#37 – Testing, Testing . . .

Last year, at just about this time, educators all across New Jersey were reluctantly preparing for our annual state testing. We had grade-level meetings, at the end of which we signed our lives away on forms that said we would protect and defend these tests with our lives. This wasn’t just theoretical; in the event of a fire, we were told to get out quickly, as always . . . but to make sure to take our testing manuals with us.

The week before the test, we spent (too much) time on technology prep for the tests, which were all done on Chromebooks. Students’ computers had to be set up with the app that the state required, including working headsets. We went through the different ways questions might be asked and how students would select their responses – cut and paste, hold and drag – even though nearly all of our students seemed to have been born with an innate ability to work all sorts of unfamiliar technology.

Many years before, when the first required statewide testing – the GEPA – got started, things were very different, of course. There was no computer testing; the students would be given booklets and pencils, so preparing for how to take the test was unnecessary. The biggest difficulty – and I still shake a little when I think back on it – was the use of a pencil to tear cleanly through the colored tab that held that day’s testing in the booklet, which I would demonstrate from the front of the room before we got started. The students then needed to position a pencil in the proper place, right in the middle of that day’s tab, as I went around the room. Most students were happy enough to have me do the deed, though there were some who were waiting for me to do it themselves, as I got to them, which I generally allowed – though if they didn’t get it at first, they were out for the rest of testing.

Those tabs were a big freaking day.

In those days, I – along with all of my language arts colleagues – would prepare for testing, off and on, for about a month at most, with spring break usually somewhere in the middle. We got the students used to a variety of reading passages (emphasizing the importance of actually reading them); we reviewed a wide range of questions and possible responses; we gave them all sorts of writing prompts, showing how to break them down to ensure they would actually respond to what was being asked of them. We practiced open-ended questions and persuasive essay prompts, using the GEPA scoring rubric and scored examples to improve their work. Meanwhile, we continued with our real curriculum, which was usually, at this time of the year, a study of the Middle Ages, with the memorization of the Prologue to Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales – in middle English – the high point.

The tests were available, eventually, to be used for the following year’s teachers, should they be interested, and our seventh graders’ test scores were used help in high school placement, so we seventh grade ELA teachers had a bit of an edge in terms of students taking them seriously. Which they did, for the most part, even as we emphasized that testing was only the smallest part of who they were.

It was over quickly enough, and our curriculums continued, as we moved on to the Holocaust and poetry in marking period 4.

And then one day, after the election of a governor who didn’t like teachers very much – and who was elected partially due to a groundswell of citizens who didn’t like us either – we received word of a new test, the NJ ASK, which was created to not only evaluate students, but – perhaps even more – to evaluate the educators who taught them.

There’s an expression, Ask me no questions, and I’ll tell you no lies. With that in mind, there isn’t, then, a lot I’d want to answer about any good that came out of the NJ ASK. Disadvantaged students couldn’t ever keep up; we were responsible for students who were seldom in school; and it was our fault if students cared so little that they finished a section in 10 minutes flat that was meant to take 50 minutes at minimum. I could go on and on. Yes, there were supposedly ways to get around all of this: Students would be placed into different factor groups based on their first test, so they all students wouldn’t be expected to improve at the same rate. However, here, too, there was a disadvantage for teachers, for if you had a lot of truly bright students, already on or near the top scores for the highest group, there was, quite literally, nowhere else for them to go; in this Catch-22 system, it appeared that we weren’t challenging them enough.

The worst of all was what happened to our curriculums, as new, test-prep type programs purchased to prepare students – and, of course, teachers and their school districts, for which scores would be posted – superseded the rich, literature based, cross-curricular programs that had existed. The world of the classroom became all about finding students’ reading levels and having them work with text on those levels instead of pushing them to explore text as they challenged themselves. We needed these individual and small-group assignments, though, because we were expected to work with one small group at a time on more individualized work, and we had to ensure that the students working more independently would stay focused and busy.

So no, we didn’t prepare for testing for a few weeks – we prepared, in some measure, starting in September.

Luckily, we began to awake from this testing nightmare almost from the start. Teachers, behind closed doors, began to alter the new programs and textbooks however they could. Books – whole books, novels in all genres – began to come back instead of just short texts that could be found on NJ ASK.

The scores would come out in August, generally, and of course we looked, mostly to see where we, as teachers, had ended up. And maybe, once again, we would use the scores to help with initial grouping at the beginning of the year. But it didn’t take long – as it never did – to figure out who our students were as readers, writers, and thinkers. We knew who struggled but also tried their best versus those who were bright, sometimes even brilliant, but didn’t work at all, never challenging themselves or seeming to care. (And yes, probably one day, they would – just not in the seventh grade.)

No, we didn’t need the tests. But then again, we never had.

During that first year of NJ ASK involving hours and hours of unnecessary testing – multiple versions of the same type of reading passages and questions and more than one of the same type of writing prompts – many parents opted their students out; educators and administrators protested as well. Eventually, the next year, the test was somewhat streamlined, but still lengthy and repetitious.

Once a new governor appeared, NJ ASK thankfully began to change even more. Its latest incarnation, NJSLA, was much better – shorter, tighter, less overwhelming. In fact, a lot of us believed that we could have doubled up on some sections and gotten the whole thing over with a lot faster, as it still took up six days in most grades to test – three days for ELA and three days for math. Along the way, our curriculum was changing again, slowly moving away from a year of test practice and back to deep analysis of text and in-depth argumentative essays with real-world meaning.

As another expression goes, What’s old is new again.

I will admit that last year, less than two months before my retirement, I was overjoyed when I realized I had proctored my very last standardized test.

This year, in light of the Covid-19 epidemic and the shuttering of schools, all statewide testing has been cancelled – some good news indeed in the midst of much that isn’t. Students won’t need to spend time in last-minute preparations – while I had stopped doing this, there were many who still did – and stress about their answers. And in September, if schools are reopened, as they hopefully will be, teachers will do what they always did, in the years become NJSLA, and NJASK, or GEPA: They will spend time with their students – one on one, in small groups, and in whole-class discussions – and figure out what these young learners can do, what they can’t do, and what they really need.

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