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Testing Week

April 7, 2012

Teacher Musings:
Two weeks ago my students took the 10th grade ELA MCAS.  This is a test that is supposed to accomplish many things – theoretically.  It is a test that students must pass in order to receive a high school diploma.  It is also a test that is used to measure a school.  Our MCAS scores determine whether we are making annual yearly progress, and whether we are meeting the NCLB goal (note: now adjusted for “Race to the Top”) of all students being proficient in state ELA and math standards by 2014.  This test is also used to measure our achievement gap, and make sure that all “sub-groups” (by race, gender, special education, etc.) are meeting the same goals.  This test is also supposed to give teachers tools to improve their instruction.  Almost every year I have taught I have been given last years MCAS (or CAHSEE – go Cali!) data and told to change my curriculum or instruction based on an area where my students performed poorly, regardless of why.  For example, I have been told to teach more poetry even thought there was only one poetry selection on the text, and the aspect of it that my students struggled with was vocabulary, not poetic devices.

Here is what the test looked like.  The first day students wrote an essay that asked them to describe a piece of literature in which the villain had the largest impact on the story, and to explain how the villain had that impact.  The prompt purports to test just student writing, but my students who struggled the most were the ones that read the least.  On the second and third days of testing students had to read selections of text and answer multiple choice questions and open responds questions that are supposed to test their reading comprehension and ability to infer about what they read.  There were two poems, a number of non-fiction texts and several excerpts from various novels, most of which I hadn’t even heard of.

I’m trying to describe this test in as objectively as possibly as part of an exercise to figure out why I hate it so much.  Because I do – hate it, I mean.  But as I write this description, I realize that I’m leaving out all the reasons I hate it, because the reasons are emotional.  I hate this test because of the way these seemingly innocuous multiple choice questions, open response questions and writing prompt drive a huge curriculum, instructional and emotional shift for me and my students to take away focus on real literacy.  Here are the things that happen in my classroom that would NOT happen if there was no MCAS.

– My students take an assessment ever other Friday that is modeled after reading comprehension section of the MCAS.  While I try and tweak this assessment to actually show their analysis abilities, not just simply comprehension ability, using this format provides familiarity with the test.  If I didn’t need to provide that familiarity I would be able to design an assessment of their comprehension and literary analysis that would better show me what they do and don’t understand.

– After reading the compelling book Night by Elie Wiesel, my fellow 10th grade teacher and I asked students to write an in-class entry responding to a previous MCAS writing prompt in order to make sure students practiced writing “this” type of essay (which, by the way, they will never write again.  Every other test or essay prompt they might encounter to assess their writing is at least a little more sophisticated that the MCAS one).  Without the MCAS, my students would have had time to hold a Socratic seminar in which they discussed the stages of holocaust as depicted in Night and considered the question of how to prevent future genocides.

– We spent 8 days on “MCAS prep” instruction that involved lots of things, but mostly me saying “You can do it!  Pass the MCAS” as enthusiastically as I could, but the whole time feeling like crap because I was perpetuating a charade that I don’t believe in.

– My students were stressed, and then bored, and then wiped out with testing.  It simply pained me to watch them some of them try their damnedest and then burn out, and to watch others just shut done in the face of the test.

I’ve already written too much, but I just wanted to lay out of some of personal thoughts and experiences on testing.  I read a lot of great stuff that critiques standardized testing (see anything by Diane Ratvich, Anthony Cody or Gary Rubenstien) much more thoughtfully and logically, which I cite often in discussion about these tests with colleagues.  But I also don’t want us to forget the impact on real kids, especially as we plan to implement a new tests to align with the Common Core.  I predict these tests will look the same and therefore have the same impact, even after millions are spent on their development.  And I wonder if we will ever be ready to acknowledge, as a country, that these tests are hurting more than they are helping.

Yummy Stuff:
As I enter month 6 of my second pregnancy, I cannot get enough spicy food.  This weekend I wanted jalapeños like my life depended on it, so I got some and made some yummy vegan nachos.  I’ve shared ideas for nachos before, but I figured I’d share a “recipe” that got me my jalapeños fix!

Easy Vegan Nachos

  • Servings: 1-2
  • Difficulty: super easy
  • Print

Ingredients
About 2 cups of tortilla chips, spread out on a plate
1/3 cup of canned, vegetarian, black refried beans (I use Whole Foods brand)
2 TB canned, sliced jalapeño
1/4 cup sliced black olives
3 TB prepared salsa
1/2 an avocado, chopped
Vegan cheddar cheese (optional)
Vegan sour cream (optional)

Directions:
1) Top the chips with the beans and cheese (if using) and spread them out as much as possible.  Microwave on high for 30 seconds to 1 minute.
2) Spread the rest of the ingredient on top to your liking.  Cheese is really not needed, especially if you love the jalapeno kick!

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