Every Teacher’s Nightmare

I just finished arguably one of the worst days of my teaching career thus far. Fist fight in front of your classroom? Nope. Get your speakers stolen? Not this time. Cursed out by your students? Although all of those things have happened to me over the past year, this was much worse.

Today was the day of my first standardized test administration.

Before I continue, this is not just another rant by a teacher about how much standardized testing sucks. Believe it or not, I am actually pro-standardized testing. I think it’s important to make sure all students receive the same level of education and baseline rigor across the state so that they are well equipped when they attend universities and are ready for whatever career they peruse. I have always been for standardized testing. Rather, I am pro the idea behind standardized testing. As the way these students are assessed can be highly flawed. One size fits all doesn’t work for curriculum, how can it possibly work for assessments?

At my school, students are tested at least 20 times before the end of the year, not including teacher created formative and summative assessments. These tests then dictate how much money a school gets amongst other things. By the time my students take my end of the year exam, they are exhausted to say the least. But they have no time for a nap, as my school is so heavily focused on passing these exams.

Today started off just as I had expected. My students came in fresh, fed, and ready to take their test. We have been working very hard this whole year and especially over the past month getting ready for our SOL. I have had students who have taken the initiative to come to my classroom every single period in an effort to pass my upcoming exam. These students are here Saturday mornings and even Fridays until 6:30 after school studying for this exam. I have students who have convinced themselves that they’re going to get pass advanced if not a perfect score. I also had students who were convinced they were not going to pass and they were riding on the confidence that I had for them. My students knew the incentives: pass the exam, get a cupcake and an A in the class, or fail it and study for the next month for re-takes at the end of the school year.

So we traveled down to the other side of the school to a freezing cold computer lab with an odd, sticky smell and my students took a seat in front of their designated computer. They were each given a sheet with login information and then proceeded to wait for 15 minutes while the computer software loaded because not only was everyone in the room trying to access the same website at the same time, so was everyone in the state of Virginia.

I proceeded with the instructions for starting the exam. The two sample questions to practice using the software were done with ease and even enthusiasm. My kids were so ready to ace this exam! It was truly a teacher’s dream to administer a test to students like these.

And then they clicked “next” to answer the first question, and I could feel the energy in the room drop 6 levels. The first question was ridiculous. As was the second, third wasn’t so bad, but the fourth, fifth, sixth, and, you get the idea. This test was absolutely nothing like the test from the past 2 years. In fact, it was about as difficult as the test from the past 2 years combined times 2. It was unnecessarily difficult and in no way could test their comprehension of subject material. For legal reasons I cannot discuss the content of the questions, but let’s just say I wasn’t able to figure out how to solve some of these questions. Later I realized that they were probably “field questions.”

Our exam consists of 60 questions and of them are 10 “field questions.” I had always assumed these questions to be ones that were just a tad bit more difficult or tested a couple of topics together in an effort to gather data on our students to see what topics need more coverage. After seeing some of these questions, it’s hard to see what the purpose of these questions is. I can see no usable data that could be gathered from having students do these questions. In fact, the only purpose they served my students was completely destroying their confidence and sucking valuable time concentrating on how to solve a  poorly worded problem only slightly attached to a concept they know very well, one in which they would have no idea how to even begin.

Field questions aside, the actual questions that were asked were asked in such a way that would confuse any one and hardly tested the subject matter, but rather how well they could use their calculator. Other questions were worded so poorly it was hard to decipher what the question was even asking. Sure, my students were ready for an end of course exam, but they were not ready for whatever that exam was. They began their exam at 8am. By 1pm, one hour before school is over, not a single student had finished. By the end of the day out of my 15 students, only 4 passed.

Halfway through the examination, one of the assistant principals walked in. After I told him how ridiculous this exam was and he could see how visibly upset I was, he told me that the first round of exams is always difficult and the re-takes at the end of the year are much easier. 

This really struck a chord with me because it made absolutely no logical sense what so ever. How does the state benefit from giving one extremely difficult test and then one easier test a month later? Why not simply give a fair test both times?

And that’s when I thought back to those 15 minutes my students had to wait for their test to load. That tiny logo in the bottom corner…

When I first saw this logo, I thought back to a video I recently watched by John Oliver about standardized testing. (If you haven’t seen it, it is a great video and can be found here.) When I first saw this video, I thought there’s no way he’s talking about Virginia though. The VDOE is great about making their own curriculum framework, pacing guide, enhanced scope and sequences, sample lesson plans, student performance analysis, etc. Why would they take their time to make resources such as these and then not even create the assessment for it?

But that’s exactly what they do. They create the curriculum for teachers to use in their classrooms, and then send all of this material to a private company to create their final assessment to see how well we’ve done. The inexplicable logic is that a big business can create a comprehensive exam better than they could. But the issue is when you privatize standardized exams, it becomes that much less about the students than it does about building a business.

So what is the advantage for Pearson to provide an extremely difficult exam at first and then an easier one in the end? You guessed it, MONEY! By creating a very challenging exam, school are forced to register more students for a re-take than they would have initially, there by basically doubling how much money Pearson would have made if they simply gave the easier exam first. But by making the second exam easier, they still show their “effectiveness” of making an exam since enough kids will pass.

What’s the big deal though as long as the students pass in the end, you ask?

My student who worked so hard to pass advance has to work twice as hard on this exam. (In case you were wondering, she did not pass advance. In fact, she barely passed.) If only she knew that she shouldn’t have wasted 6 hours on this exam, but to take fail it and take it the second time. That would be the only way she could pass advanced.

My students who have worked day and night studying for this exam, staying after school on Tuesdays, Wednesdays, Fridays, and Saturday mornings have worked towards a basically impossible goal and their spirit is now completely broken. Their “can-do” attitudes will now become “what’s-the-point” attitudes.

Some of my students feel that have failed them, and I can’t help but feel that I have failed them as well. No matter the level of rigor that I have integrated into my lesson plans, it never matched how rigorous those questions were. I should have seen it coming, I should have prepared them more. And even though deep down I know that it’s not actually true, on some level I believe it but worst of all, they do. How am I supposed to help them pass the next exam when they trust me that much less?

Seniors who need to pass this exam in order to graduate have one more thing to worry about instead of simply enjoying their time before graduation.

Not to mention I’m going to get a thorough chewing out for my students “not studying enough” or “not focusing enough” or me “not planning enough,” none of which are true and couldn’t have happened any more. Some of my students that studied extremely hard and focused the entire time did not pass, meanwhile students who slept all year long, hardly studied, and kept dozing in and out of sleep, somehow passed the exam. Needless to say, this was a completely inaccurate assessment.

So I amend my previous opinion of standardized testing. I am still pro-standardized testing but instead of taking short cuts and getting lazy, states should create their own exams and give a fair assessment driven by student success, and not money or building up big businesses. After all, education is about students and building our future, a concept I am afraid this country is getting farther and farther away from… and although it is an entirely different issue on it’s own, is truly the center of this problem and many, many more.