Closing the Teach For America Blogging Gap
Jul 03 2011

More than halfway done…

There are so many new posts from TFAers who have just started their Institute experiences, and it feels so weird to realize that I am now more than halfway done with mine. So where have we gotten, me and my 3 fellow collaborative (henceforth collab) members and our 16 soon-to-be-first-graders? I know you know we’ve all learned a ton, from teaching strategies to mindsets to how to work better in a team. But let’s talk about the kids, because they’re cuter anyway. The kids have learned, as we found out from our Mid-Institute Assessment last week. They’ve grown a little more than average amounts in math, and have mastered a lot of critical thinking skills in reading.

Although upon seeing the results of the MIA (we do love the acronyms here at TFA, all the CMs and SDs and SOMs and CMAs, especially in our CS sessions or DCA relfections), I find myself in the same position as the teachers who claim that test scores don’t really reflect what their kids know. I was sympathetic to this problem before, but now I get it. I have kids who I know can do a problem,¬†without a doubt, because they got 23 of the exact same problem right in the morning with me. But they missed it on the assessment in the afternoon.

Some of it is just frustration: tests have to be given in the exact format written, which means a lot of slow reading at the pace of the slowest student, at which point faster students get bored, skip ahead, don’t understand the problem, circle something random, skip it and get it wrong (this is huge: my most advanced student left 1/4 of the problems blank or mis-answered because she was bored waiting for people and tried to do it on her own). Some is formatting: kids who could demonstrate a skill when they had to fill in a blank can’t do it when they have to circle an answer. A lot is vocabulary: a kid who completely understands how to tell a joining story can’t figure out what to do when told to “tell a story that uses the plus sign.” Of course, we could and do teach things with the exact vocabulary students will see on the assessment, to avoid these issues. But sometimes the assessment language is so confusing that although you mention that language over and over, the kids understand and learn the teacher explanation; when given the assessment language again, they get completely confused.¬†And this doesn’t even get into test anxiety and the fact that you aren’t allowed to reassure kids or give clarifying information.

The problem is that if you are a middle-class kid with a reasonably high vocabulary and solid reading skills, you can figure out what you’re supposed to be doing even if you haven’t seen the format before or the language is a little different. If you’re a low-income kid just learning English with a pretty limited vocabulary, you’re learning 100 words a week; if the convoluted assessment words weren’t the ones that stuck, you’re out of luck. You don’t have the kind of print and language experience that teaches you to extrapolate from what’s there to show what you know. And you might very well have the kind of confidence problems brought on by poor past test experiences that make you doubt your ability to do this in the first place.

I’m not saying anything revolutionary here, and I’m also not naming any problems that couldn’t be true for any kid anywhere, regardless of class or income. I’m also not trying to make excuses for my kids–in fact, they grew significantly from pre-test to MIA, so I don’t really need to. But I’m the one who graded those assessments, and I know my kids know more than that. We’re going to review and reteach and review some more, and hopefully in two weeks I’ll be telling you all about how my kids rocked their End-of-Institute Assessment. I’m not OK with the typical response to test frustrations, namely that since I know the kids learned more than that it’s acceptable that the test didn’t show it. Because here’s the thing: if they can’t show someone what they know, can’t recognize themselves what they know, and can’t even extrapolate their knowledge from a fill-in-the-blank to a multiple choice problem, how are they going to be able to use that skill at all? It’s very frustrating for both of us.

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    In which I muse about New Mexico, teaching, and life in general.

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