Teaching vs. Testing – Episode 6: Crash! (from 3-3-15)

It’s been a busy couple of days, so this is the first chance I’ve had to sit down and write something. Of course what happened yesterday, on the first day ever of the Florida Standards Assessment, made the news all over Florida. But here’s the scoop from my little corner of the educational world.

I arrived fairly early Monday morning and had some breakfast in the workroom (our principal had brought in some Panera bagels). After going to my room to turn on my computer and discovering that my room had already been filled with laptops, I headed up to the conference room. Instead of the usual large, heavy box laden with #2 pencils and testing booklets, I received an envelope with test tickets, a roster for attendance purposes, and a couple other pieces of paper. That and the laptops would be all I’d need.

I created my seating chart and filled out my security log, confirming that I was the person administering the test in room 2-007 (a very cool room number). I then reviewed my “script” including the stage directions for handing out the tickets and the pre-writing papers. It made me look forward to getting my script for The Music Man. Trouble in River City indeed.

Very quickly the morning whittled itself away, and soon the bell was about to ring. I followed my stage directions and went to the proper website, followed the proper links, and put in my password (which is a very subversive phrase–quite satisfying). As my 8th graders shuffled into the room at 8:55, I told them to turn off their phones, label them with post-its, and place in the bag up front. The sign I’d posted announced that no electronic devices were allowed during the test… the test they were about to take on their laptops. Irony.

My computer sat thinking for a moment as students divested themselves of their phones. And then the screen on my laptop came up, in large unmistakable letters: SERVER NOT AVAILABLE.

Just my luck. I went out to the hall. The teacher next door was having the same problem. I went back in and refreshed the page. No dice. By the time I got back to the hall a second time, an administrator told me there were issues statewide. We should check our emails.

I checked. The email from the office told us to keep trying, and if we got into the system, we should let them know. Whoever got in would create one big testing session for all the 8th graders testing that day rather than one session for each room.

I tried again, and actually got the website! I emailed the office! I’m in! I clicked on one further link, and on this page got the message again: SERVER NOT AVAILABLE. I emailed the office: False alarm.

A few minutes passed. The students grew restless. I let them start their laptops up and play “Cool Math” online just to keep them busy and happy. It worked.

An administrator came in and told me that our media specialist was now “in.” She would run the whole school as one big session,which meant she would have to “approve” each teacher’s students as they logged on. Fun! I got the Session code, wrote it on a post-it, an then wrote it on the board. I got all my students off of “Cool Math” and told them it was time to start. I got out my script. It was show time. Almost 40 minutes late– but it was show time.

I began the script. Everyone settled down. I distributed tickets. I distributed planning sheets. People signed their pledges not to cheat or discuss the test with anyone. Once they logged in, they awaited approval, which came quickly. Our media person was on top of it!

And soon everyone was started. Interestingly, some students had changed their background colors and font colors; most hadn’t bothered. For about 45 minutes, all was well. I monitored them as I was supposed to, making sure they were on the right screen, but not actually reading what was on the screen, as I am not supposed to see any element of the test. So looked at the test, but didn’t read the test. Makes sense. Sure.

One girl started to write her essay after reading the passages, and couldn’t see the letters. How could she make the font bigger? I couldn’t remember. I consulted my Training Script from last Thursday to find the answer, but before I could find it, two students had been booted out of the system. Their screens froze. We had to manually turn off their computers and reboot them. As that went on, I found the solution to the font size problem (you can’t change the font size, only the magnification). I got the students logged back in, but then they needed to be approved. I emailed the media specialist since I couldn’t approve them myself. But she was watching her computer screen, and they were back in.

The 90 minutes was almost at an end. Everyone seemed to have written quite a bit (I didn’t look at what they wrote, but could see lots of letters in the text-boxes– maybe it was just gobbledygook, but it looked good). But I had two students still writing.

We reached the end. I told them all to stop. But now I had to give the two an additional 30 minutes. So the others logged off and wrote their comments into the feedback website. My two students who needed additional time took it. By this time I was starting to need to use the bathroom. I had been trapped in the room since 8:30 and it was now almost 11:30. I emailed for help. None was forthcoming. Everyone was just too busy. Finally, at 11:42, the epic was over and the last students finished their essays.

I wasn’t sure what the procedure was for packing up the laptops, so I did it wrong. I was supposed to have all the students log out, not simply close the lid, before plugging them in on the cart. Alas. An administrator finally arrived to check on me and I dashed out to the bathroom and back. At 12:07 my students finally left after a three hour stay in my classroom. One of them said, “That’s the most I’ve ever written!” on the way out.

I realized I had completely lost my lunch–well, missed my lunch. I was told to take my 4th period– sixth graders– to the auditorium so I could eat. I did so. I ate, listening to a soothing violin album on my computer to calm my nerves.

I received 4th period back for 15 minutes. I had realized it was actually Dr. Seuss’s birthday, Read Across America Day. So I read my students “The Sneetches”. Then I got really subversive and read them “How the Dirth Stole Learning”, my Dr, Seuss parody/education reform satire that ran in my comic strip in the newspaper and later on The Answer Sheet. I’ve turned it into a book, too, which is what I read to the kids. I think they were amused.

My 6th and 7th graders, with whom I spent the rest of the day, had all taken the pencil and paper version of the FSA Writing. It had gone off without a hitch. Surprise, surprise. One of my students said that what we’d done in class had helped her so much. If it’s possible to feel pleased and horrified at the same time, that’s how I felt.

I ended the day reading Dr. Seuss and the Dirth with the rest of my classes and playing a brainstorming game called Face-Off. I thought about how difficult my 8th graders usually are, but how angelic and diligent they were during the test. We’ve really got them conditioned. Today when I tried to engage them with some material about what you should do to resist injustice, they acted bored and distracted, sending me the message that if I just gave them stuff like the standardized test, they’d behave better. How utterly depressing.

At the end of the day Monday, it was announced that the 8th grade computer testing was being postponed until further notice in our district, until the state fixed the glitches. And so today, which would have seen the other half of the 8th grade testing, was a “normal” day. But even though I tried to do some really engaging things to get us back on track, somehow everything seemed “off” today. I felt like the flow of the school year had been shattered. Maybe if the writing test had finished itself off completely today, I’d be getting us back on track sooner. But now we don’t know when the next testing day will arrive. When it does, half the 8th graders will take the test for three hours or so while the rest of the campus, the other 8th graders, and the sixth and seventh graders, sit in classrooms for three hours somehow filling up the time,  held hostage while one-eighth of the school finishes their testing. In the meantime, we are in instructional limbo-land.

News stations covered the story, but while they did talk about the glitch, few of them questioned the need for the test, the quality of the test itself, or how testing disrupts education.

FSA Part I: The Debacle! has premiered. Until Part 2 arrives, possibly when you least expect it, we must all stay flexible!