Teaching vs. Testing – Episode 5: Final Preparations! (3-1-15)

I got busy last week – partially school, partially other things. So I need to get you caught up on how Teaching is doing against Testing. I suspect you can guess who’s winning, but it’s the details that make it such an interesting competition.

I’ll begin with 6th grade. On Wednesday I handed their essays back to them, and they were, quite frankly, thrilled for the most part. As I’d said, they had listened to my instructions for how to jump through the state’s hoop, and they did very well. There might even be some skills involved in their success that might bleed over into real-world writing. But for the most part, as “proficient” as their essays were, and as good as many of them were about “achieving” the demands of the test by achieving a good score according to the rubric (a score I gave them, which is really my own best guess), I felt like it was a hollow, hollow victory.

It made the old, random-topic FCAT Writing, which I’d railed about for years, look amazingly wonderful–a real creative writing challenge. The FSA “writing to text” essay they produced for me almost demands to be formulaic. And it is. That’s how you succeed, but following a formula. Not by actually learning how to think and write.

And one other note of interest. The rubric for the FSA is mind-boggling, and also not that useful. Here’s the link to the grades 6 – 11 rubric. How do you use the same rubric for grades 6 through 11? Oh, you don’t. More on that later. But here’s the thing, the old 6-point rubric was actually kind of sort of useful, if you really felt you had to use a rubric. A 6 was a 6 and a 5 always represented the same thing, as did a 4, a 3, a 2, and a 1. But with the FSA rubric, once you’re done wading through all those boxes of text and actual come out the other side to score something, the scores sometimes mean the same thing, and sometimes don’t. A 10 is always a 10: well done! But anywhere else on the scale, especially in the middle– a score gives you general sense of goodness or badness. But since the scoring rubric is divided into three areas, Organization/Focus out of 4 points, Elaboration/Evidence out of 4 points , and Conventions out of 2 points, you can get your score a variety of ways.

A score of 7 might mean you got a 3, 2, 2 score.

Or a 2, 3, 2 score.

Or a 4, 1, 2 score.

Or a 1, 4, 2 score.

Or a 3, 4, 0 score.

I’m the score out of 10 becomes, for all intents and purposes, pretty meaningless.

But on to my other two grades. My 7th graders did well also, so I let them have silent reading Friday as usual. No more test prep.

My 8th graders on the other hand… They finished up their tests on Wednesday after I returned from remediation. They didn’t do very well. But could I have Thursday to review with them, to work with them? No.

Because Thursday was one of the most bizarre, absurdest episodes of my entire teaching career. It was my 8th graders’ FSA ELA Writing Component Training Test. Like the Infrastructure Test, this one came with a script, this time a densely-packed 7 pages of instructions. I dutifully took my class to the Media Center to practice on laptops, like my wife had, and Mrs. J. who teaches next door to me.

Here’s a sample of the script I had to read to them:

For the training test, you will log in as a guest user. Make sure that the box to the left of Guest User is checked. Make sure that the box to the left of Guest Session is not checked. Once you ensure the box next to Guest User is checked and the box next to Guest Session is not checked, enter the Session ID _______. The Session ID is displayed for you. Select Sign In. Raise your hand if you need assistance.

That’s just for starters. There are other exciting instructions I had to read as well. Things like:

Now, select Begin Test Now, but do not begin yet.

Or how about:

The Pause button allows you to pause and exit the test. Do not select the Pause button at

this time. To the right of the Pause button, you will see the End Test button. Do not

select the End Test button at this time. We will discuss the Pause and End Test buttons

more at the end of this training test.

Are there any questions?

Yes. Too many to even list.

The most amazing thing, though, was the digital tools the students had at their disposal to practice on and later to use on the real test. They can change the background color and the font size. They can use a notepad to take notes, and bold, underline, and italicize their writing. There is a “line reader” tool, whatever that is.

The thing is, I have seen students sit in computer labs practicing what I once called in my comic strip “Prodraftination”: playing with Word Art, font size, font color, backgrounds, images, and the like for so long, you never get around to actually writing. I’m a little afraid that may happen tomorrow.

The entire past week was devoted to test prep in one way or another, with the exception of reading workshop on Friday. In my 8th grade class on Friday, I gave one last, heroic attempt to get the students to revise their district assessment essays. Some did, some didn’t. Tomorrow is the real test. We’ll see how they do. But probably not for months. And depending on how they report the score, I won’t really know how they did at all. “You got a 7? That’s so… ambiguous.”

Meanwhile, in what I can only assume is a political move, Florida Gov. Rick Scott signed an executive order canceling the ELA FSA for 11th graders.

One grade down–8 to go.

I’ll let you know how tomorrow’s testing session goes. I have also landed the part of Harold Hill (one of my dream roles) in a community theater production of The Music Man. Tomorrow night is the first rehearsal. I can’t help but savor the delicious irony: I’m starring in a play about someone perpetrating educational fraud.

“Use the Think Method, boys! The minuet in D!”