What am I?
Seriously. What is it I do for a living?
When I wake up to go to work in the morning, am I preparing to be a teacher or a test proctor?
Am I engaged in the practice of nurturing young minds or am I a tool of the establishment?
Should I be held accountable to the dozens of students in my classroom, their parents and the community – or to my administrators, the bureaucrats and moneyed interests ordering us around?
I ask these questions not as a rhetorical device. I really don’t know the answers. Because the solution begins with me.
Today was not a banner day in my classroom, and I can honestly say it was not my fault.
I had to give my 7th-grade students the Classroom Diagnostic Tools assessment in Reading/Lit for grades 6-high school.
If you’re not familiar with the CDT, this is an optional test offered by Data Recognition Corporation for students in Pennsylvania’s public schools. It’s a way to assess student learning to predict whether they’ll pass their annual federally mandated standardized tests (also created by Data Recognition Corp. in the Keystone State). In addition, it offers example questions of the type that students struggled to answer correctly on the diagnostic.
It’s very helpful if you want to print out a buttload of test prep, give it to students and then read the paper quietly at your desk – something I never do.
For the second straight year, I’ve been forced to give it to my students three times annually – twice before the Pennsylvania System of School Assessment (PSSA) tests and once after.
I am not a fan.
Students hate it. It does not return valuable data. And it takes precious time that I could be using to actually teach something.
When I told my kids they were going to have to take the assessment this morning, one girl said, “I hate the CDTs. It stands for I Can’t Do This.”
Another girl had a more visceral reaction. When she saw the letters “CDT” on the board, she literally began rolling around on the floor and groaning.
These are the kinds of students I have – victims of generational poverty, malnutrition, childhood trauma, violence, drug abuse and systemic racism and prejudice. Strong-arming them into another standardized test isn’t doing them any favors.
Compare their reaction this morning to yesterday’s lesson.
We had just finished a unit on plot using Dr. Seuss stories and cartoons to illustrate complex concepts like exposition, conflict, rising action, climax, resolution, theme, etc.
I made a competitive review game through a program called Kahoot, and kids were out of their seats, jumping around, squealing with delight as they demonstrated their knowledge of what they’d learned. It got so loud one of the principals came running over from the office to make sure things weren’t getting out of hand. But what he found were students so engaged by the work they could barely contain themselves.
Heck! I even gave them a test of my own creation right afterward. There were no groans. There were no protests.
They sat in their seats like grown adults, concentrated and answered the questions to the best of their abilities.
Compare that with today’s assessment.
Behaviors off the hook. Sullen looks. Demands to use the restroom, go to their lockers, visit the nurse – ANYTHING but be here in class and do this test.
Why the difference?
Because they knew what was expected on MY test, and they knew they could meet my expectations. I was there for the lesson. I made the test. I would grade it. I have a relationship with these kids and they know I will assess them fairly.
But not on this standardized CDT nonsense!
Data Recognition Corp isn’t there for the lesson. It has no rapport with students. Kids don’t know what the expectations are and don’t think they can meet them. And they have no sense that this multi-billion dollar corporation will grade them fairly for their efforts.
So they act out.
They throw wads of paper or airdrop pictures to each others’ iPads.
And here I am in front of this room of unruly children forced to have to defend the bullcrap garbage that I’m being coerced to do to them.
I want to apologize. I want to tell them this is not my idea. And after a while, I even DID that. But it’s no use.
It matters little whether the executioner does his job with reluctance or not. He’s still here to end your life. And I was still cast in the role of ending their education for the day and replacing it with “proof” that they aren’t good enough.
When the test was over, so many children showed me their scores with hurt faces.
“Mr. Singer, I really tried!” one boy said.
“This is rigged!” another said.
And what am I supposed to say to that? Should I explain how they’re right – how standardized tests have always been culturally and economically biased? Why would they care!? What kind of teacher would that make me!?
What use am I?
What purpose do I serve enforcing policies I know to be detrimental?
I went through five years of college to become a teacher – not a prison guard. But on days like today, that’s what I am. I’ve devoted over a decade of my life to nourishing children, not ordering them all to march in line single file.
But here I am, a paid thug who browbeats and coerces innocents into doing things they don’t want to do for purposes that won’t benefit them and will in fact be used against them.
I wonder what the school board would say if I had the guts to stand in front of them at a public meeting and tell them.
I guess I’ll just have to keep wondering because the last time I tried to address that august body without an explicit invitation, I was told I wasn’t allowed to do so since I don’t live in the district where I teach.
But sometimes I question whether the elected representatives of my district even understand what I’m being bulldozed into doing in their name.
Do you know I am abusing your children? I am crushing their creativity, their self-respect, their curiosity. Is that really what you want of me? Is that what you hired me for?
Don’t get me wrong.
It’s not really anything new. I’ve been doing this for almost 15 years. It’s just harder every year.
I heap on justifications – you have to do the bad stuff so you can do the good stuff. You have to enforce the testing so you can do authentic teaching.
And every year the mandates get more restrictive, the teaching gets a little less and the testing a bit more.
Meanwhile, politicians pretend like they’re doing something to fix it. Gov. Tom Wolf (whom I generally like) cuts off a few days from the PSSA tests this year. But he keeps the recommendation that we take the CDTs. He keeps the entire test-and-punish framework in place. Like most Democrats, he’s willing to twiddle around the edges but has no guts to do away with what’s wrong and replace it with what’s right.
Meanwhile, parents in my state are generally clueless.
I used to send home a letter to parents reminding them of their right to opt out of standardized tests. It almost got me fired.
And for my efforts, I think maybe one or two parents over five years actually took me up on it.
I go to my local union and tell them my concerns. They nod and ask for more information and then quietly forget it.
Meanwhile, the national unions are behind the testocracy 100%. They’ll wag their fingers and complain about testing, but they’re too busy making sure the teaching profession even exists tomorrow to stop for small potatoes like bad practices.
I feel so alone here.
I’m pulling my hair out and the only response I get is from the choir (Hallelujah!) and the corporate education reformers (How dare you!?).
The majority stays silent. And complicit.
I’m just not sure I can do it anymore.
I’ve thought about calling in sick whenever I have to give a standardized test. It would be a lot of days, but I could do it.
That might be safe, but it would be cowardly.
I’d just be saving myself the pain and humiliation of giving the tests. My students would still be forced to take them.
So what do I do?
I write blogs like this one.
I pound out my cares and reservations, put them in a virtual bottle and set it adrift on the seas of the Internet.
It’s a constant gamble.
Someday someone may read them who can end my career.
Or maybe someone with the power to make a difference will read them.
Maybe that’s you.
Maybe it’s all of us.
I don’t know.
I have no solutions today. Just shame and regrets.
A dilemma that I cannot solve.