A New York Public School Teacher on the Infuriating State Test That Is Turning Kids Off to Learning

Getting schooled.
April 10 2014 11:44 PM

They Used to Love to Learn

A New York public school teacher on the infuriating state test that is turning kids off to reading and writing.

Signs held at a demonstration at public school PS3 on April 11, 2014.
Signs parents held at a demonstration at public school PS3 on April 11, 2014.

Photos by Vivian Selbo.

When many of my students entered my third-grade classroom this year, they told me they didn’t like to read, and they definitely didn’t like to write. I made them a promise that by the end of third grade, I would change their minds.

Before the winter’s end, many of my children confirmed that—would you believe it?—they couldn’t stop reading. Parents were reporting flashlights under the covers because they just had to know what Ramona was going to do next. Kids were choosing to read during indoor recess instead of zoning out in front of the computer screen. They lit up when it was time for Writing Workshop because they had become teachers through their writing, and they had LOTS to teach about being a big sister, the right way to swing a tennis racket, and how to bake the perfect cupcake. Better still, I had tangible quantitative data that this love for their work was translating into elevated reading levels, stronger spelling and grammar, and better elaboration of ideas in writing. There was proof. I have numbers, letters, grades, written reports—all kinds of things that show that yes, love pays off, and that yes, kids will excel when they are engaged and committed because they are, well, engaged and committed. We get better at doing things we like doing, because we’ll do them again, and again, and again. Practice makes progress, proficiency, and beyond.

When the winter started to come to an end, it was time to start preparing for the ELA, the New York state standardized test in English Language Arts, which, for the second time now, is supposed to be aligned with the new Common Core expectations of what students at each grade level should know and be able to do. I have been a teacher for seven years, this is my third year teaching on a testing grade, and I felt that I’d learned a thing or two about how to make the test-prep process less arduous and monotonous for my young students: test-prep games instead of workbook pages every so often; basing some essays and short response questions on high-level but fun read-alouds such as Time for Kids articles, the fictional tales of Chris Van Allsburg, and short, kid-friendly biographies about famous historical figures, instead of irrelevant and obscure texts; partnership and small group work when possible; etc. I used every trick in my test-preppy pocket, because while it’s part of my job to make sure my students feel ready and confident for this test, it’s all of my job to take care of them and their learning. I won’t lie to you and say they loved it, because they didn’t. But we managed. I did my job. They felt ready. They were ready. They had practiced, and practiced hard. Their love for reading was weakening, because they were reading with the intention of answering complex questions, rather than to authentically respond or have a conversation with a reading partner. But still, they were reading. We reminded ourselves weekly of the books we were reading and enjoying outside of test prep, such as My Father’s Dragon, Superfudge, and Encyclopedia Brown. We did what we could to hold on to the most important factor in our progress: the actual desire to do the work, the love of reading and writing.

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Nothing could have adequately prepared these 8-year-olds for the testing they were subjected to last week. As many other teachers have reported, the multiple-choice questions (and answer choices) were so complex and nonsensical that many adults struggled to determine the right answers. One of the reasons I actually support certain parts the Common Core is due to the emphasis on getting kids to go beyond the surface level of a text, but none of these questions tested their ability to do that. Instead of a question like: “What caused the character to (insert action here) in the middle of the story?” (which, mind you, is hard enough for an 8-year-old to identify as it is), there were questions like: “In Line 8 of Paragraph 4, the character says … and in Line 17 of Paragraph 5, the character does … Which of the following lines from Paragraph 7 best supports the character’s actions?” This, followed by four choices of lines from Paragraph 7 that could all, arguably, show motivation for the character’s actions in the preceding paragraphs. Additionally, MANY of the questions on the third-grade tests were aligned with fifth-grade standards (especially related to the structure of the text itself, rather than its meaning), and did not address the third-grade expectations. I wish I could give you more than hypotheticals, but teachers aren’t allowed to publicize test material.

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