A teacher’s dilemma: taking risks beyond the elimination answer choice C

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We ask teachers to embrace change, and the pressure on teachers is not to take risks but to march whatever children they can, lockstep, toward higher standardized test scores. – Robert P Moses, Radical Equations (p. 126)

Thanks to a recent conversation, once again I’m confronted with the heavy hand of high-stakes exams.

How can a teacher, like myself, establish and maintain a classroom centered on inquiry, contemplation, and sense making within a system that rises and fails on the scaled scores of New York State Regents exams? How can a teacher move a classroom of students beyond a no. 2 pencil and bubbles containing A, B, C, and D?

I guess this is nothing new. I’m simply reiterating a concern that most teachers have.

I find myself more entrenched in this battle than ever before. The more I teach, the more I realize how oppressive these exams are. I am forced to get kids “through” by whatever means necessary. Schools get recognized and accolades given out for producing students that are “college ready,” which is a reflection of students’ performance on Regents exams. This sort of verbiage gets everyone on the same page. The result is an unspoken, politically correct pressure placed on me and my students to conform to these narrow measures of mathematical fluency. This pressure results in anxiety and dramatically affects the quality of my instruction.

As someone in the classroom everyday doing this work, I’m so wrapped up in these damn exams that I don’t even have time to prepare my students to be “college ready.” Maybe I’m doing something wrong.

I’m essentially a Regents-driven machine whose sole job is to produce other machines who can generate positive results on these exams. Please, forget about the genuine, messy learning of mathematics that I desire.

Furthermore, in a society obsessed with test scores, obtaining a 65 (or 95) can indeed be the ticket to success. Students are only as good as the score they produce. They themselves know this, so their motivations often rise and fall on these exams as well. This is the cherry on top.

Despite this downward spiral, there is hope.

Patrick Honner’s Regents Recaps help me keep things in perspective. His reflections are thoughtful, full of mathematical insight, and shed light just how much of a joke these exams are. Without knowing it, he compels me to teach beautiful mathematics far beyond the expectations of a Regents exam.

And then there are educators like Jose Luis Vilson, Christopher EmdinRobert P. Moses, and Monique W. Morris. Through their writing, they’ve cautioned me that earning a 65 on a Regents exam for many of my students is the least of their worries, despite what school and New York State may tell them. They motivate me to bring often-ignored social issues to the fore.

There are many others who I have met either in person or online who have provided similar inspirations. There are far too many to name.

This leaves me torn.

On one hand, I’m fortunate enough to have a fairly high level of autonomy in my classroom. What my students and I accomplish in the 45 minutes we’re allotted each day is up to us. There’s relatively low oversight. Despite the immense pressures to bubble our lives away, I aim to spend time asking big questions, sharing the joy of mathematical discovery and learning, and enjoying the ride. This is empowering. Hell, I don’t even call my class exams “exams” anymore.

On the other, I am confused. And worried. The fear of a low passing rate has left me paralyzed in the midst of students who desperately need me to be fully aligned with their needs. But if I cannot afford to take meaningful risks in my classroom that go beyond eliminating answer choice C, if I can’t be bold in the face of oppression and conformity, what does this mean for my teaching? More importantly, what does this mean for my students?

 

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It’s about passing tests

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“School isn’t about learning, it’s about passing tests.”

That was a comment I overheard from a ninth grade student recently.

Sadly, she’s right. At least in most schools and classrooms. Including mine.

The damaging impacts of high-stakes tests on teaching and learning are real. Personally, it has dramatically impacted my career over the last ten years. I’m brainwashed by these tests. Really. My lessons begin and end with thoughts of the NYS Regents exams. If it’s not on the test, I don’t teach it.

Through all this, do my kids learn mathematics? Probably. I can’t say for sure. But do they learn how to take tests on mathematics? Definitely. Make no mistake, there’s a widening divide between these two abilities.

This is not to say that tests themselves are necessarily the problem. They aren’t. In fact, there’s research that shows that tests can actually promote learning. Take a unit exam or exit slip, for example. In my case, students often complete these assessments individually. If students don’t do well, they can retake at any time, for any reason. There’s no pressure to do well on the first go around. You don’t get it? No big deal. Let’s find our weakness, improve, and try again. The focus of these assessments is learning.

This can’t be said for high-stakes tests. And herein lies my headache.

I know this is nothing new. I’m simply echoing the voices of millions of teachers all around this country. Ironically, though, what motivated this post wasn’t the countless adversaries of high-stakes tests, but the voice of one ninth grade student. She believes the purpose of school is to prepare her to fill in bubbles with a #2 pencil. This really bothers me.

The fact that she has devalued learning in the school setting – and reduced it to passing a test – is deeply troubling. And I know she’s not alone. It makes me seriously question how I’m contributing to this high-stakes epidemic.

 

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