Friday, September 21, 2007

Testing Follies

A lot of people want to know what the problem with testing students is. After all, if teachers have done their jobs, the thinking goes, the students should be able to pass the test. While I do not necessarily see the correlation there, let’s proceed for a moment as if it were true. Then in order to pass the tests, the students would need a chance to learn the materials and the teachers a chance to teach them. Testing actually decreases the amount of time students have to learn and teachers have to teach.

We are undergoing the trials and tribulations of Alabama High School Graduation Exam (AHSGE) testing this week. The first thing we need in order to give the test is a place for the students to do so. An entire wing of our school, around nine classrooms, and the school library are being used for testing. This means that the teachers and classes that would usually meet in those classrooms cannot do so. It also means that for the week the library is closed most of the day. No research can get done there, no books checked out, no references referred to.

All of these classes are meeting in the cafeteria. ALL OF THE CLASSES. I can see why the open classroom plans of the 60’s and 70’s didn’t work out too well. I wasn’t informed my classroom would be needed until last Thursday afternoon, when I was informed via a call on my PA, which interrupted my teaching, that I would need to cover up all my posters or take them down as my room would be used for testing on Monday. That was news to me. In the memo we were emailed several days earlier, my room was not listed as one that would be used. Although I had expected it to be. Apparently my feelings of relief were premature.

I was never officially informed where I was to meet with the class that would be out of the room during testing. As I have first block planning, I was only dispossessed for one class period. Most of the other teachers in that wing are out for two periods. And I found out via an emailed memo that I would be covering another teacher’s class during my planning block on Monday. So much for having time to prepare a lesson or two to teach to my learners.

As added fun, the schedule Monday was further intruded upon as the testing in the classrooms ran late. As third block is the lunch period, holding classes in the cafeteria is not an option. So, all the teachers in that wing, and our students) sat outside the doors to the wing as the teachers in there got there students to the extended testing site. See, there is no time limit on the AHSGE. If the students want or need to work on it for six hours that is allowed.

So, how much time was lost from teaching this week? How many students didn’t learn as much as they could have if they were in a classroom? How many student hours were lost this week because testing is a state mandate and we do not have a choice about it?

When we have testing for the whole of the tenth grade, and all the eleventh and twelfth graders who need to retake it, in the spring, over half the school does not even arrive until third block. So many rooms are required, and so many teachers to administer and proctor the tests, that we can’t have school for the first two blocks each day for a week. How much time is lost from teaching and learning there?

Then there are the remediation classes. These are often test prep classes that students who fail part of the exam are required to take in place of other classes. So they go over and over the same material again and again until they can pass the test. But they lose out on other educational opportunities.

From what I am told by my wife, who teaches high school “across the river” in Georgia, it is much the same there. The details of what exactly is required and what tests and courses must be passed differ, but the overall picture is much the same--massive amounts of teaching/learning time wasted in the name of testing.

Has anyone else reading this noticed the same trend? Or am I seeing something that isn't there?

Friday, September 7, 2007


[For this post to make sense, you should read the previous post first. Sorry if that is a "duh."]

I got a strange idea and so went to one of the too few student computers in my class. I turned it on and, as I had hoped, the lack of updating the computers does not affect their ability to sign on to the Internet! So I can let my kiddies use the computers in the class. Somehow. If I can figure out how to get 30 kids onto 20 computers...

I have it!

They will have to take turns! And if they whine too much about that, they can just go ahead and write on paper!

Somehow I am feeling a little better about my upcoming teaching.

Thursday, September 6, 2007

“And Then, Depression Set In...”

The title, of course, is tongue-in-cheek, taken from that classic movie Stripes. But it is near to being true for me at this point. Okay, okay… so I am not so much depressed as a bit on the stressed-out side.

For the past month or so, I have been following various threads on a listserv I belong to (engteach-talk, you can join it at From about the last week of July to the present various members of the list have been checking on with their beginning of the year stories. I am in a strange position, as I have been for the past few years. My school system’s calendar starts 2 August for teachers and 9 August for students. However, I am not going to start with my students until this Friday, 7 September. Until such time as I am actively in my classroom I get to fill in as a sub whenever and wherever needed and this year I got to spend a delightful couple of weeks correcting and updating student information in STI (the software my school uses for student management).

When I changed to this school system it was to specifically teach a writing course to help prepare students for the state writing assessment. Every semester I split my students with a drivers’ education teacher. For the first four weeks the students are in class with that teacher, learning all they can about driving and safety. Then they get me for the remainder of the semester teaching them writing. Well, most of them.

Approximately three at a time they are pulled out of my class for six days to go out and do the driving portion of their coursework. That means at any one time about 10% of my students are not in class. That, of course, does not count the ones who miss for other reasons (absent, inschool suspension, out of school suspension, field trips, skipping...). To add even more to the fun, my first year at the school I floated. I was in a total of six different classrooms during the year (three the first semester and three different ones the second semester).

Also, that first year, the students were less than friendly for various reasons. Mainly the drivers’ ed class had previously been paired with a study hall and so they felt cheated that someone expected them to do real work. And then there is walking into the classroom after all the relations in the class have already formed. The group dynamics have mainly been sorted out, and there has been a connection with the teacher who is now out driving with them. Then I walk in and everything changes.

Last year I was given a classroom. Still have it this year. In the classroom are twenty computers. Took me a while to figure out how I wanted to use them, but in the second semester the classes really started to cook. I was in a good place mentally.

But... the assistant principal who worked most closely with me on this class is not here this year. He has been deployed to Iraq. The other assistant principal I worked with left to become a principal at another school. The new assistant principals are good people, but they do not have the interest in this class the previous two did.

So my classes, which should be capped at about 25 (as they are technically "test prep" even though we do more than that) all have 27-32 students. This is interesting as I have 25 desks and 20 computer stations. I usually only have tenth graders and returning ninth graders (who may get the required credits to be tenth graders in time to take the writing exam). This year I have eight juniors and one senior. They are not going to take the test. But they will be in the classes where I am trying to prepare others for the test. Luckily, in my experience juniors and seniors (especially seniors) do well in my class.

The computers I made such good use of second semester last year are all basically useless at the moment. The district upgraded the network to the point where Windows98 computers are no longer compatible with it. All mine are Windows98 and no one has come to upgrade them yet, even though there was a work order placed before school started. And, as I mentioned, I have a lot fewer computers than students this time around. There are some computers that are not being used, but for some unexplained reason they cannot be moved from the empty room where they are not being used to my room where that can be used (as soon as they get upgraded as well).

To be honest, I am not sure whether to post this or not. It seems like one giant complaint. But I think I can get to a deeper point.

I am willing to be held accountable for my teaching. But how accountable can I be when I am blocked from using the method I have come to see as the best one for my students and me? And it is not even blocked maliciously. No one set out to work me over. But I seem to be getting worked over from several different directions at once. Sort of the perfect storm of bureaucratic screwups that centered on me and my classes.