Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Test Me, I'm Yours

Just as springs breaks through a bit and students start thinking the school year's mostly over, it's the time for teachers to reflect on what their students have learned over the past eight months or so.

I suppose "reflect' is a far too gentle word for the pressure that teachers feel right now. They must determine if their students have met their goals for the year. They have to try to keep them focused and working, a full time job in and of itself.

For kids in regular ed, they do that by administering standardized tests. They don't just measure student performance. Everything is measured from these tests--student performance, teacher performance, principal performance, school performance, district performance, statewide performance, and nationwide performance. There is a lot on the line when students are filling in the bubbles with their freshly sharpened No. 2 pencils.

If a state is following curriculum mandated by the NCLB (No Child Left Behind) there is even more pressure for teachers to adequately prepare students for these exams. Poor student performance could mean a teacher's job is on the line.

When parents are deciding where to buy a house, they often look at the test scores of the neighboring schools. This is often more important than numbers of rooms or bathrooms or whether there is a garage. It is inevitable that more affluent neighborhoods produce higher test scores. This is a sad fact of life that isn't fair for those who go to schools with lower scores, but it has always been this way.

If I had my way in this world (which I don't, I've been told)I would narrow the gap between the "haves" and the "have nots." I would ensure that every kid could be a "have" when it comes to education. Socio-economic status would affect home life, not school life.

For students in special education, there is even more red tape that teachers have to cut their way through. They come up for air for just enough time to dive in again to the sea of forms, forms and more forms. "I would go into special ed," one friend told me, "if it weren't for the paperwork." How sad. My sister who is a special ed teacher claims most of her job is filling out forms.

I have been working in a special ed classroom this school year. It is discouraging to see how some students actually worsen both academically and behaviorally from August to April.

It is frustrating for teachers to watch special ed students flub the test when 10 minutes before they knew the material. With special ed kids, you never know what's going to set them off to keep them from performing their best. For autistic kids, it can be a strange smell or a piece of string on the floor! Just because they knew it once is no guarantee that they'll remember it when it counts.

For example, in my class this year, there is a student who is very low-functioning. We have been working on letters and numbers all year. In September he could sign all his numbers from one to ten. Toward the middle of the year he added 10-20 to his repertoire. Now that it's time for an evaluation, he acts as if it is all new material. He looks at us as if we've asked him to repeat the pledge of allegiance when we ask him to count. (Big deal since he doesn't speak!)

At the end of the school year he as lazy as a lump. He doesn't care at all. He just wants to suck his thumb and eat lunch and avoid moving around. It is as if the desire to learn has been completely extinguished. He makes me want to tear my hair out daily.

Another student has gone from hardly speaking at all, to swearing up a storm and whining nearly all day. He has gone from being able to follow simple commands to crying and screaming about everything. No amount of reward or punishment changes this behavior. I don't know if I can take the whining another year if I return to this classroom.

Then there's the little boy who had me wanting to quit after the first day of school. His middle name is stubborn. He ran away from me and would repeatedly bang his hands on the desk. He fought me over writing with markers. He fought me over everything. He is still fighting and he is still a pain, but one day out of this stubborn boy came a few words.

His little voice is the sweetest sound I have heard all year.


Lorena said...

Wow, thanks for the insights into your classroom and the thoughts on education and assessments. There is much to learn and improve on, isn't there?

Michelle said...

How incredibly frustrating for these children, to know something or to have something and then to lose it through no fault of their own. The fact that you are so loving and gentle must be a comfort to them. We're all lucky to have people like you in this world, Ellen!

Cathy said...

You have a lot of patience and a kind heart, Ellen. Thanks for sharing your experiences. It brings life into perspective. It must feel like a breeze to go home to your own kids. :)

amber hawkins warren said...

That's really so interesting. It's cool to hear about your students and Standardized tests are pretty frustrating in my opinion. They're good at testing a specific type of skill in a small sample of people who fit the bill, but not good at measuring other things that matter that you wish they could test.