Saturday, April 23, 2016

Standardized Testing Matters...Kid's Lives, Not So Much

We are raising today's children in sterile, risk-averse and highly structured environments. In so doing, we are failing to cultivate artists, pioneers and entrepreneurs, and instead cultivating a generation of children who can follow the rules in organized sports games, sit for hours in front of screens and mark bubbles on standardized tests. Darell Hammond, CEO KaBoom

In June of 2015, Texas Governor Greg Abbott signed HB2186, The Jason Flatt Act in Memory of Johnathan Childers, into law.  The law requires that all Texas schools train their teachers, counselors, and administrators on suicide recognition and prevention.  I helped lobby for HB2186.  I wrote numerous emails, made dozens of posts to social media, and met face to face with lawmakers and their staffs.  The bill passed both the House and Senate of the Texas legislature almost unanimously, and because of that, went into effect immediately after being signed.

Before this law went into effect, Texas had no mandatory training, and the only time I can remember having any training in my 25 years as a teacher was after a student suicide.  Because of my involvement, I anxiously anticipated what my school would come up with.  In addition to my son Peyton (not a student at our school), we lost a young lady to suicide the previous school year.  I was expecting this training to be in depth and informative.  What we received, could have been taken off the home page from any of a dozen suicide prevention web sites.

It began with the introduction of our "...exciting suicide training," followed by our lead counselor stating "I know we did this last year, but now state law says we have to do it again."  After this statement many of those in attendance turned to look at me and gauge my reaction.  I tried to look impassive, but inside I was seething.  I wanted to walk out while shouting, "Are you f-ing kidding me?"  Not only appalled by the casual manner that this matter was treated with, but also with the incorrect information that was presented (i.e. cutters aren't suicidal), and the fact that a presentation designed to help save lives too less than 15 minutes to complete.  I left as quickly as I could and went upstairs to my classroom. I was fuming, but what could I do.  If the topic had mattered, then more time would have been given to it.

Fast forward eight months.  So far this year, our district has endured two student suicides, two suicides by 2015 graduates, and a teacher suicide ( see #PrayForTheVictims).  I am able to count on less than one hand the number of times that the district has addressed this topic.After each death, they had the prerequisite counselors on campus, but let's face it, these are high school guidance counselors, not crisis counselors.  It would not surprise me if each one had a laminated sheet covered with cliches to say.

Yesterday I attended STAAR training.  For those of you, STAAR is the State of Texas Assessments of Academic Readiness.  It is our state mandated test that our entire school year revolves around. Everything we do in core subjects is some how related to STAAR.  Even if your students have passed all five STAAR tests, you are still judged based upon their results of STAAR based common assessments provided by the district (which are STAAR tests that have been released by the state).  However, if you have a student in a core class that is not tested, but failed STAAR in a class related to your class (i.e. if the student failed the Algebra I test and you teach Geometry), you are required to come up with a plan to help that student pass when they retake the test.

Like Suicide Awareness and Prevention training, STAAR training is mandated by the state.  All teachers involved with the STAAR are required to attend this training.  There are multiple training sessions where you must sign in, sit through the training conducted by the campus testing specialist, go over, in detail, the procedures for the day, possible testing irregularities, setting up the testing environment, starting times, ending times, the role of each tester, the handling of materials, and of course, the litany of circumstances that could cause a teacher to lose their certification.  At the end, all teachers are required to initial, sign, and date an oath stating that we have been trained, and will do anything and everything to All in all, this training takes about 30, or twice that of Suicide and Prevention training.

At my school if a student fails STAAR, they are provided with a Bootcamp in the summer where they are given intense tutoring and lessons designed to help on the summer retake.  During the school year, those students are pulled out of class for one on one instruction, a full blitz day with teachers the day before the retake.  We even have a one semester elective class for kids that failed the English I or English II STAAR test.

On the other hand, if a student says that they want to harm themselves, they are kept under observation by the counselor or administrator until a parent comes to pick them up. After that, they may check on them from time to time, but that is about it.  There are no special classes for them, no summer programs, nothing.

Now don't get me wrong, no student should graduate high school without the basic skills necessary to function in society.  But as I stated in my earlier entry Dead Kids Don't Take Tests, you can't test a dead student.  Living is also a requirement for graduation.  It is even a generally accepted fact that living people are more productive than those that are not.

I realize that schools are under tremendous pressure to have high test scores.  There are district and state rankings to think about, and during the course of the year, more kids will fail the Algebra I section of the test than take their own lives, but for the love of all that is holy, something must be done.  I know I am not in the minority of educators when I say I didn't get into education to teach a test. I got in because of my love of literature and writing, and because I give a damn about the whole student.  I coach not only because of my love of sports, but because it allows me to see kids in a different light, in an environment where they not only want to be, but they can also measure their improvement in relation to their effort.

I know high stakes testing is not going away any time soon, but if public education going to continue to throw money and manpower into preparing students, and put so much emphasis on the outcome, then shouldn't they make an effort to assure that the students are there to take it.