Tuesday, April 20, 2004

D-Day

Today was perhaps the ideal test day, weather-wise. Clear, warm but not muggy, sun pouring into the classrooms. The day felt sharp, and I sincerely hope it rubbed off on the children's minds!

In the school where I worked when I began teaching, test days were unbelievably stressful. First, we'd spend a whole day's professional development going over the test administration procedures as a staff, excruciatingly slowly. Despite all that preparation, I had no idea what to expect when test day actually arrived. The administration was stressed out, and they took it out on us teachers, and many of us took it out on our students. Not the best way to put the kids in a successful frame of mind! The best article I've ever read by Alfie Kohn was given to me by a colleague; Kohn argues that if standardized tests must occur, then it is the responsibility of each level of bureaucracy - from the state down to the teachers - to absorb as much stress and pass as little as possible on to the next level.

That's the exact opposite of how my school worked; I felt as though I was being tied to the (high) stakes, burning matches tossed around my feet. The district is coming! The state is coming! Don't hold a pencil in your hand when you walk around while proctoring! Here, administer the test to your worst-behaved class! Oops, not enough test booklets! Oh, we forgot to sharpen pencils! Do NOT let anyone go to the bathroom, there's a really elaborate procedure for that!

The feeling that our children were going to fail - and we would fail with them - pervaded test days and the months leading up to them.

In my current school, the atmosphere is much more relaxed. Yes, we worry. How could we not? As a new school, we could lose everything if our test scores slip. But we also prepare, and then we cross our fingers and hope that our kids do well, knowing they are as ready as they can possibly be.

Not everything went perfectly today. We were a little disorganized about who was administering the test to which class, but it got worked out fairly smoothly, and without any shouting. We taught regular classes the period before the test, and regular periods after it was over, to reinforce the idea that the tests are just another part of the regular flow of the year, and to keep the children focused and calm and not worrying. Pencils were ready ahead of time.

The woman from the regional office who came to observe was very nice and actually quite helpful. In the past, we've had to cover every bit of text on the walls of our classrooms with newspaper, so the kids can't get any clues from the walls. This has always felt a little ridiculous when we find ourselves covering math posters to prevent kids from using them on the reading test! The woman from the regional office said, oh no, don't worry about those. How rational! It did not feel like she was trying to catch us doing something wrong.

I am aware of Claude Steele's research on stereotype threat and have always wondered what a teacher can do to minimize any effects of stereotype threat on tests like the CTB. Steele's research shows that people who believe they belong to a group - gender, ethnicity, etc. - who do poorly on a certain kind of test will actually perform less well than people who believe that people like them do fine on the test, or who are free of associations with any particular test-stereotype. Steele has been able to turn on & off this effect depending on what is said about the test before it is administered and what kind of demographic data is collected before the test.

Anyway, I'm not sure whether middle school age children experience stereotype threat, and certainly the CTB doesn't ask them to report any demographic information. Nevertheless, in schools where everyone is stressed out about standardized tests and somewhat hopeless about the children's performance, I can imagine that some form of stereotype threat might apply; the kids must be able to pick up on their teachers' fears that they will not do well. Even if it's a small effect, why not try to do something to relieve it?

This is what I said to my kids this year, both my homeroom and the class that I gave the test to: First of all, I know you're all as ready for this test as you can possibly be. Your Communication Arts teachers prepared you very, very well. Also, you're at this school partly because you're good at things like tests.* I want you to stay as calm and focused as possible, be confident but don't rush, and do your best. And no matter what happens, your parents and teachers will still love you (I say this with a little wink, so the kids laugh).I know you're going to do a great job.

When the test was over, we stood behind our desks and did some stretching. And then it was back to normal classes.

I think they did well today. The kids themselves felt they did well. I'll keep you updated.

*I'm not thrilled about saying this, because it seems kind of elitist, but it's true, and it might help the stereotype threat situation by reminding them that they are in a group that's expected to perform well.

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