Everything is High Stakes at School
Teaching, Learning, Testing, and Time:
I was recently in an elementary school where charts demonstrating test scores by grade level and teachers’ names were posted in a main hallway. I had stopped to examine the results of fall mid-term assessments when a fourth grade student stopped to point out to me that his teacher was the best one. “Her class had the best scores,” he said.
When I asked if he had had anything to do with those scores, he looked at me blankly.
I pressed. “You are in that class. It’s your class too. Did you learn the things your teacher had to share with you? Did you do well on the tests?”
After a cursory nod, he pointed again to emphasize that his teacher had done the best.
As the student walked away, a teacher I know stopped beside me. She is experienced and dedicated to her students and her profession and had that year been assigned to a grade level she had never before taught. Her test scores were the lowest of those posted. Shaking her head ruefully, she said, “It’s just embarrassing.”
Publicly posting the scores by class is a kind of public evaluation of the teacher. In the case of the teacher mentioned above it felt like a public shaming. Test scores were never meant to be tied to formal teacher evaluation, but from the beginning, that has been a threat.
A teacher from a neighboring division recently told me that her elementary school, a school accredited with warning, tests for student progress every two weeks. She went on to explain that she prepares students for the assessment and then provides any needed remediation and then begins preparing students for the next test. She plaintively asked, “When am I supposed to teach?”
In her article “How Much Time Do School Districts Spend on Standardized Testing? This Much,” Valerie Strauss reports that a study of two school divisions revealed that in one of the divisions, nineteen full days of class were being spent on test preparation and testing. In the other division, a month and a half. In the high stakes grades (in other words students’ graduation depends on their passing the tests), between 60 and 110 hours may be spent on test preparation activities (The Washington Post, July 25, 2013). In a more recent article, The Washington Post reports that the preceding data is likely an underestimation of the time on tests. From my personal experience, a teacher may lose as many as 11 days of class time in testing and test related activities.
Worse yet, many parents question the value of all this assessment. Recently an instructor of mine who is also a professor at ODU made the off hand observation that it seems to him that students are not learning much in high school any more. Before I could come to the defense of public education, my classmates from Chesapeake, Norfolk, Newport News, and Virginia Beach, agreed enthusiastically, and unanimously blamed the state standardized testing program.
When it seems that emphasis is placed more on test scores than on students, more on protocol than critical thinking and creativity, it should come as no surprise to anyone that teachers who leave the profession within the first five years no longer site salary as the reason for their dissatisfaction. Now it is stressful work environment. According to a Washington Post article, 51% of teachers report feeling under great stress several days a week. So what is so stressful about a teacher’s day? Consider this.
Each teacher is responsible for taking accurate student attendance (a legal document) and ensuring the safety and security of students. Teachers stand at their doorways monitoring the hallways and are familiar with the protocols for emergency situations in the building. Teachers address student discipline matters, contact parents, return communications from parents, and meet with school counselors and parents. They grade papers big and small during and after school hours. They maintain an electronic grade book that can be viewed by students and parents During the course of every day, teachers are developing unit plans, lesson plans, learning targets, and managing the resources needed for students’ learning. After school or during their planning/lunch time they may attend mandatory trainings for upcoming testing cycles or new procedures. They attend and contribute to IEP meetings and faculty meetings. They do the business of their departments in meetings after school. They manage their own professional growth, selecting and attending classes and trainings to meet the demands of recertification and to earn the required designation of highly qualified teacher. After school, they are club sponsors, often unpaid. They coach, work with students to create yearbooks and school newspapers. They are class advisors, and after-school tutors. They are chaperones and attend after-school events. This list does not include actually teaching and the ongoing observation and evaluation by the administration.
And students have changed.
Discipline matters are fueled by increasingly complicated back stories. Students are stressed and anxiety is epidemic. Families too are stressed. Smart phones and social media with all their challenges have come to school. (See “Fight With the Weapons You’ve Got” on this blog.) The teacher is always first to be held accountable or the first line defense.
Coming Next: Money Matters Too
copyright Susan Motley January 2018