Friday, March 13, 2009

Annual Standardized Test Rant

I hate standardized testing. Truly. Deeply. Passionately. And this week that hatred is reinforced.

Testing in and of itself is not necessarily a bad thing. (Although I do like Tom Bodett’s take on the different emphasis on testing that school and life give.) I give tests in class now and again, but I prefer other means of assessment. I almost never give multiple choice tests that require a scantron sheet to be bubbled in. These kinds of tests just don’t seem to measure what I am interested in knowing: whether or not the students can apply the knowledge they learned in my class.

Standardized testing, however, is another kettle of fish altogether. Especially when it is school wide testing like the Alabama High School Graduation Exam (AHSGE). Especially because during the week of testing virtually all education in the school comes to a screaming halt. I am relatively sure that is not the intention, but as with all things in life the Law of Unanticipated Consequences takes a strong hold of it.

There are five tests in the series: math, reading, language, social studies, and biology. Virtually all of the tenth graders in the school take all the tests, as do any juniors or seniors who have not passed them. Seniors who have not previously passed the old science portion of the test have to take that, also. All of the tests are multiple choice, fill-in-the-bubble.

In Alabama the tests are untimed. The students have as long as they need to complete them. So we start in the morning and let those who are not finished by a certain time move to either the library or the auditorium in order to finish the test. Sounds simple, doesn't it?

We were originally given a schedule that called for the first part of testing to be over by about 9:45. Technically that is a little over two hours after we get started. But that did not count in the time for the teachers to collect and tag all cell phones in the classroom, to go and collect up the exact number of tests and answer sheets that are being used, to recount them for accuracy, and to sign for them. As the tests have become higher and higher stakes, the security precautions for them have correspondingly tightened.

The first day also neglected to take into account the time necessary for the students to bubble in all their demographic information and write the test booklet number on a piece of paper issued for this purpose. During the test, these are collected and all the test booklet numbers are kept on a daily tally sheet issued for that purpose.

Once all of the housekeeping tasks are accomplished (did I mention passing out the answer sheets, pencils, scratch paper, and test booklets? oh, and for Monday, the calculators for the math test--also numbered and recorded twice), the students get to start the test. Then the true agony of boredom sets in for those teachers who are test administrators and proctors (a second teacher in the room). Again, since the tests have become so high stakes, the teachers can no longer read, write, grade papers, etc. The teachers get to circle and watch the students test. Eating, drinking, and sitting are also forbidden activities for the teachers at this time.

Oh, one more wrinkle to this testiness--we started it the Monday after Daylight Saving Time started. So, basically, we were all starting the testing at 6:30 according to our bodies' internal clocks. The window to the outside showed a pitch black view. Could have been the middle of the night. It sure enough felt like it to me.

The first day I had eleven students who needed to go to "extended testing." The time when the students who haven't finished yet get to go to the school library or auditorium to complete the test. All those answer sheets and test books need to be collected. All the students' names, book numbers, and calculator numbers recorded on yet another sheet of paper so that the teachers in the extended testing center can sign them, like a receipt. The testing materials for the students who are already done get returned, recounted and resigned for. This pushed the first day past the scheduled time. By that afternoon we had amended schedules we sent out with the students.

The students who are not testing do not have to come to school until ten or so. When they get here, they are made to sit in the gym and wait for testing to end. There are a few teachers in there to try to manage the group. But it is basically a great big party for the nontesters.

After testing ends, we go to first block. That lasts two hours because we serve lunch during this time. The classes might or might not be up to half empty due to extended testing. The other three blocks meet after lunch for 20-30 minutes depending on how much we went over the test time when setting up extended testing.

The students are totally brainfried. There is no testing of any other kind this week, even for students who are not taking the AHSGE. There is absolutely no homework of any kind given during this week. All learning basically comes to a stop. While there is one class meeting the usual amount of time, it is often half or more empty. The other three classes lack the time to get anything accomplished.

Here is where I see the Law of Unintended Consequences taking hold. I will be optimistic and suppose for the sake of argument that the people who came up with these ideas for testing, legislators in Washington, D.C. and (in my case) Montgomery, AL, never intended for a week of learning to stop cold. I bet they would be upset about it and use the idea to condemn the "lazy teachers." Hey, if all learning stops, it must be our fault, right?

Next week we start a return to normality. The last quarter of school is going on. Prom is in a couple of weeks. Spring Break in the last half of April (totally different rant about that). The students and teachers are all much more relaxed. The build up in tension and aggravation building to the climax of AHSGE testing is done for another year. Now we just have to get through the denouement.

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