Closing the Teach For America Blogging Gap
Sep 13 2011

Why The Powers That Be Should Let Teachers Write the Tests

Warning: this post is frustrated and somewhat annoyed. Sunshine and rainbows to be continued in my next post.

I am required to test my children every week, which is fine because then I know who did or didn’t master the objective. I am required to give tests the district makes for me, except they suck so much that my school bans teachers from actually grading these tests, because it’s not a fair assessment. We still have to give the tests, grade them, and graph our results for the whole class to see and work towards, because the district requires it, but those grades don’t count for report cards. Which means we have to give a whole other set of tests every week to actually use for report cards.

Long story short: I am required to spend nearly 2/5 of my teaching time testing. My kids learn nothing from these tests, except that they can’t do them and school is hard and they are doomed to failure, forever.

Here’s why the PTB (powers that be) should let a teacher write the problems. Or, if a teacher is unavailable, we could settle for someone who has actually met a fourth grader, particularly if they have met an ELL fourth grader. Such a person might not give my 9-year-olds:

  • Math word problems about life insurance that list “quotes,” “premiums,” and “policies.” (Note to the reader: in our area, in our demographics, in our economic bracket, life insurance is mostly unheard of.)
  • Complex reverse phrasing such as “List all groups in which the trapezoid belongs.”
  • Reading passages about three kinds of birds no one has ever heard of with names that are not decodable (they break phonetic rules).
  • Vocabulary definition questions in which every multiple-choice answer option is, in and of itself, a new vocabulary word.
  • Math problems involving words, pictures, and equations mixed together into a written paragraph, with information occasionally presented in a thought bubble off to the side.

If these don’t sound too complicated to you, picture yourself: a little kid, very limited vocabulary, still struggling to remember what an adjective is or what the word “younger” means (no joke, 2 of my kids don’t know younger versus older), having spent your summer with virtually no academic stimulation and, in some cases, very little words spoken directly to you. Now tell me what “infuriate” means: soothe, irritate, stumble, or shriek?

It nearly broke my heart when one of my slowest test-takers who really struggles with math called me over, excited, to show me that when she added the two numbers in the problem together the answer was one of the multiple-choice options, so she’s pretty sure she got that one right. The problem was a word problem where she was supposed to find the difference. My students don’t understand how to find the question within the whole mess of a paragraph that is the problem, so they do random operations, usually addition, with whatever numbers they see. Test writers, though they apparently think my 9-year-olds will understand life insurance premiums, know they will add random numbers, and make that a possible answer. A wrong answer.

The tests I had to give my kids today were unfair. They were culturally and socially inappropriate. They were hard, they were confusing, and they were all but impossible for my students not just because the material was hard, but because it was asked in a way that made it even more impossible. A middle class white kid from the suburbs of Albuquerque might know what life insurance is (although I doubt premium and quote are in any 9-year-old’s vocabulary). My kids–poor, Navajo and Latino, ELL, academically behind–didn’t have a chance.

3 Responses

  1. Michael

    Like so much else in the US, It’ll have to get worse before it get’s better. How about this novel idea? -Require a high school diploma to run for school board. Maybe a min one year teaching experience. Maybe congresspersons should have to get 95 or better on any tests they propose.

  2. CJK

    This is an elegant and specific example of a very real problem. Don’t stop here. Send this example to your Congressperson, their Congressperson, anywhere that we can begin educating Americans who don’t teach about what is happening on the front line and in very specfic terms. People need to read/hear sound bites like this.

  3. Rebecca

    Michael, your comment made me laugh at first glance, but after thinking about it for a few minutes, it makes so much sense that the people up top have to be able to pass what they are requiring. I’m sure we’d be able to weed out a lot of those people, along with making these tests more appropriate and eliminating many.

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

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