Minnesotans for Better Education, Standards and Testing

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Our Future under Yecke


The Best Answer
Under pressure to improve his students' Standards of Learning scores, a Virginia teacher decides to: (a) End free reading time; (b) Give more practice tests; or (c) Quit the public schools

By Emmet Rosenfeld

Sunday, February 22, 2004; Page W20

"Yo, Mr. R -- we gonna read today?" A battered copy of a young-adult novel called The Giver materialized from the depths of his baggy jeans pocket as the 11th-grader sauntered into English class at Mount Vernon High School. "This book's pretty good," he said, launching into an enthusiastic synopsis. Often unburdened by pesky school trappings like pens or homework, this young man wasn't one of my more engaged students. He wasn't reading on grade level and often seemed as if he was just marking time in high school. His unexpected burst of bibliophilia gave me a warm fuzzy teacher moment. Which faded a second later as I glanced down at the freshly copied stack of Standards of Learning practice tests sitting on my desk.

The junior's description of The Giver, Lois Lowry's story about a boy who is the sole repository for memories in a colorless future, was cut short by the bustling entrance of his backpack-slinging classmates. They were a study in Fairfax County diversity. Kids hailing from million-dollar homes with a view of the Potomac River took seats next to others who had never walked its banks, even though they lived just a few miles away along the Route 1 corridor or at nearby Fort Belvoir.

"Welcome, ladies and gentlemen," I called above the din. A self-anointed shusher from the back of the room quieted the group; my newly coined reader's nose was already in his book. I considered, for a split second, deserting my lesson plan. Then I forced myself to return to the business at hand.

Okay, people, I told them, we're going to have some reading time later in the class if we can, but our first item today is this SOL practice test. The silence disintegrated into groans.

I did that last period in history! protested one student.
We're supposed to read today, chimed in another.
I'm sick of this SOL junk, a third added.

C'mon, gang, I pleaded, I don't want to have to see you in 11th grade again next year. The joke brought few chuckles. Three minutes of paper shuffling and pencil sharpening later, the room descended into resigned silence.

Last year's 11th-graders were the first wave of Virginia students for whom the SOLs "count," meaning they will have to pass them by this year in order to graduate. Not coincidentally, last year also marked the end of my 10 years as a Fairfax County English teacher.

Standards of Learning were introduced to make education better. But in my experience, they had the opposite effect. The intense pressure to raise test scores eventually squeezed the life out of school, both for my kids and for me.

The SOLs first came down the pike when my juniors were in elementary school, part of a reform movement sweeping the whole country. The idea behind the SOLs is simple: Lay out what kids should know, test them on it and then hold the schools accountable for their scores.

In Virginia, tests in English, history, math and science given to third-, fifth- and eighth-graders and to high schoolers would ensure that students across the state were learning and mastering the same core curriculum. Or else. Beginning this June, students who do not pass the high school tests won't graduate; beginning in 2007, schools that do not have a 70 percent passing rate on the exams will risk losing state accreditation. All of this, reformers argue, will force public schools to do a better job teaching all students.

From the start, the get-tough tests rubbed me the wrong way. Implicit in the notion of "accountability" are the assumptions that: (a) education is a product, the input and output of which can be standardized and measured; and (b) it's high time for teachers and schools to quit slacking and get to work.

In my experience, teaching is more alchemy than science. Its fundamental elements -- connecting with kids and sparking their love of learning -- can't always be measured by a test. Its practitioners pursue their elusive goal one child at a time; sometimes they get gold out of a kid and sometimes they don't.

This is why it pained me deeply to find myself in a situation where I felt compelled to give a rarely engaged student a practice bubble test instead of letting him read a book he had discovered he loved. My teaching directly to the high-stakes test would better serve him in the short term. He had to pass to graduate, and it was my job to make sure he did. Engaging him with books and instilling the habits of mind that might make him a lifelong reader would have better served him in the long run. I didn't have time to do both.

Bad teaching is often the byproduct of the pressure teachers feel to achieve high scores on the test. During my final fall at Mount Vernon, a well-intentioned directive came from nervous administrators: We're giving a "simulated" SOL writing test next week to every 11th-grader in the school. We hastily reviewed a rubric beforehand, and I moved desks into rows to create a "testing environment." When the test arrived, I decided to see how I'd do on it. I wrote along with my students, beneath a nom de plume, and shoved my essay into the pile at the end of the period.

Retired teachers graded the 400 essays. When the work was returned a few weeks later, the results were bleak. Out of my 90 juniors (including both honors and "regular" kids) only one essay had received the highest mark in every category: the one I'd written myself.

At lunch, I asked my colleagues if their students' results had been similarly abysmal and recorded our conversation in my teaching journal that same day. "How do you expect kids to learn how to write when we're so busy testing them?" asked one of the old guard.

"My kids did pretty well," a younger colleague offered. What was her secret? I asked.

"They've done a ton of practice essays, and I scored 'em," she revealed. Chagrined, I thought about the sometimes messy, often serendipitous writers' workshop I'd conducted in my own class. My disregard of the venerable five-paragraph essay in pursuit of real stories told in kids' own voices seemed quixotic.

I brought up another topic with the table. "How's the reading going with your kids?" Here, I was confident my approach would measure up. After all, by letting kids choose their own books and share journal entries, I had even managed to hook nonreaders.

"My gawd," guffawed another young teacher, picking over a salad slathered with lite dressing. "What reading?"

"I've got 'Gatsby' quizzes formatted like SOL questions if you want to use 'em," offered the teacher who favored practice essays.

"I don't even do whole books anymore," the salad nibbler confessed. "It takes too long." A quizzical expression must have appeared on my face, as I thought about the pin-drop silence, rare but rapt, that my normally rowdy class lapsed into when I "let" them read.

"If it's not on the test, forget it," she added, pointing at me with a lettuce-loaded fork. "I'm sorry, but these kids have got to pass that test this year." The rest of the table nodded in agreement.

"I don't even do my coffeehouse anymore," interjected our old-guard colleague. "There's no SOL for that."

I remembered past years' versions of the coffeehouse: desks draped with tapestries, espresso maker bubbling in the background. Kids recited poetry into a microphone or played confessional songs on guitar. All these changes in the way we taught were hard to swallow, I thought, as I finished my sandwich and headed back to class.

At the after-school faculty meeting that day there were chicken wings and pizza for munchies, a step up from the usual fare. An undercard of administrators made announcements to the staff, gathered in the cafeteria. I opened my trusty teacher's journal and began to take notes. "Technology portfolios are due to me in two weeks," droned one, and, "Don't forget International Night!" another cheerfully reminded. A youngish teacher came to the microphone and said, "Those of you who haven't taken the SBI training need to see me immediately to get into one of our upcoming classes . . ."
"What's SBI training?" someone shouted.

"Standards-based instruction," she began. "Remember, that's the class you all have to take with me and do a portfolio -- ." There was a spray of laughter, and she realized that the questioner, along with every teacher in the room, was acutely aware that in addition to our normal teaching and extracurricular load, we were required to take a 16-hour course to create a unit that was "backwards designed" from the SOLs. In other words, craft specific lessons to hammer home the factoids for which our kids would soon be held unequivocally accountable.

Finally, it was time for the main attraction. The principal, Cathy Crocker, stepped to the dais, a Midwesterner whose indefatigable cheer belied the pressure she was under to raise our school's test scores. She thanked us for our efforts, describing her joy at seeing such caring, dedicated professionals working so hard with students. My spider sense started tingling. I should have known what was coming as soon as I saw the chicken wings. We had to raise our scores, she told us.

One way to do that, she said, was "bell-to-bell teaching": Every child's fanny in a seat from the moment the bell rings until the end of class 90 minutes later. I wondered if the controlled chaos of the writers' workshop in my room qualified as bell-to-bell teaching.

"And another thing: no hobby teaching," she said. I had never heard the phrase in my professional training, but I could tell it was something that only dilettantes would dare while on the county's clock. No hobby teaching, I wrote in my notes and underlined it. Did free-choice reading count as a hobby?

Cathy Crocker wasn't trying to drive me or anyone else from the classroom, she later told me. "It's always tough to say those things when you know how hard teachers work . . . but you do want to get that 100 percent pass rate on SOLs."

As I drove home from school after that faculty meeting, the trees along the George Washington Parkway cast straight shadows like a bar code. I imagined myself being scanned at some giant checkout counter, an unseen hand ringing up the "product" it was now my duty to "deliver." I pulled over at my favorite spot overlooking the Potomac, where there was a view about which I had composed a line of poetry every morning on my commute for the past decade. I regretted never having written the lines down.

I walked along the river, and it dawned on me that a glimpse of sunrise had become one of the high points of my day. I no longer loved my job; at least, I didn't want to spend the rest of my professional career teaching to a standardized test. Five years earlier, I had walked this same path in the throes of another career crisis, but I had come to terms then with a teaching salary that would never be a third of my twin brother's lawyer pay. Now, it seemed, the creativity and sense of discovery that made the job worthwhile were slipping away.

I recalled that bittersweet stroll this past fall, after a hike with kids to a storm-swollen 80-foot waterfall cascading through White Oak Canyon in Shenandoah National Park. A shy student at the small private school where I now work gave me a big smile as I glanced over her shoulder to read her journal entry on "Shanidowa Park." Today we saw pretty flowers, she wrote, but most of the trees were knocked down by Hurricane Isabel.

I didn't leave the classroom. I just left the SOLs. Now I work at Alexandria Country Day School, teaching eighth-grade English and running an outdoor program that involves frequent class trips to the Potomac. Instead of looking at the river for a split second each morning, I've found a job that will let me be on it. More important: no more high-stakes tests.

I can't deny that I miss the kids at Mount Vernon. Being at a private school with a dress code that calls for khakis and a green polo shirt has challenged my public-school sensibilities. But whatever guilt I feel about my decision to leave is outweighed by my sense of relief at being able to teach without the golem of the test lurking over my shoulder. And I've discovered that, even though I'm working with more privileged kids, some things are just the same. Like the warm fuzzy teacher feeling I got last week when one of my eighth-graders walked into class clutching a young-adult mystery called Ghost Canoe and asked, "Mr. R, can we read today?"

Emmet Rosenfeld lives in Alexandria and often writes about education.