Teaching vs. Testing – Episode 3: District Testing and Plotting Remediation (from 2-20-15)

So today all my classes were taking the district writing exam. I read, outlined, and wrote my own version of the 6th grade essay so I could see what my students had to do, and read and outlined the 7th and 8th grade essays as well.

What strikes me about these assessments is how tricky it is to come up with a decent combination of texts to read and a prompt to write about them. Some of the prompt topics are actually decent, but then the reading selections students are given to use are too short on “textual evidence” to make a decent argument. Or the texts have lots of evidence– just not for the prompt they are given. Or the selections are oddly out of balance. The 6th grade prompt I’m giving has two informational texts, and no arguments to draw from at all. The 7th grade prompt has three informational pieces, no arguments there, either. In both cases, students must develop argumentative reasons of their own about a topic they may or may not have been aware of, and then hope there is enough “text evidence” to help support those reasons. The 8th grade articles actually include arguments, but the topic is so complex and multifaceted that I had trouble deciding what point of view to take myself.

Many of my students haven’t really developed into writers yet, and doing this kind of writing, about these kinds of relatively un-engaging topics, may actually keep them from developing much further. Why is there such a prejudice against letting students write from life about topics that interest them and letting them do their own research?

Because you can’t test individuality, and you can’t score thousands of different topics with a computer algorithm (which is where I’m afraid we’re heading; even now our 8th graders will get one “human score” and one “computer score.”) The forces shaping out assessments, and thus the education we force upon our students, are not based upon sound educational principles, but on what is expedient to get scores in the most efficient way possible, at whatever cost to the students, or the tax payers for that matter. These tests don’t come cheap.

Meanwhile, we’d been told we had to do “remediation” for the upcoming test. This involved making lists of kids who were in danger of “failing” the upcoming state test. This was an interesting task since we don’t even know what cut scores will be yet. We also found out that we couldn’t “pull” students from PE or elective classes because they, like everyone else, now have End Of Course Exams (EOC’s). So we are pulling them from our own classes Monday and Tuesday. Our district writing coach, who is really extremely helpful, is coming in to assist. I will be out of class most of Monday and Tuesday, and the two of us will guide groups of 5 to 11 students through a two-day writing-to-text exercise.

Speaking of which, I had to spend a couple of days finding resources for and creating a fake FSA test. I finally found a topic with my wife’s help: should kids receive allowance or not? I found one neutral article, one pro-allowance, and one article about someone who says allowance is evil. It’s actually better than some of the stuff that came with our textbook, I think. But it took time.

So Monday and Tuesday I’m mostly out of the classroom re-mediating students to take a test that none of us have really seen, a test that has no cut score and whose rubric was just finalized about three months ago.

I won’t be with my students for their last day of taking the Volusia Literacy Test. But that doesn’t matter. I’m not supposed to help them with it anyway. I’m not a teacher on those days. I’m a test-enforcer.

I’ll let you know how Monday goes. Before I start re-mediating, I’m going to be attending a meeting about how to administer the FSA.