Tag Archives: test anxiety

Failing Our Students: Assessment Success

Boy Covering FaceEach year for the last fourteen I have stood at the front of the room reading from my Virginia SOL manual’s script.

I have been told to never veer off script. Which does in fact make sense if an education official far away is trying to get every teacher across a state to give the same directions without fault.

No unintended advantages, no intentional pauses, no giving secret signs that students’ answers are incorrect. It makes sense.

The whole prospect of testing every students across a state must certainly make someone at the top mighty nervous. When national nightly news reports that teachers have been found guilty of signaling to students in some predetermined way that their answers were incorrect, more testing documentation, parameters and scripts need to be written. It makes sense.

Except for one thing.

We’re dealing with humans and in my case, children no older than nine.

These are the ones that officials want to test in my take-everything-off-the-walls classroom. I even had to take down my clock so that no advantage would be had by looking at it. I tore down my classroom schedule. I had colleagues concerned about whether numbered coat hooks were worthy of covering.

Do you remember nine? I can’t say I remember much more than doing tie-dye during Art Class. I remember Recess where one day I sat on a warm piece of gum while swinging — that’s some serious trauma for a third grader who had to stand up on the bus all the way home. I remember my teacher’s name and where my class was in my elementary school. I don’t remember what happened for those one hundred eighty days I sat at my desk. Do you?

Fast forward to the present and I now stand in front of my students during a test session unable to encourage, unable to give a thumbs up, unable to lean down and convince them it will be ok.

If their little bodies require a bathroom break another adult must lead them to the restroom and determine that no other students are inside — ensuring that no conversation will occur having anything to do with testing.

Welcome to our present state of education and how we have chosen to assess our children – regardless of age, regardless of their fear and regardless of how fair or insignificant questions might be. I can’t bring a sense of calm or even introduce a pleasant you-can-do-it smile, because that would be a testing irregularity and that could send me to prison.

No really, it could.

I’ve been obligated to sign a paper that spells this specific consequence out.

What do I do? What should we do?

I would like to tell you I’ve got the magic dust and I’m ready to share.

I don’t.

Like many of you I continue to be amazed (well, disgusted actually) by what we’re asking little people to accomplish on a given day or two.

The expectation is that they will be amazing, be proficient, and use strategies that have been reinforced to the point that why we do math or read has long since been forgotten. Students will do exactly that which would make any adult nervous – choose the right question when given the answer, interpret a question in math that has more to do with one’s reading ability than computation skills, and choose all the multiple correct answers to one question in order to advance to the next confusing question.

It would make adults nervous. It makes me nervous and I’ve been doing this over a decade now.

Just yesterday we finished our last SOL. We’ve been doing a LOT of math earlier this week. It was like a factory in my classroom with all the worksheets flying from student to teacher, back to student and back to me to assess their success, and mine, at remediation.

For fourteen years I have done this. For most of those I taught fifth grade. Now it’s third.

That’s a Science, Reading, Math, and Writing SOL for most of those years. At an average of 25 students for 12 years, that’s about 300 SOLs plus another couple of years at 3rd grade equaling well over 400 SOLs under my belt – some years I had over 30 students.

That’s a good amount of worry for both student and teacher.

That’s a huge amount of focus on the importance of a few numbers each year that supposedly defines my success as a teacher.

Those numbers are also intended to define a student’s knowledge in a specific academic area. It’s all quite backwards, in my humble opinion, because how can one day’s assessment sum up a year’s worth of learning?

Regardless though, I and my colleagues around me, have all bought into the importance of these numbers because we stress, we worry, we do our best to motivate, and we remediate right up to the last day hoping that each students’ scores will be what we hope.

We know if our scores aren’t acceptable, next year we will have a microscope placed upon us to determine what we haven’t been doing “right.”

Whether students came to us prepared by those that taught them previously, whether students come from homes in which education is valued, whether students’ lives outside of school is a place where the importance of character is reiterated — those aren’t assessed or taken in account at the beginning of the state assessment.

Regardless, we teachers do not want our efforts to disappoint.

Repeat any mantra long enough and it slowly becomes both understood and heartfelt. Tell teachers that scores matter and reiterate it through countless workshops and school wide endeavors and we believe. When we believe it enough, we both unconsciously and intentionally pass on this importance to students. Goals have to be met, we’re told, and we tell to those that sit in our classrooms.

First goal: pass. Second goal: pass advanced. Ultimate goal: perfect score of 600.

Students, teachers, principals, specialists, school divisions and states all celebrate when those scores hit passing and above.

There’s cheering when it goes well, and downcast eyes when it doesn’t. There’s serious anxiety, walk down any school hallway this time of year and tell me you don’t see it on the faces of both students and teachers.

All of it outrageous. Just go ahead and let’s call it child abuse of the testing variety.

Perhaps these thoughts convey to you that my students didn’t do well and therefore I need a place to express my frustration.

Actually they did an excellent job. As students finished, their scores were posted for our administrator to view who in turn shared them with me. Impressive pass rate. Had some pass advanced scores too.

I was relieved, administration was complimentary, but for me, I’m not happy.

My frustration isn’t that students can’t do well or even that there’s an assessment. My frustration is that our educational system has gotten to the point in which a whole year’s worth of teaching, student success and challenges overcome comes down to one assessment.

How have we gotten to the point in which students’ scores are valued more than students themselves?

 

Faith in the Classroom

Almost every week we find ourselves in about the same place.

Four rows from the front of the auditorium, stage left.

My wife and I are fortunate to have found the type of church that when the sermon is over, we’re glad we went because the message spoke to us. It is almost always exactly what we needed, at exactly the right time.

It’s after the three songs are sung, the offering is made, and the pastor begins that I get out my phone.

Not to check Facebook or Instagram, but instead to try and keep up with the thoughts running through my head. Whatever ideas surface are jotted down.

This usually doesn’t happen immediately after the sermon begins, but after some time thinking about, well, what I’m thinking about as I try to keep listening to the message from the stage.

It’s the only time this happens during the week.

Perhaps because I get so little time to think about what’s going on in my little head.

I’ve read about listening to God’s message.

I’m no evangelist.

I don’t hold signs on your neighborhood corner. In fact I’m careful to not put others in uncomfortable positions because of my faith – I’m convinced that’s not the intent of faith.

In class I recognize that I teach in a public school and so faith doesn’t come up in conversation – as it shouldn’t.

Instead I hold it close like a great hand of poker.

When anxiety hits teachers and students alike, when those around me worry about what might be coming in the days, weeks, or months ahead, I turn to my faith. I know that I’m not alone in battling the often overwhelming feeling of panic. I have some help.

I also remind myself that what’s ahead these next few months as we get ever closer to the SOLs has been achieved before.

This isn’t my first year, this isn’t my first rodeo.

Call it an act of faith, or call it my attempt at keeping anxiety at bay. It’s what I do as the weather warms and the calendar reminds me that while summer is closer, so is this year’s testing.

And if I knew the magic involved in getting every student to be awesome, every day of every year, I would share it right here with anyone who would take a moment to read it.

However I’m not a magician and I don’t have that kind of skill level or knowledge. In fact there are many days in which the awesomeness doesn’t happen. However what I do have is a bit of time at the front.

I place value in the side conversations about interesting facts. I believe in listening to a child’s story.

I know it’s important to remind students that no challenge is too great, no obstacle too overwhelming.

I place faith in the fact that while there are days in which my lessons are followed and completed without compromise, there are also days in which there’s real value in getting off track and sharing a funny story.

Here’s why.

The success in my class doesn’t come from repeatedly and consistently presenting an endless of amount of information. It doesn’t come from a barrage of facts that must be memorized.

Some teachers do exactly that, but I believe that doing so eliminates the fact that we’re in an endeavor involving human beings who want nothing more than to be happy and feel valued.

Instead I believe that if my students prove successful on a state assessment, it’s because they believed they could be and I played a part in reminding them that they had the ability within themselves to overcome. I have faith that my incessant desire to have them understand their abilities will in the end prove successful in a world of naysayers.

It will prove valuable far after they leave my classroom.

And that’s something I believe in wholeheartedly.

Overcoming Teacher Frustration

If you don’t get frustrated, then you don’t care.

I keep saying it like a mantra, it makes me feel a little better.

It’s the first week of December and I’m frustrated.

As the holiday music blares from the car radio and we feel compelled to sing about the wonderful time of the year, we’re also now into the not-so-wonderful part of the school year.

Assessment time. The first quarter has passed and people want numbers that will indicate our success at the front of the room.

In my county, we use benchmarks created by someone I don’t know in a far away office. This person has created a series of questions that will determine whether my students have grasped what I have taught them these last few months.

All of this is really important to some really important people I suppose.

Of course you could just ask me and I could tell you who has grasped the learning – no lengthy, confusing test is needed I assure you. I’ve been at the front of my classroom, after all, since early September.

Regardless, computer schedules have been determined, class schedules have been rearranged, and then the hold-our-breath begins as the scores roll in.

It’s then that percentages appear, heads are scratched, eyes are rubbed, and groans are heard throughout the building.

Each of us then finds our colleagues we trust enough with which to have a candid conversation. We lament, we commiserate, we voice our displeasure, we let our colleagues know how our students could have done so much better.

We carry on the way we do, because, well, we care about our students’ success.

Even if those computers keep shutting down and booting off our students. Even if my third graders, who have enough of a hard time concentrating, now have to sign in to their assigned Chromebook like it’s Fort Knox. Even if they can’t remember where their pencil just dove off to when they turned their head.

These same 8 year olds have to remember multiple procedures to begin an assessment that often aren’t even developmentally appropriate.

I care about my class’s scores, I care about my team’s scores, and I care about how our school is doing. The problem is that I only have control over one of those populations.

Well, control is a relative concept.

I’ve done my best to motivate my students.

I’ve logically explained why strategies work. I’ve highlighted to my students the future and why doing one’s best is in their best interest.

I’ve even talked about real estate values once or twice and how they’re tied to a school’s scores – I know, I know, that was probably over their head, but I couldn’t help myself.

I repeatedly tell my students, because again I can’t help myself, that each of them has the ability to overcome any challenge. I share that I care about them as soon as they were put on my class role. I tell them that I believe in them.

So what to do when you’ve taught all the right strategies that worked in the past, yet the students fail to do as you’ve asked?

What to do when students rush even after you’ve told them to double check – at least a hundred or two times?

Where to turn when it seems that all that time sharing life lessons seems to have fallen on deaf ears?

Here are some solutions worth considering.

1) Beat your head into your classroom wall until the result is that you’ve passed out and awaken later to only vaguely determine the square footage of the ceiling tiles – holding true to your desire to bring creative approaches to teaching state standards. Arise and continue.

2) Go home and refuse to return until all assessments have been cancelled for the foreseeable future. Wait for all computers to be adequately equipped to work properly when called upon. This waiting will of course continue into the very foreseeable future and your students will progress into the next grade without your influence.

3) Climb onto the roof of your building and take it upon yourself to strengthen the bandwidth of your building’s internet signal by erecting the largest set of rabbit ears conceivable. You will of course be labeled a hero (like Don Quixote attacking the windmill) although the monstrous antenna will certainly not be seen as an architectural adornment.

4) Lastly, and I think the most prudent solution is this: hold fast to who you are and your care for your students.

Certainly not all will take to our instruction regardless of our desire for our students’ best efforts.

Our students may not yet understand that we care for them as individuals. Our students may not yet trust that what we teach and desire for them to do is in their best efforts.

Hold fast to your efforts to continue down the path that you know will lead to success.

Let’s not let an assessment that unnerves students of all ages to change the course that we know will be effective.

Teaching is not easy. Teaching is not selling widgets. Teaching is a craft that takes more than a quarter of a year.

Learning is determined by untold variables and cannot be assessed by one benchmark alone.

Hold fast my colleagues. I will do the same.

Do Your Best & Stop The Stressfest

kids-1093758_1920

Stop beating yourself up. It’s going to be ok.

It’s May and we’re all realizing that the weeks continue to fly by while we center on the state assessments quickly approaching.

Any good teacher out there doesn’t need reminding. We’ve been thinking about it just as much as anyone is going to tell us it’s important.

We know it’s important.

And to add to the mix of stress, anxiety and tension… people are telling us it’s important.

You know often I wonder if there are central office administrators that envision teachers as arriving and departing daily without a clue that state assessments are in fact important.

Yea, I get it.

Yea, I don’t need reminding.

If this post sounds a bit like I’ve begun to reach the edge. Yes, I’m there to

But just like you, I have to have faith that for these past many months, I have been working toward this very time. The time when students prove what they know. We’ve been at this since early September and all that comes with it – frustration, hope, confusion and joy.

I’ve already told my students that I don’t think that the testing that they’re about to undertake is fair. I also told them that they don’t have a choice.

Perhaps there will be a time when legislatures decide on another form of assessment that doesn’t stress out a third grader. A test that doesn’t keep children from wanting to advance to the third grade because they’re afraid of a test that is over a year away from being given. Is it healthy to worry about a test at the age of 9?

It’s sadly amazing what we’ve managed to do to our children.

This is, however, not something you or I can change as educators. As we were probably reminded in our college courses, we don’t get to decide whether to give the assessment – our job is to give it regardless of what we think.

And I do.

I do my best to encourage my students to do their best. I do my best to prepare them and then also remember that they’re children.

They’re going to have bad days that are illogical to you and I. They are, after all, going to do things that don’t make sense to you or I – nor should it, they’re children after all.

So I’m going to take a big, deep, breath and try to relax having faith that my efforts have not been in vain. Join me.

Here’s to you and I… and the last push toward getting our students prepared for that state assessment.

Is it our focus at the moment? Definitely.

Should it be our focus at the moment? Yes, it should.

Do I wish we could instead focus on what I think matters more? Sure.

I’d rather focus on encouraging my students to be better, kinder and more understanding little people. The kind of student that leaves my class better than they arrived.

Please assessment me on those criteria.