from a public HS teacher (Gov't, Religion, Soc. Issues), who is eclectic (Dem-leaning) politically and Quaker (& open) on everything else. Hope you enjoy what you find here.

Sunday, December 17, 2006

As Winter Break approaches 

I have chosen to offer a few thoughts from one who for a change will welcome the break. Normally as a teacher I get somewhat depressed being apart from my students, because it is a time when I cannot make a difference. But this year I find I am not alone in being glad for a chance to recoup. In my case there are some things that are specific for me. But for many of us who would otherwise be somewhat down at the period of the break, we have something in common - it is what the imposition of tests from the outside means to our instruction and our students.

Regular readers of what I post know that I have been very involved in political affairs and in attempting to make changes to education on a broad scale. I still have not caught up on sleep and household tasks as a result of the first, and I need more time for the latter. That is what is particular for me. But for all of us the impact of external tests is now significant and detrimental. I talked on Friday with one of our top science teachers, a man with Ph.D. in chemistry who chooses to teach high school rather than college, and I talked last night with my fellow social studies teachers at our annual holiday celebration. Even those who are normally optimistic about the difference their teaching can make are now discouraged, and as a result simply want to get through this next short (4 day) week and get away from what is an increasingly frustrating experience this year.

Our state (Maryland) has mandatory examinations for high school graduation. These high school assessments are applied largely in the 10th grade, in order to allow time to offer remedial instruction before retaking the test. These tests are applied in 10th grade English, Biology, Geometry, and Government (my course). Those in English and Geometry are used as the one-time assessments in reading and math required under No Child Left Behind.

Our district has worried for a number of years that our high school graduation rate was going to plummet when these tests began to “count” as they do for the class of 2009, which just happens to be our current sophomores. Now, it is possible knowing that the exams in previous years did not matter for them (although the English and Geometry mattered for the schools) students may not have taken them serious. Regardless, the response has been to impose quarterly benchmarks consisting of released items (questions) from previous state examination. There is one such in each of the four courses, in order to monitor if students are on track to be prepared for the official High School Assessments (as the exams are called) given in late May.

There are several inconsistencies in this pattern, which might seem otherwise beneficial on the surface. At least in Government, in my school we do not follow the County’s pacing guide. That is because the order of units we use makes greater pedagogical sense, at least in our experience, and even our non-gifted students have a higher pass race than the overall scores at any other school in the county. Thus we have students “failing” the benchmarks because they are tested on material for which they have not yet received instruction who will have no trouble passing the test in May.

Also in Government, I have students taking Advanced Placement US Government. Most are 10th graders, but some are seniors because the AP option was not available when they were sophomores. All except one of these has already taken the state exam (and prior to class of 2009 students had to sit for the exam but their score did not matter for graduation), and yet they are being required to sit for the benchmarks. Further, the AP curriculum is completely different than the regular government curriculum, and they will also be tested on material not yet covered. I use the 10 days or so between the AP examination and the state exam to go over material that is part of the state testable content but not part of the AP content. Last year we had exactly one AP student who did not make the cut score for the state exam, and that student had a bare D in AP because he did not do his assignments on a regular basis.

It is true that most of my AP students will do well enough on the benchmarks that people will leave me alone. But even if everyone got a perfect score, I am still losing an instructional day to do a testing not relevant to their studies. That is frustrating.

It is also frustrating that we are being required to give the benchmarks this week, in theory Mo-Tu-We, and the official timing requires us to burn part of one class period and all of another. That is because the other schools in the County are on A-B day schedules with double periods, whereas to keep our flexibility in what we offer, we still have 45 minute periods. The test is set officially for 60 minutes. My AP students will only be given the one 45 minute period, but I have to burn the two periods for my non-AP students. And yet the quarter ends on January 11 for the students. Thus we should be able to have the 4 day week on which we return to finish up instruction and review before applying the exam, and yet we are forced to cut short the instruction to give an exam. Someone in the bowels of school administration apparently worried that the kids would forget too much over the holidays. We had originally been told we could give our exams after we returned, but found out on Wednesday that we must give them this forthcoming week. That has required us to scramble in order to squeeze them in, making major changes in our planning, which is not what one wants to do just before a break. We will now not have the opportunity to bring our instruction to a sensible close with appropriate culminating activities, and as a result our students WILL forget more than necessary during the holiday.

But our high school graduation tests predate NCLB. Yes, two are used for the requirements of that act, but not ours. And yet NCLB is making what we do that much more difficult. The law requires that all students be tested in reading and math every year from grades 3 through 8, and once in high school. As originally proposed, if the act is reauthorized science is supposed to be added next school year, but not social studies. What has happened is that in elementary and middle schools the amount of instruction in science and social studies is being significantly decreased, if not eliminated. Thus students, even bright students, are coming to us in science and social studies with far less grounding that previous cohorts have had. Yes, in middle school there are separate classes designated as science or history, but we now have more than anecdotal evidence that teachers in at the middle school level are increasingly taken away from the supposed content for the classes to do prep work for tests in reading and math. And at the elementary level the time that should be designated for these domains is in some cases completely disappearing - I spoke with the girlfriend of one of our history teachers who described this exact phenomenon in her elementary school, which is Montgomery County MD, one of the wealthiest jurisdictions in the US.

Education is ever more distorted. It is increasingly test prep, and little more. And the children most hurt by this are those from lower Socioeconomic Status, the ones for whom the Act was supposed to ensure were not shortchanged in their instruction. Despite that, after more than half a decade of implementation it is clear that the act has failed in its intent. At a recent conference which brought together those who had argued for the increase in accountability represented by NCLB as well as some of the strongest critics of the act, Diane Ravitch, formerly Undersecretary of Education in the Bush 41 administration offered the bleak assessment that none of the features of the act were working, and NO ONE offered a contrary assessment.

This might be because the act is not fully funded. Whether or not is technically violates the unfunded mandate provisions of other federal legislation is besides the point. All one need to do is compare what was authorized for the provisions of the program versus what has actually been appropriated by the Congress. You can see for your state, program by program, by visiting this link, wherein the National Education Association has put together PDF files by state to provide you with that information. The results do not surprise me, even though the appropriation figures are only about half of the amounts authorized for the programs. After all, several decades after IDEA, the federal legislation for special ed, was passed, Congress still only funds about 1/2 of the share it was supposed to provide, and I know in Virginia alone that represents an annual shortfall of over $300 million.

We have a four day week. We will return to two consecutive four day weeks, and the first semester will be over. As teachers we are frustrated, by the decreasing readiness of our students and by the unreasonable and pedagogically unsound imposition of external tests. More so than previous years, many of us really want to get away for this forthcoming break.

And the real fear is that the most dedicated teachers in having such an attitude have taken a first step that is fraught with dangers for the future of our schools. I will use myself as an example. I will be 61 in May. I had planned to teach until I was 70. Last night my wife and I talked. I am eligible to take retirement at age 62, with a reduced pension. For the first time I openly considered the possibility of doing that and going and doing some other kind of work, perhaps working on the Hill or signing on to a political campaign. For the past 11+ years my entire existence has focused on my identity as a teacher. But if we cannot change the direction NCLB is imposing upon American public schools, I may be willing to give up the battle. And I will not be alone in making such a decision.

Now let me get back to focusing on the changes to my planning I must now make for these next four days, changes forced by the unreasonable and pedagogically foolish requirement that I give a quarterly test 2 weeks before the end of the quarter.

Have a nice day!
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