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Sunday, November 24, 2013

Bombing the Test

This Blog post was created last April 16th but I refrained from posting it due to some reservations I harbored that perhaps the subject would be perceived as exploiting a terrible incident to proclaim my opposition to the manner in which state-wide high stakes testing has been decreed throughout New York simultaneously with a link to teacher evaluation. Upon reflection, I remain as firm in my conviction now as I did when generating this piece. In fact, last Friday as our nation observed the passage of fifty years since the assassination on President Kennedy (referenced later in this entry) I thought it appropriate to present these thoughts.

Let me be clear. I am neither against the purpose and direction of the assessments nor the need to evaluate teachers. However, I am opposed to the way the state education department orchestrated the change process - with all the finesse of a tornado. Imposing both the tests and teacher evaluation protocol in an accelerated roll-out, (particularly testing learners on a curriculum that has not yet been completed or supported with adequate materials) hastily designed to secure federal funds (700 million dollars) during economic stress, has produced a confluence of chaos and conflict that has left countless instructional casualties strewn in its wake. The strict adherence and fidelity to the prescribed dictates governing the assessments in terms of their administration, heightened due to the high stakes nature of the link between teacher and learner performance, is the point of this Blog entry - not the subject of the bombing in Boston.

Invariably, after a test, someone may unfortunately feel they had an awful experience with the assessment and lament that they "bombed" the test. That phrase has a bit different meaning today as hundreds of thousands of children in grades 3-8 across New York state are compelled to encounter the annual spring rite of taking the state mandated assessments in English Language Arts and Math over the next three days. There is a considerable amount of anxiety involving theses tests. For one, they are based on a Common Core curriculum that continues to unfold as you read this Blog entry. Only one state, Kentucky, has experienced tests based on the Common Core and in a well publicized summary the test data revealed a 30% drop in scores compared to previous test programs. Additionally, the results of these tests now factor heavily into the evaluation of teachers per the newly enacted legislation that has spawned the Annual Professional Performance review in our state. Identifying the assessments as an example of high stakes tests does not do justice to their impact.

Today, April 16th, marks the first phase of the test series. There are many, many questions ahead for the test takers. It's likely that the most significant questions may not have anything to do with the ELA or Math and the clear cut answers that follow. Instead, I suspect a lot of the children have questions without immediate or sufficient responses. For example, they may be puzzled by the who, what, when, and why of the horrific bombings in Boston yesterday as innocent people were killed and injured while they watched runners approach the finish line of the Boston Marathon.

Three deaths have been attributed to the bombs and over a hundred people continue to receive medical attention for their injuries. The mystery of the incident, since no group or individual has claimed responsibility, adds to the unanswered questions young children may have regarding the tragedy. The fact that one of the fatalities is an eight year old boy, the age of the youngest children sitting at their seats today wrestling with the state assessment, amplifies the concerns and conflict associated with the bombings. Who would do something so senseless and horrible? Where else can it happen if a bombing can occur at a marathon? When will it happen again? Can it happen here? Why did they target innocent people?

These are questions that may linger in the minds of children engaged with the required assessments. The test began early enough this morning that teachers were unable to appropriately address the subject without encroaching on the parameters of the test administration. And, even if time permitted such a conversation, teachers may very well have been unwilling to raise the discussion for fear of sustaining turmoil in the minds of children prior to taking this high stakes test that ultimately can influence the placement of learners in Academic Intervention Service programs and help determine the evaluation status of teachers.

If one examines all of the factors in play today, the intersection of high stakes tests with the need to address the questions spawned by the terrible tragedy in Boston, then you may conclude that we "bombed" the test of our values. Yes, I realize that life moves on and we have to endure. I recall how my own elementary teacher continued on with her lesson plan after the principal came in the classroom and whispered to her that President Kennedy had been assassinated, leaving us to be shocked by the news later via the bus radio on our way home from school. Yes, teachers can lead a discussion of the bombing after the testing is complete today, but the fact that it follows the test reflects that the test was considered a more important priority - and I don't agree with that ranking.

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