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Another year, another professional development, and I just had to share...

I love my students. I love the new classes I teach (I transitioned into teaching the International Baccalaureate Diploma Programme this year). I love my colleagues. I even love my new admin team (all but one of our building's administrators resigned at the end of last year) and think they're doing great things for the students and teachers.

I hate the state tests. I always have, and I always will. I led a portion of a district-wide professional development before the start of school, and even referred to them in my out-loud voice as "the wretched state tests" in front of an entire room of English teachers. Yes, I did it on purpose.

Now, thanks to some information presented today during a professional development session, I have another reason to question the true purpose of their existence, and be frustrated because of their impact on the careers of teachers. Theoretically (meaning that they're still sorting out how it all works), new legislation requires that my evaluation be partly based on students' state test results. Well, that is partly problematic for me, as 11th and 12th grade are not included in the state tests: students only test through the 10th grade. In 11th grade, they take the ACT, but that is a national test used mostly for college admissions. So far, I haven't heard anything about how those test results would impact my evaluations.

Here's the real problem that I learned about in PD today: the CSAP powers-that-be have not released any items from the test since 2004. (Released items show real questions that are used on the test, and allow teachers to help students "unpack" the questions and figure out how to answer them.) Problematically, without any indicator (other than teachers looking over the shoulders of students in order to figure out what the questions are requiring) of what the questions look like, teachers will be/are held accountable for their students being able to respond appropriately to those questions.

Here is the digression for the purpose of an example:

When I start each year, I present my students with a writing survey in order to assess their attitudes toward writing, their experiences, their skills, and to trick them into giving me a sample of their writing. One of the questions on the writing survey is: "What do you need to become a stronger writer?" The answers always vary, but a large percentage of students always say they would like to see models of the papers I will require them to write. Let's face it, they aren't the only ones who need to see what they're supposed to produce. We all (myself included) learn in part by imitating in some ways the forms of things we've seen, whether in an academic setting or not.

Given that idea in relation to how people learn to do things, the same idea could be applied to teachers and the state tests. If we as a group know what the test questions look like, we have a better idea of how to transfer some of that knowledge into our students' learning, right? Otherwise, how can you hold us accountable for something about which we have no knowledge? This of course brings up the whole issue of us "teaching to the test," I know, which is a whole separate problem in American public education. I am of course frustrated that the conundrum exists in the first place, but my specific frustration in this case is that we're being held accountable for kids taking tests about which we have no concrete knowledge.

Therein lies my "archery in the dark" analogy. Trying to guide students toward proficiency on the state tests is becoming more and more like trying, at the darkest time of night, to hit an archery range target. There's the tension of the string that matters so much, the power of the arms to hold the string and bow straight, and most important of all, the aiming of the arrow. Outside factors also matter, like the strength and direction of the wind, the distance to the target, etc. You see how it works. Or, since it's so dark, you don't.

And here's a little song to add another level of meaning to my story:


Sun Aug 28, 2011 at 1:25 PM PT: Now with video!

Originally posted to Shakespeares Sister on Thu Aug 25, 2011 at 05:33 AM PDT.

Also republished by Community Spotlight and Education Alternatives.

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Comment Preferences

  •  Isn't it ironic how states require students to (13+ / 0-)

    solve the problems posed by the test questions, and yet those self same requirements are forcing teachers to abandon teaching those very same problem solving skills?

    "Nothing in all the world is more dangerous than sincere ignorance and conscientious stupidity." --M. L. King "You can't fix stupid" --Ron White

    by zenbassoon on Thu Aug 25, 2011 at 05:49:54 AM PDT

  •  Hesitant to criticize (6+ / 0-)

    a writer's writer, but a little upfront context would be helpful; no clue what a "PD" is, had to pull the idea from inference. Might want to include "testing" in the tags also. Like the analogy though.

    new legislation requires that my evaluation be partly based on students' state test results
    It's a crime to pretend to measure qualitative skills like writing on standardized tests, period. Students are not factory widgets, and true outcomes from such teaching may not be quantifiable for years or decades. This is just another hook to control inconvenient teachers, and push down their incomes by giving admins a fake metric to point to.
  •  I agree with your students about having forms. (9+ / 0-)

     The best writing lesson I ever had was as a HS Freshman. The teacher handed out mimeographed (gotta looove that smell!) copies of a book report she wrote and red and blue pencils. We went over that paper phrase by phrase analyzing whether it was an opinion or a fact from the book, etc. Then she assigned us to go report on a book by writing a fill-in-the-blank with the right kind of phrase paper using hers as a template. If you did that you almost couldn't possibly go wrong. We begged her for forms for other styles and classes although I never did get any others. Kids I knew who would have failed on their own got to walk away with one perfect book report on their record to feel good about, anyway.

    It seems to me that this kind of learning got pushed aside in favor of "creative" writing, and that's like asking someone to produce a good painting, who doesn't even know how to set it up with a pencil drawing first.

  •  another issue wrt testing and teacher evals (8+ / 0-)

    (Aside from the issue of whether testing itself is a good measurement of a child's knowledge, and a teacher's ability to teach) - When a child is being tested in higher grades, you aren't just looking at what s/he learned this year, but what s/he learned over time.

    So teachers in the upper grades are at more of a disadvantage if kids had poor learning experiences in lower grades.  

    How is that fair?

  •  Nice post, I think it's a time (8+ / 0-)

    to conclude that our current batch of governing elite are intellectually bankrupt when it comes to addressing the problems we face.

  •  Great title (6+ / 0-)

    However, substantively, if the test is well designed and accurately measures mastery of the subject matter it purports to, you shouldn't need to be teaching to the exact questions or reviewing them.

    •  That is part of the problem (5+ / 0-)

      The tests are not well designed, and they don't measure mastery of the subject matter. At LAUSD, we do get to see the old tests, and they cover less than a third of what we are required to teach. In addition, I'd estimate that around half the math and science tests actually test reading comprehension.

      In the rush to set up "objective" standards, the committees involved added everything plus the kitchen sink. Most grade level standards have much more than can be taught in a single year.

      Someone can be a stellar teacher, the students could master everything taught that year, but if the teacher's choice on what to skip doesn't match the test writing company decisions on what to leave out of the test, none of the students will do well on that test.

      "The problems of incompetent, corrupt, corporatist government are incompetence, corruption and corporatism, not government." Jerome a Paris

      by Orinoco on Thu Aug 25, 2011 at 11:06:04 AM PDT

      [ Parent ]

  •  On his way back to the castle (8+ / 0-)

    the King's recruiting sergeant rode past a fence with a number of archery targets painted on it, each with an arrow stuck precisely in the center.

    "Who is this marvelous archer," wondered the sergeant, "I must recruit him for the King's guard."

    On making inquiries, the local citizens presented the sergeant with a young boy, around 10, assuring him that the boy did that sort of thing all the time.

    Astounded, the sergeant asked, "What's your secret, boy? How did you learn to shoot so well?"

    "Tain't nuthin' much," replied the lad. "I takes me my bow, and shoots a bunch of arrows into the fence. Then I takes me a pot o' paint, and I paints me a target around each one."

    "The problems of incompetent, corrupt, corporatist government are incompetence, corruption and corporatism, not government." Jerome a Paris

    by Orinoco on Thu Aug 25, 2011 at 10:47:27 AM PDT

  •  Teaching the curriculum and testing thereon. (4+ / 0-)

    Great diary. (or story when the new DK changes happen)

    The test should be based on what the teacher is required to teach. One should not have to guess at what will be on the test, because the test should be derived from the same material.

    Tests that try to stump the students or catch the teacher off guard are useless.

    I made the diary/story comment above, because we have encountered that in testing for my kids and nieces/nephews.

    A teacher can go along for 6 months telling kids that a submission posted to Dkos is a 'diary'.
    The test creator can get clever and decide to call it a 'story.'
    Some kids won't know the difference. Some kids will to totally confused, and some kids will say "A 'story' is a submission created by a front pager, but this question clearly indicates that the submission was created by a user, and is therefore a 'diary'."

    Teachers are not supposed to say to the students - "Hey when you read 'story' they mean 'diary.'"

    Being ignorant is not so much a shame, as being unwilling to learn. - Poor Richard's Almanac 1755
    The government exists to protect us from the thugs who got rich ripping off our ancestors. - Mungley 2011

    by mungley on Thu Aug 25, 2011 at 11:09:23 AM PDT

  •  Sounds like another poorly thought out (4+ / 0-)

    piece of legislation coming out of some committee composed of people who haven't got a clue. Wish  I  could offer some advice but I don't have any so all I can do is wish you well.  

  •  Models in learning (6+ / 0-)

    Good diary.  I'd like to amplify the point made in the diary about the importance of models in learning.  My theory of language learning is that we learn pieces of language when we hear them used successfully to convey a meaning.  Sometimes the pieces are just one word, and sometimes they are multi-word phrases or complex structures.  When we need to express the same meaning, we always favor recycling a phrase that that we have heard previously which successfully expressed the desired meaning (if we can remember it), rather than assembling a new phrase using vocabulary and grammatical principles that we know.

    Likewise, to learn to write, we need to develop an arsenal of patterns for organizing essays and parts of essays that we can recycle.  Developing such a resource requires exposure to good models.  Students cannot learn to write good examination essays without seeing examples of successful communication in an essay examination context.

  •  We're becoming more like China all the time (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Shakespeares Sister

    I teach English in China, and the school's test is always a complete mystery.  Of course, given that it's a written test for an curriculum of oral language, the whole thing is a mystery to me, anyway.

    In California, where I used to teach, they actually released some of the questions for the science test from several years ago, which surprised me, because the questions were so badly worded, often having more than one justifiable answer (one of them had four justifiable answers), that I was surprised they released them - I mean, I'd be embarrassed if I was responsible for questions like that.

    So perhaps it's a similar situation in your state - the questions have such poor quality that they would rather keep them hidden to save face?

    None of this makes a bit of difference if they don't count your vote.

    by Toddlerbob on Thu Aug 25, 2011 at 09:37:31 PM PDT

  •  Frustrations aside... (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Shakespeares Sister

    Just from your words I can tell you are a good and caring teacher.

    As a parent I have been equally frustrated with this damn testing system. My oldest was labeled early and I spent years fight back against the "educated" powers that be..

    His school years were not filled with fond memories until a High School teacher helped light a beacon for him to follow and follow he did.

    He went on to make the Dean's List...Accomplish two degree and is now working on becoming a math teacher.

    He attributes his successes it to me for not letting him give up...I know it was that one special teacher that gave him the tools he needed to truly learn.

    I once watched a bowman place a blindfold on before he shot.You have to have faith that if your aim is straight and your bow strong...despite the darkness you will hit your target.

    Bless you for going through what you are to help our children find the tools they need to make in this world before them.

    “Nothing in the world is more dangerous than sincere ignorance and consciencious stupidity.” ~Martin Luther King, Jr.

    by JMoore on Fri Aug 26, 2011 at 03:17:26 PM PDT

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