this .... the two are not remotely the same thing. Writing a five-paragraph essay the right way involves several steps: pre-writing, rough draft, waiting at least 24 hours, revising (for content), editing (for grammar and punctuation), before preceding to a final copy. The essay should consist of an introductory paragraph which includes both a hook and a statement of not only the main idea but also the plan for its development, three body paragraphs each of which has its own main idea supported by details and examples, and finally a concluding paragraph. This process ideally takes two or three days.

Writing for the test involves getting as much down on your paper as you can during the forty minutes allotted for writing, being sure to include as many "compositional risks" as possible, namely figurative language (metaphors, onomatopoeia, alliteration, similes, personification), questioning, dialogue, a title, shifting times and events, sentence variety and personal voice (humor, quirkiness (!!!), surprise). Points are scored for use of these risks, whether or not they actually make sense within the meaning or purpose of the writing. Certainly, points are also awarded for grammatical correctness, supported main ideas, examples -- but even without these key points of good writing a student can score surprisingly well just by integrating plenty of risks. Students are told of the importance of continuing to write until they at least reach the last blank page provided for the writing in the test booklet.

So, except for the particularly intelligent students -- who do enough reading and/or writing on their own to understand how "real" writing flows and sounds and feels -- students develop habitual writing behaviors that have little to do with how real writing (particularly for academia) should work. I received plenty of college freshman compositions* comprised of nothing but questions, with no answers. I have also received papers consisting almost entirely of metaphorical language or language describing something without actually stating what the something is. I have received paragraphs consisting entirely of unpunctuated dialogue between individuals who are never named in the writing.

I know. And at least some of it is not their fault at all. Some of these students, as soon as they're taught a better way to write, can really write quite well. They've been taught the wrong process.

But, it's not the teachers' fault, either. When tenure decisions and contract renewal decisions and (in some states, but thankfully not New Jersey ... yet) salary/bonus decisions can be made based upon the standardized test scores of one's students -- you bet your sweet bippy you're going to spend at least some part of your school day "teaching to The Test." It's simple self-preservation.

Plenty of well-meaning school districts would love to put more money into music, art, languages, technology, field trips, etc, but none of those areas are tested on the NJASK, so none of those areas will get the attention, funding, professional development and staffing with the same emphasis as language arts literacy and math (and science in the 4th and 8th grades). Again, it's self-preservation.

I could go on and on. But, we have three more days of testing this week, followed by at least three days of testing next week and the week after. So, I'll have plenty more to say.


* My "diagnostic" paragraph is assigned during the first class, with no instruction by me, asking them to name the World's Greatest Job and explain why it is the greatest.


Frustrations for a Friday

My frustration exists on numerous levels -- the usual self-loathing, aggravation with family deadlines and plans to complete tasks not matching my own, academic bureaucracy rearing its uglier-than-usual head, everything about standardized testing, and natural irritation with bending intellectually to someone else's ideas.

In no particular order:
  • I lose the use of my classroom/computer lab for the next three weeks so that it can be used for standardized testing.
  •  The laptops I will be taking with me to student classrooms so that I can teach will likely not have all of the software the students need, nor Internet access.
  •  According to administrator instructions, I covered all the signage in my room with newspaper, not bulletin board paper -- only to be informed a day later that we may NOT use newspaper to cover things.
  •  After ripping down all of the newspaper, I received another email stating NOT to rip down the newspaper, but instead await clarification.
  •  My house is in a state.
  •  So is my yard.
  •  I don't seem to have the energy to focus on the house, the yard, my final papers and weight loss/exercise all at the same time.
  •  My professor seems to be insisting that rather than presenting a unique viewpoint on the material, that we basically reiterate his own ideas on the material back to him -- as applied to a new piece of literature -- rather than develop our own academic ideas and voice. This feedback was only given to me after I'd completed 14 pages of writing for a paper due in 5 days.
  •  It hasn't rained in a month and the dust/pollen is extreme. My sinus headaches aren't helping me cope with any of the above.