Reducing Students to Their Test Scores Will Only Increase Their Pandemic Wounds 

 

Read the following as quickly and accurately as you can:

‘I know I withought all by he middle on, ” said a between he name a buzzing, he for began open he the only reason for making.”

Very good, you’re told as your teacher clicks a stopwatch and writes on a piece of paper.

Now try this one:

“Twas brillig, and the slithy toves, Did gyre and gimble in the wabe:

All mimsy were the borogoves, And the mome raths outgrabe.”

The teacher frowns and writes for a minute straight without comment.

Okay. Give this one a shot:

“Lorem ipsum dolor sit amet, consectetur adipiscing elity, sed do eiusmod tempor incididunt ut labore et dolore magna aliqua.”

No, this isn’t a crash course in some foreign language.

It’s the DIBELS test.

Students as young as Kindergarten (and sometimes younger) are asked to read a text aloud in a given time and each mispronunciation is recorded and marked against them.

And, yes, the texts are often pure nonsense.


My first example was from a nonsense generator of Winnie the Pooh, the second was from “Jabberwocky” by Lewis Carroll and the last an example of Lorem ipsum, a placeholder text commonly used in the graphic, print, and publishing industries.

To my knowledge none are actually used on the DIBELS test but they give you an idea of what an adult version might be like if given to people our age and not just the littles.

Can you imagine being a child, feeling the pressure of a test and being presented with something that looked like those passages!?

The fear! The sense of urgency to say something before the time runs out! The feeling of inadequacy and confusion as you finished knowing you got it wrong!

And the assurance that this meant there was something wrong with YOU!

That’s reading assessment in the standardized testing age.

Decoding – or working out the actual pronunciation of words – is given primacy over actual comprehension.

Why? Because that way we can break reading down into simple, quantifiable tasks that can be used to sort and rank children.

You know. The goal of standardized testing.

It’s highly controversial among people who study reading acquisition, but extremely common in elementary and middle schools.

And extremely lucrative for the makers of the DIBELS test.

Today I was forced to leave my class of 8th grade students with a sub so an “expert”from the Allegheny Intermediate Unit could lecture me and the rest of my school’s English department in using DIBELS as a gatekeeper assessment for all students.

That way we can group the students more easily based on their reading deficiencies.

I literally had to stop teaching for THAT.

I was bopping around the classroom, reading students’ writing, helping them organize it, helping them fix their explanations and craft sophisticated essays on a short story.

But I had to STOP, so an outside contractor could explain to ME how to teach.

ME, a Nationally Board certified teacher with two decades of classroom experience.

And the rest of the department with similar experience and education. In the group was also the holder of a doctorate in education. Almost all of us at least held a masters degree.

It boggles the mind.

In this time of pandemic stress when just keeping enough teachers in the building to staff our classrooms is a challenge, administration is wasting our time with this.

Before Covid-19, I could almost imagine it.

We did a lot of stupid things back then. But now a deadly virus rages across the country. Several students and staff get sick every week.  


 
There is a shortage of teachers, aides, subs, bus drivers, and other staff. 


 
And even though most school buildings are open, most students are still suffering from the social and emotional effects of the never-ending disaster.  


 
Yet the people who set school policy refuse to see any of it.  


 
They’re like ostriches – in suits – with their heads planted firmly in the ground. 


 
Covid safety protocols, reducing teacher workload, providing counselors for students – none of that is even on their radar.  


 
All they want to do is reinstitute the policies that weren’t working well before the pandemic hit.  


 
The only difference is their sense of urgency.  


 
In fact, the only impact they even recognize of the last year and a half is the dreaded LEARNING LOSS.  


 
Kids weren’t in class consistently. They were in on-line classes, or hybrid classes or maybe they didn’t even show up to class at all.  


 
That means they don’t know as much today as they would have known had the pandemic not happened.  


 
So – we’re told – they’ve lost learning. 


 
Oh no!  


 
But what these decision makers don’t seem to understand is that this whole concept is kind of meaningless.  


 
All people learn at different rates. If you don’t know something today, that doesn’t mean you can’t learn it tomorrow.  


 
There’s no time table for understanding. It’s not a race. It doesn’t matter when you learn something only that you continue making progress. 


 
However, you’d need a classroom teacher to explain that to you. And these are more business types. Administrators and number crunchers who may have stood in front of a classroom a long time ago but escaped at the first opportunity. 


 
They look at a class full of students and don’t see human children. They see numbers, data.  


 
And they are just itching to get back to sorting and ranking students based on standardized test scores.  


 
After all – say it with me – LEARNING LOSS!!!! 


 
Unfortunately there’s a whole world of reality up here above ground that they’re ignoring. And up here continuing with their willful fantasy is doing real harm.  


 
When I look at my classes of students, I don’t see overwhelming academic deficiencies.  

Even their test scores don’t justify that myth.


 
According to the Pennsylvania System of School Assessments (PSSA), they’re pretty much where I’d expect them any other year.

 
 
But their behaviors are off the hook


 
They simply don’t know how to interact with each other without conflict.  


 
My students are desperate for attention – any kind of attention – and will do almost anything to get it.  


 
They’d prefer to be respected, but they don’t understand how to treat each other respectfully. So they aim for any kind of response.

 
 
To a large extent this is due to a disruption in the social and emotional development they would have received at school. But robbed of good role models and adequate consequences, they’re somewhat at sea.  


 
Moreover, the pandemic has had a devastating effect on their support systems at home. Parents, family members and guardians have lost jobs, become sick and some have even died.


 
They don’t know who to trust and who they can rely on.  


 
So when they get to school, we’re going to meet their needs with more standardized tests!?  


 
That’s one of the worst things we could do. 

Take a child who already has trust issues and force them to read nonsense sentences while we judge them with a stopwatch?


 
Erase their individual identities and try to see them primarily as their scores?


 
These are in the low group. These are in the middle group. These are in the high group.  


 
Instead of giving them robust pieces of literature to read, they’ll get nonfiction scraps devoid of any connection to their lives, interests or aptitudes.  


 
We’ll drill and kill them, make every day about teaching to the test instead of teaching to the student.  


 
We’ll let data drive the instruction instead driving it based on the actual living, breathing, human beings we’re supposed to be serving.  
 


And instead of relying on teachers – highly trained people with decades of experience in how children learn effectively – we’ll put our trust in mega corporations that make more money the less effective their materials are.  


 
Prepare for a test – they make money. 


 
Take a test – they make money. 


 
Fail the test and have to remediate – they make money.  


 
It’s a scam – an endless cycle – and administrators and policy makers keep falling for it.  


 
Will this help meet kids social needs?  


 
Absolutely not. They’ll be segregated by ability and forced to repeat confusing and mind numbing tasks as if that’s what education was.  


 
Will it help meet kids emotional needs?  


 
No way! Being forced to do the same thing over and over and continually told you’re a failure won’t teach anything except a kind of learned helplessness.  


 
Kids will learn “I’m bad at math” or “I’m bad at reading” rather than the joy that can be found in both activities.  


 
They’ll learn to give up.  


 
And they’ll take out the negative feelings all this generates on each other and their teachers.  


 
It doesn’t have to be this way.  


 
A new world is possible.  


 
The pandemic offers us a chance to stop repeating the same mistakes of the past.  


 
We can scrap standardized testing and focus on authentic assessments – teacher constructed assessments the are suited to the individual context, the individual students.  


 
We can focus on lessons that engage students and encourage them to learn intrinsically.


 
We can focus on what students know instead of what they don’t so they learn that they are capable, that they have the power to do the lesson.  


 
We could help students understand how to interact with each other and heal some of the social and emotional wounds of the past year and a half.  


 
But we can’t do that if we’re forced to continue with the same mistakes of the past. 

We have to recognize the reality teachers, students and parents are living through.

And we have to make decisions based on that reality, not the same old preconceptions that have never gotten us anywhere.


 

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My Students Haven’t Lost Learning. They’ve Lost Social and Emotional Development  

 


  
  

There is a student screaming across the hall.  
  
He is holding his gut and rocking back and forth in cries of wordless emotional pain as the rest of the class looks on in bewilderment.  
  
Students from other rooms start to cluster around the door until a security guard makes them go away.  
  
I close the door to my own classroom and try to settle my students down – but we can still hear him through the walls.   
  
And then:  
  
“Shut up!”  
  
“You’re stupid!”  
  
“Why don’t you make me!?” 
 
  
Believe it or not, this is not what teaching middle school used to be like.   
  
Eighth grade students were never perfect angels, but at least by then they used to know how to talk to one another. They could usually interact without constant sniping. They knew what was expected to get respect from each other and at least tried to do it.   
  
But things have changed.   
 
After 18 months of a pandemic, even when they aren’t infected with disease, children still are suffering tremendously from the effects of Covid-19. 
 
Adolescents are dealing with higher rates of anxiety, depression, stress, and addictive internet behaviors.   
 
The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) reports that children between the ages of 5 and 11 visiting an emergency department because of a mental health crisis increased 24 percent from April through October of 2020 compared to the previous year. Among 12- to 17-year-olds, the number increased by 31 percent.  
 
Suicide attempts among 12- to 17-year-old girls increased by about 50 percent over winter 2019, according to the CDC. 
 
And these numbers are probably under reported since these increases took place at the height of a pandemic when many people were hesitant to seek medical attention.  
 
As usual, the place where these issues are most visible is our public schools
 
When Covid-19 swept our shores last year, much of the benefit of formal education fell through the cracks.   
 
Consistency went out the window. Many schools went to on-line learning or a hybrid model of in-person and on-line offset with increasingly common periods of quarantine.  
 
These were often necessary to keep kids and their families safe – and in some cases still are. As a society, we could have done more to blunt the blow such as paying parents to stay safe at home as well as supervise their children, but economic concerns took precedence to human ones.  
 
And now we’re seeing the cost
  
Many students attended school haphazardly and their parents often weren’t around to give them the kind of stability, role models or attention they’d normally get at school.   
  
Today, as the pandemic still smolders on, and schools struggle to function as if the danger had passed, the result is classes of emotionally needy and socially awkward children.  
  
There were so many fights in the halls of my building last week, we’re now operating on a soft lockdown to decrease unstructured time between classes.   
  
And you know what – it’s not really kids’ fault.  
  
They’re just trying to live in the world we’ve built for them.   
 
More than 674,000 Americans have died from COVID
 
According to the CDC, more than 140,000 children in the U.S. lost a primary or secondary caregiver such as a live-in grandparent or another family member to the virus. 
 
Globally, that’s more than 1.5 million kids who have lost a parent, guardian or live-in relative to the pandemic, according to the Lancet
 
No wonder kids are having trouble dealing with their emotions! Their support systems are shot! 
  
My students are bright, caring, energetic and creative people. They have the same wants and needs as children always have. They just have fewer tools with which to meet them.   
  
Administrators often focus on academic deficits.   
  
They worry about learning loss and what the kids can’t do today versus students in the same grades before the pandemic. But I think this is a huge mistake.   
  
My students are not suffering from a lack of academics. They’re suffering from a lack of social and emotional development.   
  
I teach Language Arts and, sure, my kids may not have been exposed as deeply to certain concepts as those who came before them. They may not have written an acrostic poem or read Dickens or had as much experience writing. But that doesn’t mean they’re deficient.   
  
Every child – every PERSON – learns at an individual rate. Some take longer than others. Some take more exposure, experience and practice. But learning is never lost.   
  
Teachers know this. That’s why we scaffold our lessons. We get to know our kids and where they are before we can gauge what they still need to learn.  
  
My students may not have read the play they would have in 7th grade, but I can help them understand the components of drama when we read a play in the curriculum for 8th grade. They may not have written a particular type of poem last year, but we can still read one and understand it this year.   
  
Many students have difficulties with spelling and punctuation. That’s true this year as well as any other. That doesn’t mean they’ve lost anything. It means they need more instruction and practice.   
  
I’m not worried about that. It’s really pretty similar to any other year.   
  
What does concern me is the level of immaturity and social awkwardness I’m seeing.   
  
People aren’t machines. You can’t flip a switch and they just learn.  
  
You have to create an environment that is conducive to learning.  
  
Part of that is creating a class culture where everyone feels respected and safe. That’s difficult to do when kids don’t know how to communicate without conflict.   
  
That’s difficult when their sense of safety has been deeply impacted. Community members whining about security measures like wearing masks and getting vaccinated don’t help this – not at all.   
  
In schools, we’re trying to instill a sense of consistency and care. We’re trying to teach kids the basics of human interaction again – something even some adults are having to relearn.  
  
And let me tell you – it’s extremely hard in large, anxious groups dealing with the continuing uncertainty of our times.   
  
My own health has suffered under the pressures with which educators are forced to contend. Unnecessary paperwork, increased expectations, lack of respect and compensation have teachers stretched to a breaking point.   
  
I was in and out of the hospital all last week and the district had great difficulty finding an adult to sub for me.   
  
For two days they resorted to hiring parents from the community to watch my classes. I’m told that one of them reported to the office at the end of the day and promptly told the secretary not to call her tomorrow, that she was never coming back.   
 
It’s hard for professional educators, too. 
 
According to a 2020 survey by the New York Life Foundation and American Federation of Teachers, only 15% of teachers feel comfortable addressing grief or trauma tied to the pandemic. 
  
My kids are not demons.   
  
They are not monsters or evil or incorrigible.   
  
They’re just kids who really need our love and support.   
  
I feel for them. I really do.   
  
When I’m here, I do everything I can to help them feel safe, secure, respected and cared for.   
 
It’s certainly not easy. 
  
At lunch the other day, one student came to my door and scratched on the window. He was in tears.   
  
I let him in and asked what was wrong.   
  
He was at his wits end about his home life and felt lost. I sat with him, we talked it out and I asked if there was anything else I could do for him.  
  
He said, “Yes. Can I have a hug?”  
  
So even now, with COVID out there in the community and my mask securely fastened, I did it. I gave him a hug.   
  
That’s the need I’m seeing in schools right now.   
  
It’s not academics. That will be fine if we can take care of the emotional and social needs of our students.   
  
But this can’t be accomplished by teachers alone – nor even administrators, school boards and districts.   
  
We need to build a world that cares about children.   
  
We need to value their lives and needs.   
  
It’s not enough to care whether a child is born. We have to care whether a child is taken care of, healthy and loved.   
  
And that means looking out for their parents, too.   
  
If parents didn’t have to sacrifice themselves to their jobs, they could spend more time with their kids.   
  
When your job constantly demands more time, at all times of the day and night, you can’t be there effectively for the ones you love.   
  
We talk about family values, but we do little to value families. Only their credit score and earning power.   
  
This is a problem that won’t be solved overnight.   
  
It may far outlast the pandemic, itself.  
  
To heal our kids, we have to heal our society.  
  
In fact, we can’t do one without doing the other.  


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I’ve also written a book, “Gadfly on the Wall: A Public School Teacher Speaks Out on Racism and Reform,” now available from Garn Press. Ten percent of the proceeds go to the Badass Teachers Association. Check it out!