Monday, January 11, 2016

Test Prep Frustrations

On most days of the week I pull my fifth grade reading group for guided reading- we sit down with a book, read it and talk about it. We often examine open-ended questions like how the characters changed, or what they learned. There is independent writing about the text but it is often tied together with a discussion. I even sneak grammar questions in, but since it is all around one fairly motivating text these tasks seem easily swallowed. The group is lively and I really enjoy working with them- and I believe the feeling is mutual.

Except on Fridays.

On Fridays we have test prep instead of straight guided reading. We work on a passage like one they will see on the May SOL test and answer the multiple choice questions. It isn't quite as enjoyable. This past Friday I found myself fighting back tears right along with them. One fifth grade student even crawled under the table and announced, "This is why I HATE Fridays! I hate test prep!" I don't blame her. I hate it too.

Their ability to discuss a book seems to stop cold when they are presented with four answer choices. They freeze. One is often stumped by vocabulary she hasn't learned in the year she has been in the country, and another could write an essay on why each of the four answer choices are correct- and the logic is usually just close enough that it is hard to reason with.* 

We wade through each question as I silently attempt to identify what test prep skills are missing so I can sneak them into my guided reading group during the week. 

I want these students to pass. They work so hard every day that they deserve to pass the end of year test. Let me re-phrase that- they deserve to have the knowledge and ability to pass the test. I want them to be able to sit down with that beast of a test in May and confidently answer the questions because we have prepared them for it all year. I'm their teacher- it's my job to give them that skill, isn't it? I don't want to throw up my hands and scream the test is unfair, and I don't want to give excuses for why these three may not pass. I want every moment of our blood, sweat, and tears throughout the year to pay off.

Yet on Fridays I often sit back and wonder what we are doing. If we can discuss a text during the week, find deeper meaning, identify vocabulary based on context clues, and analyze the author's message, then why are Friday's so tough? Are we learning how to be meaningful readers the rest of the week and Fridays we are only focused on passing an arbitrary test? Or do Fridays serve to keep me honest- bringing me back to earth about my students' progress? They do help me identify the holes in my student's learning so I know what to teach during the week. Yet they also can disillusion all four of us if we aren't careful.

For awhile as an educator I screamed about the uselessness of the standardized tests. Yet my voice became hoarse and no one listened. These days I'm more focused on the students in front of me- if this is how we are going to play the game then I want to give them the best opportunity to do so. What skills do they need in order to succeed with these current educational expectations? What needs to happen differently? 

Friday afternoons haunt me into the weekend as I find myself replaying their frustration in my mind. We spend the week enjoying reading and then end the week with thirty minutes of biting pencils, sighing loudly, and desperately trying to solve the mystery of how to answer standardized test questions. I have no answers, or no thoughtful conclusions to this. Just a sense of frustration and failure as a teacher.

*I was one of these test takers. I know what it is like to read four choices and be able to argue each choice, to the point you lose the ability to identify the 'best' choice. Best in whose standards? 

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