Each week in the series Diary of a First-Year Teacher, an anonymous first-grade teacher will share her confessions, musings, struggles, and successes during the first year of her teaching career in rural Mississippi.
In 30 short days the third through sixth graders at my school, and across Mississippi, will take the Mississippi state test. Ever since No Child Left Beyond, this test determines how my school will rank both nationally and within the state.
Test scores are highly transparent. Each year they are published like sports statistic in the local newspaper and shared openly by teacher name across the district. They also carry a lot of weight. It's likely that the test scores will determine which teachers stays and which ones go next year.
Also, we are already categorized as a failing school. For us this means that this year's test scores will probably be the deciding factor as to whether the state will take over our school in August.
While I think school accountability is a necessity, I fear the way we are going about meeting the state's expectation is not serving our students. The stakes for the test are so high that administrators often get test tunnel vision. The objective of the school becomes the test.
Instead of receiving the reading and math interventions they so desperately need, the kids are learning test-taking skills.
I watch struggling third graders get drilled for the multiple choice test. Instead of receiving the reading and math interventions they so desperately need, the kids are learning test-taking skills. Not to mention that by this point in the school year, if you are not a tested grade—like mine—you are essentially ignored.
The state has observed my class once, whereas the tested grades see the state department on a biweekly basis. Tested grades receive consulting and testing resources.
Although I will not deny that the freedom I'm given is often appreciated, I can see so clearly how this lack of accountability impacts students once they get to the test in third grade.
Children are not receiving the fundamental reading and math skills they need in the early years because the teachers are not given the accountability or the resources until they are state tested. At that point, it is often too late. Sure there are success stories, but if we want every child to flourish they have got to learn to read, write, and do basic math by the end of second grade—if not sooner.
All year I have taken this reality as my personal charge to demand excellence despite the lack of accountability. However, as my resources are taken away for the tested grades, that charge is becoming more and more difficult.
This last week our school did a practice state test. This practice test lasted the entire week and required the participation of all assistants and specials teachers (i.e. our librarian and PE teacher). What this meant for kindergarten, first grade, and second grade is that we had no planning period, no breaks, and no assistants. We were alone in our rooms with our students from 7:30 a.m. until 3:00 p.m., with the only change of scenery being "lunch break" when we eat with our students in the cafeteria.
I can assure you that by 1 p.m. I was not serving my students the best I could. I was not leading an outstanding classroom. I was exhausted and worn down. In addition, we needed permission to take a bathroom break, and often were hushed by the hall monitor to keep it down. Although we are back to a regular schedule this year, I can expect to regularly lose my planning period and assistant for the rest of year in the name of test preparations.
The more I see what's going on, the more I feel that the pressure of this one test serves neither the students nor the teachers. It creates a stressful atmosphere that does not allow for the best decisions or the best teaching to occur. The focus becomes the tested subjects, instead of areas of concern such as early literacy and numeracy.
The test is coming, and for now it's all we have to prove we are teaching our students. I just hope that in the future our means for assessing student learning will encourage better teaching for all teachers—instead of a culture of teaching to a test.
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