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APRIL 30, 2012 6:22AM

Why high-stakes testing ALSO wastes a lot of time

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Last week and the week before were testing weeks for grades three to eight in New York state. The week of 16th was the ELA (English Language Arts) test and last week was math. I teach 8th-grade ELA, in addition to 9th-grade ELA and 12th-grade AP English. I went over practice tests with the 8th-grade students for a couple of weeks before the test—I really didn’t go overboard. My 5th-grade son, on the other hand, was getting prep work months beforehand.  

But that’s not even the issue I’m discussing now, the whole teaching-to-the-test question. I’m talking about the actual administering of the tests, and how much time that eats up. Since our school is on an odd lunch schedule this year—we have to rotate use of the cafeteria because we are one of five schools in the building—we had to get permission from the state to hold our tests from 11:00 – 12:30. The normal testing time is 9:00 – 10:30. This goes on for three days, Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday for the ELA week and Wednesday, Thursday and Friday for math week.

There is also extended time. Students who are English Language Learners (ELLs) or students who have Individual Education Plans (IEP’s) get time-and-a-half. And there are loads of accommodations for students with IEP’s, such as a separate testing location, some have the questions read aloud and some even have scribes. The point being each group with a particular accommodation has to have a separate room. That means rooms have to be made available. And in my 6th- 12th-grade school that means grades 9 – 12 have to be put on hold.

You’re also required, and it’s necessary, to create a quiet testing environment. That means the whole school essentially has to be on lockdown during the testing period—no bells, no movement in the halls. And it has to be kept quiet till the students with extended time are finished, which for us meant from 11:00 – 1:15. Hence from this several challenges arise. We had to find meaningful things for the 9th- 12th-graders to do. On some days they took practice Regents exams, further high-school-only testing that takes place in June. On some days they went on trips. Seniors were given time to finish work they hadn’t done so we can attain an acceptable graduation rate come June and not get shut down.

And what about the test-takers themselves? Well the life of our school depends on them, too. You have to meet Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP) or else also risk getting shut down. And AYP is divided into particular subgroups as well, such as ELLs, students with IEP’s, African-American males, Latino students, and so on. But you also want to plain be fair and decent and treat the students well as you grind them through those days. That means the day before the test you don’t really do that much. And the day of the test before it begins you want the students happy, relaxed and confident. And directly after the test you don’t have right to expect a whole lot.

So in addition to the time spent preparing for the tests you also have two entire weeks where not much in the way of real education is taking place. And there’s no use getting real upset about the situation. You have to do what you have to do. So here’s what the last two weeks at my school looked like, and I also have a few highlights from my son’s elementary school as well, so you can guess that’s what a good part of the state was looking like from April 16th to the 27th. Well, at least the city anyway—maybe they do things differently outside of the five boroughs.

On the testing days the 6th- 8th-graders at my school had gym in the morning first period, as they always do. Then rather than go to their second period classes they were brought to the auditorium. We didn’t want them to have class in one subject and then go off to take their tests in another. We wanted them to have complete relaxation. Plus the whole teaching schedule had to be redone so that all the teachers were available to proctor the tests. So no one was available to teach in any case. Then the kids went off to their weird lunchtime of 10:00, and came down from the cafeteria at 10:40 to assemble in their rooms, be ready to receive instructions at 11:50 and start the test at 11:00.

Our odd lunchtime complicated the schedule even more. But even at my son’s school where they started at 9:00 he reported an essential free-for-all for the rest of the day when the test was finished. He was shuttled from the auditorium to the gym to the cafeteria, playing chess, hanging out in groups, at one point even wandering around the school by himself. Had I not been a teacher I might have wondered about this but it was much the same at my school. Having started at 11:00, a lot of the kids were finished with the tests by 12:00. We had to keep the room silent until 12:30, which got harder and harder as the days went on.

After the official testing time was finished we still had to keep the halls quiet for those with extended time. So we kept the kids in the same rooms for the next two periods, until 1:46 to be exact. Then they went to their regular classes. And if you think they did anything for the next two periods, you’re wrong. Not after hanging out for so much of the day already—and they also had further testing to do in less than 24 hours. And you wanted to reward them. They had done their best and they had worked hard to prepare and they had tried.

I showed movies after the ELA test Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday the first week. And though I was planning to try to do work after the math test the second week I didn’t succeed. There was almost a fight on Wednesday as the kids were supposedly working on a poetry assignment, so I gave in and showed movies on Thursday and Friday after the math test as well. Coincidentally my son reported a minor fracas over a basketball at his school that same Wednesday.

The first day after ELA testing my son and I came home and happily discussed how we had done practically nothing all day. But by last Friday my son said, “I’m tired of the chaos.” So was I. So were my students. Teachers want to do meaningful work and so do the kids.

We all gave up two weeks for these tests. I didn’t see my 9th-graders or my AP students on the testing days at all. And even on the days when there weren’t tests you couldn’t really start anything big. The Monday after is always tough, too, trying to get everyone settled back down. And in case you haven’t heard there were mistakes on both the ELA and the math tests this year, just to top everything off.

I feel great knowing exactly what I want to do for the rest of the year with all my classes. And now we have about six straight weeks without interruption—that is until the Regents tests for high-school students start in mid-June!


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White girl--thank you so much for posting this. This is such a crock of hooey. My son lost a week of math instruction because of the state tests. A week of algebra they won't do--time vanished in a state that already has one of the shortest school calendars in the country. What are they thinking?
@ froggy- that's just the problem. They're NOT thinking!
Bureaucracy at its finest, once again. One does wonder who concocted this sideshow to be enacted by an entire state.
It seems to me that problem is not the tests, but the attitude towards them. I mean, come on, needing rewards? An actual class of teaching will be too stressful the few days before or after the test?
It is a result of years of bad results. I am not saying this system is perfect but, many children and lives have been destroyed by patronage,cronyism,nepotism and plain burnout. Ask a teacher over sixty and they will tell you that urban public schools were a disaster. Sure you have exceptions but, it was a tragedy.
Not perfect but, accountablity needed to be a part of the equation.
what the last 3 commenters said
Here in Florida, the entire high school where my daughter attends was so profoundly disrupted by the adminstration of the FCAT test that my daughter, who had already taken the test a year ago, begged to just be excused for the two days. If she had to go to school, they were going to just put the non-testing kids in a classroom with a monitor for five hours doing nothing! It really irks me that she lost two whole days of instruction.
So, Jay Richer, I'm a teacher and I certainly don't live in a fantasy bubble. This testing is a waste of time that could be spent teaching, which is what we're there for, right? Just think what could be accomplished during that time. Accountability is certainly necessary, but this is excessive. And, excuse me, everyone in the world except teachers are outside this "fantasy bubble" agreeing with you? I doubt it. Teaching is a tough job and I'm proud of the work I do. Vilifying those who teach our kids doesn't help anybody, but teachers seem to have targets on their backs these days. Sigh.
Thanks so much for posting this. I understand that many people who are outside the climate of school have a narrow view of what happens in this place. But I would never think to tell a doctor how to run his office, or a auto salvage owner how to run yard. I don't know those environments and I am not trained to work in them.

Spent a day or two with a teacher just to see what she does. Like Atticus Finch says in To Kill A Mockingbird: "You never really know a man until you step in his shoes and walk around in them for awhile." It is easy to judge others without knowing others. I teach my students this. I wish I could teach it to the world.
Can the students meet the standards expected of them or not?
If so, why is your school system making such a hash of it? If not, why the hell not? Seems to me that either the standards are unreasonable, your schools aren't getting it done, or you're whining about self-inflicted wounds. If you think the standards are unreasonable, you might ought to say so. If it's one of the latter two, then you're demonstrating exactly why the testing is necessary.
Amen, sister! My kids have been mired in this gunk for weeks. They are smart kids at a high-performing public school, so for them it is kind of like a holiday. No homework so they can go to bed early! Peppermints to improve their test performance! It just makes me sad. And it must be frustrating for teachers. If testing is so important, we also need to add more instruction days. IMHO. As always, thanks for what you do.