A realization

Friday was … quite a day. Like, I need to write about it, but I’m still thinking about it and I don’t think I’m ready yet. But something occurred to me this morning and I wanted to get it written down before it fell out of my head, so you stand a chance of getting more than one post today, particularly since I have a book review to write as well.

I have been writing about standardized testing for two decades. I wrote an entire-ass book full of essays that touch on it. And I have talked a lot in this particular school year about how my school is being set up to fail: we are a “turnaround school,” a phrase no one will define for us and does not seem to mean anything, and last year they fired our principal and AP and replaced them with people who had a grand total of zero seconds of experience in their new jobs.

This is not how you turn around a school. I feel like that fact is obvious; anyone who has ever managed anything in any capacity should probably recognize that if a place is seriously struggling what you do not do is turn it over to entirely neophyte management and expect good things to happen, particularly something as complicated as a middle school.

In addition, my school is nearly a third special-needs students. You would think that would result in blanketing the school with resources so that we can meet the needs of our students, but of course that has not happened. We are expected to hit the same pass rates as all of our other schools– including the one that took away all of our high-performing students, so that our smartest kids are the ones who are barely on grade level rather than five or six grade levels behind– and the fact that said task is virtually impossible is ignored. In fact, if we complain about it, we are accused of believing that our students cannot learn.

But something else hit me this morning– a detail about this little clusterfuck that despite twenty-plus years of thinking about it I don’t think I’ve ever recognized before.

Do you know what would happen if we somehow, miraculously, managed to create a school that was a third special-needs kids and high poverty and nonetheless managed to get all of our kids to pass the yearly high-stakes test?

We would be accused of cheating.

They literally wouldn’t believe it if all or even most of our kids passed. And if they investigated, and they didn’t find any cheating– and you can fucking well bet that they’d keep looking until they found an I undotted or a T uncrossed somewhere– do you know what would happen next?

They’d make the test harder. And they’d keep making it harder until they felt like they had “enough” kids failing.

Because student success is not what these tests are about.

I already knew we had been set up to fail. I just didn’t think deeply enough about it. Because none of this is about student success. We were set up from the beginning. Even if we succeed, they’re going to keep making it harder until we fail again. Because my school is full of poor kids and kids with disabilities and kids of color, and they want us at the bottom of the heap.

In which that might have worked, maybe, but I doubt it

We started the winter administration of the NWEA today. I’ve talked about this test a couple of times before, but the super-short version is that we give it three times a year and it is designed to mostly measure growth, which means that it gets around many of my normal gripes against standardized testing. I know that usually the first post of the month is the Monthly Reads for the previous month, but this is on my mind and I don’t feel like gathering up all the books I read, so we’ll do this today and that tomorrow.

Anyway, I have some reason to maybe, possibly be a little bit optimistic about my teaching this year? As of right now 47 of my 70 kids are done with the test; the rest were either absent today and haven’t started or didn’t get finished. They’ll have tomorrow (at least) to get that done, and I’ll probably be at 80% or so completion after two days.

As of right now, of those 47, only ten haven’t shown growth this year or at least held onto what they had, and of those ten, half only lost a single point. That’s not final numbers, of course, because I still have 23 kids to finish the test, and who knows how they’ll go, but right now this is on track to be my best winter administration of this test ever. Typically the way these things go for me is losses during the winter administration, then they make them back and end up with overall gains (as in, compared to the first administration) on the final one. I’ve never had a group look this good in the middle of the year.

So far. We’ll see if it holds up.

Sure, this’ll work

This was day two of our yearly standardized testing, which we’re still being forced to administer for some reason. And, honestly, this year, my approach to the damned things is whatever, just get it done. I’m making a cursory effort to encourage the kids to do their best but the simple fact of the matter is that the entire exercise is bullshit and absolutely everyone involved knows it. These tests aren’t going to tell us one single thing about our students that we don’t already know. Not one single fucking thing.

Had a situation with a kid today that really drove it home (as if I need any more evidence) just what a poor job these tests do in measuring what they’re calling learning. My strong suspicion is that they do actually measure something related to knowledge for the kids who do well. There’s probably a real difference between a kid in the 70th percentile and a kid in the 90th. But the kids in the bottom half of that distribution?

Those kids aren’t having learning measured. For those kids, the tests are measuring two things: compliance and motivation. And that’s really it.

I’ve got this kid this year; let’s call him Che. Che is smart as fuck. But he has this pathological fear of success that is holding him back in a major way. he spent most of last year on half days and/or expelled or on long suspensions. This year, we’ve been able to mostly keep him in class, and he’s got several teachers (me included) who he knows are going to ride his ass until it falls off to keep him as close to the straight and narrow as we can, and so far he’s had a much more successful year than last year.

He’s in my room for testing. Tuesday he basically disrupted the room until I felt like I had no choice but to throw him out. And that was basically the move he chose; he was going to keep escalating until he got what he wanted, and in a situation where I’ve got other kids in the room trying to test, my tools for dealing with that type of bullshit are limited. I put him out of class and sat down with him and the principal later that day and did a combination of reading him the riot act and giving him a pep talk, and got a promise out of him that he’d behave in class today. And he did! He tossed out a couple of jokes and/or smartass comments while I was reading the (utterly unnecessary at this point and overly wordy under any circumstances) instructions, but the rest of the kids didn’t really react to him and once a couple of interruptions fell like a lead balloon he cut it out.

And … well, in the strictest sense of the term he completed the test, but this one was the written essay part, which has some number of short prompts that they want maybe a paragraph of material for and then another where they want a longer essay.

His entire essay was “I don’t know,” and he told me flat-out he didn’t read any of it.

Which tells me exactly nothing about whether he can read any of it. Che’s going to get the exact same 0 on that section as a kid who doesn’t have the slightest idea how to read in the first place would get, but Che can read. He’s not half-bad at math either when he wants to show off. And I’d say easily 60-70% of the kids in our building fall into a similar place as him, where their score on a standardized test on any given day is less a measure of their abilities than how interested they were in participating in the test on the day it was administered.

Why are we wasting all this money on these things again?

In which that’s just, like, your opinion, dude

I didn’t actually intend for that survey to be yesterday’s only post, but Life intervened, and I didn’t get back to the blog. At any rate, it’s pretty clear that no one is interested in the podcast option. I may look into it anyway just because I’m curious about how it works– I can think of two ways to convert a blog into a podcast, and one is expensive and the other would not result in an acceptable podcast– but I think the only reason to do it would be to make the blog more accessible to the blind, and I suspect that by and large blind folks who are are interested in reading blogs probably already have some sort of screen-reading software that they use.

That said, I am a White Guy with Opinions, and as such hey, I should do a podcast is on my bucket list of shit I might want to do sometime, just as soon as I actually come up with an idea worth of the work it would take. That’s been the position I was in for several years and no podcast has surfaced, so I wouldn’t worry too much about audio being imposed on your Infinitefreetime.com experience.

Meanwhile, I’ve spent the last two days– and will also spend the next three– watching numbers slowly increment upward from 1 to somewhere between 50 and 53. It’s Spring NWEA time, so I’m wasting an entire week of my school year trying to convince children who are not in the same room with me to take a standardized test that will provide me with no useful information. I know they’re behind. I’ve never once in my career taught at a school where even just a majority of my kids were at grade level. I wouldn’t know what to do with 8th graders who were on grade level. They’re behind. A year of pandemic has not made that better. They will remain behind. This test will let me know that they’re behind, but will attach a number to it.

(And that number? I don’t trust it, for what should be obvious reasons– every single one of these kids is taking this test out of my sight, and of course I have no way of monitoring who actually took the test, or if they got help, or for that matter if they were taking it in the kitchen while their parents were fighting and the baby they were supposed to be taking care of was crying. One kid left for half an hour because his dad made him walk the dog. The test already wasn’t especially helpful, and it is even less helpful than usual this year.)

I will not rant about state accountability tests, which have not been cancelled yet. Not today.

The picture at the top of this post is not my house– it’s the customize-your-house thing that our roofing company uses, with the shingles we’ve selected on the roof. We’re going on faith to at least a certain degree here, because comparing the actual shingle samples we were sent to any photograph of any of the three colors we settled on results in a certain amount of confusion. I’m hoping a photograph will be more representative than the, like, four shingles we got sent in these samples, but ultimately everything was so close together that it didn’t end up mattering. The white and green on the house up there match the color of my house and the accent color of my house closely enough for government work, and our shingles don’t match the brown one neighbor has or the black the other neighbor has, so whatever. We’re good.

Neither of us are going to remember what the hell color we picked when they come to install the new roof anyway.

In which I am proud and disgusted

I mentioned yesterday– or at least I think I did, play along if I’m wrong– that after work I had to go to a parent-teacher conference for my son. This was a regularly-scheduled event and not one of those “your kid is a shithead, you need to come in now” sorts of things, and I wasn’t expecting any particular surprises from it– my kid does well academically but is, I think, a moderate behavioral challenge when the mood strikes him, and most of his teachers have tossed a “he could get better at paying attention” type of line at us from time to time. And they’re not wrong; he could. And this is a thing that we work on; he’s not perfect. So I wasn’t expecting all candy and roses but I wasn’t expecting an unpleasant conversation either.

I have spent a decent chunk of the last couple of weeks administering a standardized math test to my students that we take three times a year. 90% of my students are done within two class periods and the rest of the time is catching kids who were absent or the occasional one who needs more time. This test is given nationwide and the norms are referenced nationally, so a kid’s percentile score, for example, is against all kids who took that across the country and not just the ones at my school or in my district.

And as it turns out, the kids at Hogwarts took the same test this year, for the first time. The teacher introduced it somewhat hesitantly, admitting that she wasn’t completely familiar with the data she was given, and … well, I don’t have that problem, both by training and by inclination, since I’m a huge data nerd and I love this shit. So, yeah, I know exactly how to read this report that you’re handing me.

And I was simultaneously thrilled and disgusted by the results. A bit more background: the way this score is tested is that all grades are scored on a continuum, so there isn’t really a maximum or minimum score but they expect an average 8th grader to have a score of around 230 or so and an average 2nd grader to be in, I dunno, the 180s or so. But it is possible for an 8th grader to score below that second grade level and it is possible for a 2nd grader to score above the 8th grade level.

And my kid outscored about 80% of my fucking 8th graders, in both reading and math. He was in the 99th percentile in achievement in both reading and math, and he was in the 98th percentile in growth for math and 80th percentile in growth for reading. So he killed this fucking test. My reaction was not quite “You’ve gotta be fucking kidding me,” but it was close. I knew the boy was bright, but … shit. And the fact that his teacher showed me these results and then immediately began apologizing because she doesn’t think she’s challenging him enough … lady, if the boy showed up at the 98th percentile in growth, it means he’s hoovered up every single fact you’ve thrown at him all year long. I would kill for results like this from my students. And she’s acting like she’s embarrassed by it.

If my kid isn’t showing growth, then maybe the teacher has at least a justification for an apology, although as the teacher of a number of kids who are failing to show growth (and, to be fair, a larger number who are; my overall numbers weren’t bad at all relative to the other teachers in my building) I’m not about to be making a bunch of phone calls. But if the kid is improving by leaps and bounds like mine apparently is then it is a hundred percent fair for the teacher to crow about the job she’s doing with him a bit.

And it’s weird, because as a dad I’m proud of him, but as a teacher I kind of want to break things, because now I have to swallow the sentence “My second grader took this test and beat your score by thirty points” with a lot of my kids, and … gaaaah.

I just wish everybody could get the education he’s getting at Hogwarts, and I wish enough of my kids gave a shit that they had a chance of getting that type of growth from me. I had one kid in the nineties in growth, but she barely spoke English when she took the first one, so it’s not exactly a surprise. It’s a whole damn different world over there.