A month of testing (or April is the cruelest month)
People generally look forward to spring as a time of renewal after a long, dark cold spell. In Ohio, April brings thoughts of a different kind to many public school teachers, because it is when students are required to take state tests. Many of my colleagues dread this time of year, and non-school folks can probably guess the reasons. I will focus this article on the lost potential that occurs when we are mandated to give state tests.
At the high school, there are four end-of-course exams given to ninth- and 10th-graders. Each test has two parts, and each part takes 90 to 110 minutes to administer. The state allows for a one-month period, usually beginning in April, for districts to give the tests.
Last year at the high school, we decided to administer the ninth- and 10th-grade tests on the same days. Four consecutive Wednesdays were set aside, during which students were tested in the morning for about three hours, with a 10-minute break between the two parts of the test.
Think about that for a minute. Imagine you are a 14- or 15-year-old sitting for three solid hours of serious concentration, knowing that your eventual graduation will depend on how well you perform on this test.
Classes following the test period were shortened. Not much teaching or learning took place on those days because so many of the students were exhausted and incapable of focusing.
This year, our plan at the high school will again combine test days, but only one section will be given each day. So, on Wednesdays and Thursdays, starting on April 11, we will test students first thing in the morning, followed by 33-minute class periods for the rest of the day (instead of the usual 46 minutes).
I hope this will help students, but I don’t know if it will actually make much of a difference. The shortened classes will challenge teachers to keep the flow of lessons going during these four weeks. However we test students, there will be a huge disruption in the school day. We not only lose more than 13 hours of instruction while students take the tests, but it is also a time of tremendous stress for many of the kids.
Students with identified special needs may be allowed some accommodations during testing. Because of this, many of our special needs students will spend much more time taking the tests than the general school population, making any chance of focusing on classwork after testing a minor miracle.
In addition, our intervention specialists will be the ones providing the extra support for these students. This creates a need for separate testing locations and the hiring of substitute teachers to cover the classes the intervention specialists will miss. In the end, the students with the greatest needs will receive less instructional time and more stress from the longer testing periods.
Another concern is what to do with students in grades that are not being tested. Their regular classrooms may be used for testing and their regular teachers may be proctoring exams.
If I believed that state tests had some validity or benefit, I would feel more positive about them, but I do not. I see no value in having students show that they have memorized some standardized repertoire of knowledge at a particular point in time.
Society values the people who stand out and excel in their chosen fields. But few of us will ever need to know that the diagonals of a rhombus are perpendicular bisectors of each other.
Perhaps the real reason we test students the way we do is for the benefit of the corporations that produce and market the tests. Or perhaps the benefit goes to the politicians and pundits who point to failing public schools as a reason for privatization.
Ari Klein is a lifelong community member, math teacher at Cleveland Heights High School, and president of the Cleveland Heights Teachers Union.