Preface: I’ve had this written since two weeks, yet haven’t had a chance to post it because of so many things going on at once. I’m sorry to keep you waiting and I hope you enjoy my insight (or opinion, as it were).
For a long time, I was begrudging towards benchmark testing. I viewed them as “just another test” and as an obstacle toward true learning in the classroom. Yet, after five years of teaching and several benchmark tests, I’ve come to realize something interesting: district and state testing is what you make of it.
I delivered the news of the benchmarks to two different classes (both regular ed, each with the co-teach model) in different ways. During the first class , I passed out their scantrons with a lackluster attitude, huffing and puffing after passing every other row in class. I then took the testing booklets in my arms and in best Ben Stein tone said, “Okay guys, you know the deal. Take your time, read and re-read, and be sure to write your names on the covers, please.” As I delivered my pre-test speech, it was clear my lack of energy transferred to the students. I watched as my students slumped in their desks, groaned as they received their booklets, and rolled their eyes as I distributed highlighters. The students took their benchmark, huffing and puffing the whole way. It was a sight for sore eyes.
The next day during the first bell (second class), I passed out the scantrons in a quick, orderly manner, smiling when students made eye contact, patting students who looked nervous. I delivered the news with the same words, but different tone. Instead of coming off like Ben Stein, I came off as my usual self – energetic, encouraging, with a hint of urgency. Some students reacted in the same way as my first class, while the rest of the class began sitting up in their seats, shrugging their shoulders, and stretching as if they were getting ready for a race or an athletic event. The students actually looked eager and ready to knock out the test and as I distributed the highlighters, the climate of the classroom was markedly different than the day before.
I’m actually interested to see the score differences between the two classes. It would be even more interesting to see if the difference in my attitude affected more than the students’ posture toward the test — if it affected their rate of achievement.
Something else I’ve come to realize with benchmark testing is that when the results do develop, it’s easy to discover where the students are weak, where they are strong, and where their endurance levels are. For instance, last year’s benchmark was a 44 question test. It had 4 passages with an average of ten questions each. The scores of my honors students were pretty good, some of the regular ed students scored middle to high, while the rest of my students (with lower reading levels) scored middle to low.
By looking at their answer distributions, while using the passages as a guide, lightning struck me and hard. The students that scored middle to low, on average, all had difficulty with the same passage – which I later discovered had a readability of 7.4. This is usually a good place to be for a 7th grade standardized test, but with reluctant readers, the “walk through the park” passage has become a “trudge through the lush jungle” for them. Something else I discovered was that the accuracy of the first half of the test was remarkable, with only a few of them missing two or three questions. As the answers progressed, however, I noticed students had the right answer circled, yet the wrong answer bubbled. A simple mistake. I also noticed the answers reflected students misreading the question or not reading all of the answer choices before making a selection. All simple mistakes! And when I confronted those students based on my findings, the majority of the students said the same thing:
“Ms. Brasdis, I was just so tired by the time I got there.”
So now, it was a question of intensity and endurance. They just didn’t have what it took. And depending on how the test was formatted, the endurance issue was always there, just in different parts of the test.
It goes without saying that without scouring the results of last year’s test, I would’ve never known how to adjust my teaching style to benefit them and readily prepare them for the marathon of all tests – the VA SOLs. It was a lucky find and an ace in the hole.
Although I’ve stated plenty of good things about benchmark testing, we all know that there are the bad and ugly parts, too. The bad part of all of my amazing discoveries and edifying research is that it took my nearly two days of planning to complete and set me behind in my district pacing guide. Because I chose to dig deep into the assessment results, I, essentially, was penalized and had to write four plans the next planning period, instead of two. Yes, I could’ve taken the results home with me and scoured over them after dinner or after Allan went to bed or after…whatever else needed to be done (like dishes and laundry and my amazing Wonderopolis tasks), but that would eventually become a very long work day. Granted there would be breaks in between tasks, I’d still be working non-stop and that is no life for a teacher to have, regardless of dedication and loyalty to the career. And even if I had chosen to do so, I would’ve had a more difficult time arriving to the results that I had because despite what everyone says about locking yourself in a room or making the announcement that you’re “busy,” there are still distractions at home that are not there at work. So, the crux of the main issue with benchmarks is time. There’s not enough time to review results to figure out the reasons behind low scores, to review results with students, or for students to take the test.
I’m lucky because I’m in a district that allows me to be a “rogue” teacher of sorts. I understand there’s a time limit for me to accomplish my educator tasks, however, I have come to the point in my career that I’ve had to make a decision. Time or scores. Does my district value my ability to stay on the pacing guide or my ability to produce better scores? I’ve chosen the latter (within respectful means, of course) and because of my tough decision and oftentimes rule-breaking behavior, I’ve achieved the results with which I’m satisfied with minimal consequences.
Now, for the ugly truth. Not all teachers are fortunate and blessed to be able to break rules and get smacks on the wrist for doing so. Depending on the district, some employees could be terminated for “insubordination to school officials and documents,” while others may have the opportunity to be transferred to another school. Another ugly truth is that testing isn’t going anywhere. Testing has become and will remain a standard practice in our schools. The format may change from paper to online (complete with glitches and freezing systems), but this isn’t what concerns me the most. What concerns me the most about benchmark (and other such standardized) testing is the variety of testing “standards” in our nation. Whatever standards and objectives that passes in Virginia may not be passing in Vermont. If a student with a military parent moves from Virginia to Texas or Texas to Virginia or California to Mississippi, the educational pacing guide and standards list are all inconsistent. Students are getting mixed messages and the teachers are getting blamed for the inconsistent academic achievement.
This is ugly.
Some states are being labeled “low” or “behind,” while other states are being labeled “rigorous” or “demanding.” I’d like to know how those states got their reputation and what could be done to reverse them. Again, I’m lucky enough to live and teach in a state that is labeled “rigorous” and “precise,” but I’d like to think that my teaching practices aren’t limited to the state in which I live. I’d like to think that regardless of what state I am an educator in, I’d still be known as “rigorous” and “precise.”
Benchmarks are still the proverbial thorn in my side at times, but they do serve purpose and can provide a beacon of understanding to the whys behind scores. They can also become stressors in an already stressed teacher’s life or an opportunity to label a teacher and its district as something it’s not (all the time). But like I stated previously, testing isn’t going anywhere and instead of viewing it as completely negative, let’s make it what we want it to be – true predictors of student achievement. Take the time you need in order to discover results, regardless of restraints (within reason and employment consequences). Take the time to share the results with your students and review the most necessary questions. Encourage students to take their time and do their best. It’s all about time and whether you know it or not, now is the time.
It’s time for teachers to take back the control of our classrooms. It’s time for teachers to take back the responsibility for the learning the students are receiving. It’s time for teachers to stand up for what they know is right for their students because, honestly, who knows our students better than we do? Certainly not the rule-makers.
Thanks for reading and remember to always wonder!