Let’s Be Real: Testing Is All Year Long

People are arguing about whether testing in NY state conforms to Obama’s theoretical 2% cap on testing time.

But let’s be real. At most schools testing takes time away from real learning all year long. Test prep starts on day 1, with jam packed, common core test aligned, “rigorous” ELA and math curricula. This includes test prep oriented curricula and actual testing. Starting in the first week of school, students take formative assessments, summative assessments, benchmark assessments and more on a weekly basis. And of course, from September through May, art, science, social studies and anything creative is relegated to the back burner- taught at most once a week.

And then testing season comes. At my school, starting in February, test prep takes over completely and suddenly the 3rd and 4th graders are anxious, frustrated and bursting in to tears at random moments. This is two months of explicit test practice almost all day every single day. Two months of no field trips, no science, no social studies and lots and lots of practice tests.

To be clear, I do not blame any of this on the teachers I work with. They kick ass and do everything within their power to make learning fun and meaningful for their kids. The power of testing over schools comes entirely from on high- from Cuomo, from Obama, from Gates and the other rich people who think they are experts at everything.

But if you ask a teacher how much time testing and test prep really takes from their teaching, you won’t hear 2%. If we’re being honest, at a typical school- without a strong opt out culture- testing takes around 60% percent of instructional time. If we were to talk about student learning time- including homework and weekend test prep boot camps, that number would go even higher. And then if you consider that nowadays, art teachers, PE teachers, science teachers and early childhood teachers are often asked to integrate the language and values of tests into their teaching every day, the number rises again. I would put my money on this statistic: In most schools,  75% of all learning time is devoted to, guided by, or limited by testing.

If we’re being real, bringing that percentage down to 1 or 2% means tossing out the the whole system. Testing will never occupy such a small portion of the school year when test scores are tied to teacher evaluations and student promotion and the tests themselves are wholly inappropriate. So, please, powerful people out there, either stop pandering to voters with these mythical tiny percentages or actually do something to fix the system you destroyed.

WaPo article on testing time in schools

 

Remember Class Size?

School districts don’t want small classes because that means more teachers, more space, and of course, more money.  Funding in public schools in in short supply these days between sky high consultant fees, expensive test prep programs and deliberate underfunding by state officials, so class size has slipped out of the conversation.

Moreover, for  top down reformer zealots, large class sizes are a-ok because they fit right in with military style, teacher centered classrooms in which students passively recite, chant and fill out the latest quiz.

Small classes, on the other hand, allow teachers to foster independence, freedom, community, and trust- all hallmarks of progressive education. In this way, class size has the power to shape the way we teach and the culture of our classrooms.

We educators know that authentic, meaningful teaching and learning happens in small communities of learners that know each other very well, in communities in which every child can feel heard, in which students can explore and experiment, and in which children can make decisions for themselves.

I see the difference class size can make every day. Last year, the first grade  classes at my school had between 18-22 students. We had a fabulous year. We were able to get messy and do amazing things. We built towers out of recycled materials,  we mixed liquids and made slime, we created animal puppets, we planted seeds in the school garden and designed roller coaster tracks for marbles.

This year, I am teaching many of the same students and I want everything we do to be as fun, hands-on and child friendly. The thing is, this year, the second grade classes all have between 27 and 30 students.  The difference is palpable. What felt calm now feels chaotic, and what felt manageable now feels utterly exhausting. Just getting through a greeting or transition takes an extraordinary amount of strategic management.

And the kids are suffering. Students who made tremendous progress last year are now falling behind, because in a class of 30, teachers don’t get to work with every student daily, or even weekly. Similarly, students with learning disabilities who were able to shine and fully participate last year are now struggling because there are so many more distractions around them. Because of these larger classes, many teachers  are trying autocratic management strategies like class dojo or forgoing hands on activities. I also know that some teachers are reluctant to go on trips because their classes are so big.

What’s more, 30 students puts quite a bit of pressure on space and materials.  30 little bodies doing hands-on exploration or experiments is very different than 20. For 30 kids to be able to all work together and do meaningful, multi-sensory, student driven work, you need children with exceptional self control, lots of space, extra funding for materials, and lots and lots of clean up time.

With 6 and 7 year olds, exceptional self control is hard to come by. Which is why I’m coming to the conclusion that large class sizes in early childhood are simply not developmentally appropriate. It is just too much. Too much distraction, too many bodies, too many materials, too many needs, and too many voices that don’t get heard. There is a reason class sizes in private schools are almost always no more than 20.

I know I’ll make it work this year with a combination of patience, station teaching, donors choose and lots of practice, and so will the fantastic teachers I work with each day.  But in the meantime, some of these kids are missing out and no amount of fancy new curricula,  consultant visits or new mandates from on high are going to help them. What they need is teachers- empowered, creative and nurturing teachers with enough time and resources to help every child thrive.

 

 

 

 

Why do teachers give students numbers?

“I don’t understand why so many of you cannot remember your student number.”

I heard this in a 3rd grade classroom last week in school. More and more teachers I know are assigning students individual numbers. I don’t understand it. Is this a charter school thing? If someone out there can explain the advantages of referring to students by number rather than name to me, please do. Especially considering that giving students numbers seems oddly mechanical and is certainly dehumanizing.

I even know kindergarten teachers who call students to line up or come into the room by number. Of course the 5 year olds sometimes forget to respond to their numbers, which leads to disapproving  chastisements from their teachers. Personally, I think getting mad at a 5 year old for forgetting to respond to a number is not only inappropriate, but also, a waste of energy.

Imagine if you went to work every day and your supervisors referred to you by number.” Number 14, 15, and 16 come to my office.” I know I would never choose to work in an environment like that.

Even if it helps teachers stay slightly more organized, what is numbering teaching students about how to treat others and how we view them as individuals? Is it so hard to label your files and checklists by name each year? It’s the kids we should be worried about, each and every one with their own unique names and needs, not  how easy it is to keep track of our spreadsheets and student data.