Preparing for a moving target—NY state ELA test

When I wrote about my feelings preparing my students to take a practice reading test and what I would be doing “if the test wasn’t coming,” the responses from teachers reminded me that we are all going through it. (Read the comments on the post for some important perspectives.) It really is a new era of education and sadly, despite all the progress that has been made developing the area of teacher leadership, testing is a big part of this reality (mostly not due to the leadership and recommendations of teachers).

I gave my practice reading test on Monday, and my students showed considerable progress since January—which feels good; I can’t deny it. At the same time, they are expected to make a year of progress on the test, so of course they should be making incremental progress on the eighth grade test between January and March. At the same time that I see my students making progress, this data may not mean much in terms of predicting performance on the actual NY state test, which is becoming something of a moving target.

In the last two years, the ELA test has become more complicated as well as unavailable to review afterward. Last year (and this year), my students practiced using old NY state ELA tests, only to find the passages on the 2011-12 test signficantly more difficult. Some of the questions seemed trickier and less fair or relevant too. This followed national criticism of NY state for making a test that was apparently too predictable, producing inflated data. I expect there to be more experimentation this year. Enter the Common Core Standards and we will soon have a very different test (possibly a better one but I’m not counting chickens yet).

Meanwhile—and this baffles me—I am not just supposed to help my students make progress on the test toward an absolute goal of proficiency. Through the flawed but widely publicized system of value added measures, I am actually competing with other teachers of students from similar backgrounds on a kind of bell curve. My students’ success on the test is not enough. If my peer teachers were to get “better” at preparing their students for the test and I stay the same, I would then be reported as having become “less effective” at “teaching.” I’ve got to out-do my peers! Every year!

Of course, I won’t buy into that and I don’t personally know any teachers who do. But we are living and learning inside of this system either way. The same type of competition happens at the school level. My school is measured in relation to other schools with similar demographics. I have actually heard that this competition makes schools less willing to share resources and methods with educators from other schools.

I’m not for competition when it comes to learning. I’m an Alfie Kohn fan. I believe learning is its own reward; that kids should learn for the sake of it and teachers should lead students to develop and follow their curiosity and beliefs.

I will do my very best to make sure my students know how to do their best work on the test. But I’m sad for all the classrooms that are shutting down across the country at this time, racing toward a moving target that pits us against one another and guarantees nothing for our students.


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