Monday, March 1, 2010


On Wednesday, my students will take the Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills, or the TAKS. As Robin said in his earlier post, this is without a doubt the biggest source of stress for our high school as a whole.

I have been thinking about this post for a long time. Thinking about writing about how the TAKS completely ignores growth. How a student can jump over 200 pts. from one year to the next and still be considered a failure, both individually and for the school. How I wonder what it would feel like to be at a school in which the average student entering as a freshman could probably pass the exit-level test without much teaching at all. Would I feel like a good teacher?

I feel pulled between two ideas: the side that says that all students deserve to learn, to acquire basic knowledge and skill in high school, that it's not ridiculous to require schools to be measured based on student performance and the side that tells me that the human experience and thus the educational experience cannot be standardized. The system we operate under fails to acknowledge different starting points both high and low, let alone the circumstances and cards students are dealt. It ignores the student who could enter the ninth grade with the ability to pass their exit-level TAKS taken during the junior year and not learn a thing in the walls of their high school--and still be considered successful. It ignores the student who catapults themselves upwards over 200 points on a 1000 point scale over the course of one year--and still is considered a failure. Which student exhibits your definition of success and which teacher should be recognized for outstanding educating?

I feel a strange combination of frustration and pride watching my students test. Pride in how hard they work, in their ability to overcome adversity, in the effort that 99% of them will put forth on Wednesday morning, Wednesday afternoon, and some on Wednesday evening because yes, for a student who works full-time and goes to school full-time, it can take upwards of 7 hours to finish a test when you are are struggling to focus and read and do your best. For the student who is taking a test in a language that was completely unknown to them four or five years ago yet is still expected to test at appropriate age- and grade-level, it can take upwards of 10 hours to look up the words they need in the dictionary, to translate in their head, to do all of the things that they are doing to get their education and their diploma. Yes, these are the kids that will eventually be accused by someone at some point in their lives of not wanting to learn English if someone hasn't accused them of this already. On Wednesday when I watch them test, I will be a proud teacher.

I feel frustration that some of them, despite working and working and working and growing and growing and growing, will not pass this year and will feel like a failure, largely because the test tells them that they are. That a silent room full of kids with standardized test booklets and #2 pencils has come to mean so much in our education system. That it means the difference between doors staying open or closing permanently. It is terrifying.

I don't understand how a state that ranks 35th in the nation for high school graduation rate--in which nearly 30-40% of high school students drop out depending on the source--became the model for national education reform. I worry it won't change soon enough.

That, my friends, is T-Day.


  1. Laurie...

    I never post comments on blogs, but I wanted to tell you how much this post had an impact on me. There seems to be so much pressure on these students to do well on this test. I was never good at standardized tests, and I would consider myself a high-achieving student. So, I cannot imagine what it is like for those students who do not understand the language well enough to answer the comprehension questions correctly and for those students who were not afforded the privileges I have. Standardized tests would make me so anxious that I would often choose incorrect answers due to self-doubt, frustraion, and fatigue. Now, with the importance placed on these tests, it is no wonder students who may be considered "behind" would have a hard time. It seems that a more subjective criterion is in order for student/teacher/school assessment. Unfortunately, due to politics and administrative misconduct in many institutions (my mother experienced this quite a bit as a 7th grade teacher for many years), this will never be acceptable as a basis for comparison. So, what are the alternatives? I wish I could answer... Maybe it is a different approach to education in general and greater focus on the students in need. What does this entail though? Modeling public institutions after programs like KIPP. Extra days of school. Modeling our public education after countries that successfully educate the masses? Is there such a thing? Of course there is not an easy answer, but the first step as a country is to acknowledge there is a problem. How can we make that happen?


  2. Aaron, I love what you had to say about test anxiety and fatigue. I have seen that, especially with some of my students this year, including one girl that is very, very high-achieving. I've been working with a handful of students in tutoring, and we've been focusing a lot on testing strategies and ways that they can trust themselves and their knowledge. High-stakes testing has made this into such a huge problem for some kids.

    I also agree that a more subjective criterion just isn't an option. I am okay with accountability, even test-based accountability to some extent (though cases like the student I mentioned above and you make me wonder how those can be more effective). There are two things that I support strongly. One is the use of formative and summative assessments--tests that measure growth from beginning to end of a set period of time rather than mark a clear-cut pass/fail line. While this doesn't help full-blown test anxiety, I do feel like it's a more accurate measure of good teaching and for some students, the pre- and post-test format makes more sense to them and presents a more individually tailored goal to reach. Between the first and second assessment, they can see what they didn't know, see what they have learned, and it seems to be lower-stress for many of them. I wonder if an option between a growth goal and a general "passing" mark on a test might be a better way to measure student achievement; it's how I model my final exams.

  3. (Part two) The other thing that I think we need to embrace on a national scale is alternative school models. As our country becomes more diverse and as we strive to educate all youth, trying to squeeze everyone into the same, traditional, factory-model school system just doesn't work. Minnesota does a great job of fostering charter schools within their public school systems, giving kids options that fit more closely with their learning styles and interests, as well as their social and cultural needs. KIPP is a great example of one, and for some kids, KIPP saves their lives and futures. KIPP does amazing things. For some families, the extra hours aren't an option--they need kids to work to earn money, take care of other kids so parents can work, etc. and some kids don't have the personality to work within KIPP's strict discipline standards. American Youthworks is a nice counter-example that works for other kids--self-paced learning, flexible school days, vocational training options as well as a college prep track. The charter school in Minneapolis that I studied for my senior thesis in undergrad is yet another example--a school that centers their teaching around the American Indian culture (specifically the culture within Minnesota), both in terms of learning styles, curriculum focus, and cultural and socioeconomic needs. It was a public school, open to anybody who wanted to attend, but they addressed the specific needs of the American Indian community in Minneapolis--and graduated students at a rate that was nearly double of the mainstream Minneapolis public schools. I think charter schools that are more tailored to student needs and interests have the potential to be a huge part of our educational future, should they be given the support they need. (I could go on about why I choose NOT to teach in a charter school, but I'll save that for a conversation over wine.)

    This also begs the point that until other cultural issues are resolved--poverty and all of the inequity that comes with it, racism, intolerance of immigrants, etc.--this conflict within schools like mine will remain a problem. I see the side of it that many people don't--that my students pay the price for their parents' lack of education, immigration status that was chosen for them by parents who are trying to do what's best for their families, for poverty that they didn't ask for or have any control over. It is so frustrating to watch. I don't know enough about other countries' education systems to really comment, but I always question whether or not the masses are really being educated... I just don't know enough about other countries' models.

    Thanks again for your comment. Your thoughts really made me think, which is always refreshing!