Our Obsession with Testing Disrupts the Learning Cycle
A Middleweb Blog
This week’s post will be swaddled with emotions ranging from joy and exhilaration to just plain sadness and frustration. So as you read, you may gradually feel yourself taking this emotional journey—moving from emotion to emotion. But for me—it’s a whirlwind of swirling emotions—experiencing all emotions—all at once.
I am fired up with frustration, I am exhilarated by determination and dedication, and I am soothed by hope and anticipation of what the power of collaborative teacher voices can do for students.
A co-teacher leaves the system and the CCSS
You may have heard about Stacie Starr who is a veteran intervention specialist from Elyria, Ohio. Starr was named the winner of the “Live! with Kelly and Michael” 2014 Top Teacher Search. Starr is resigning from teaching due to the realities of the Common Core testing. She is a 14-year veteran special education teacher and co-teacher at the high school level.
Starr has dedicated her life to guiding students who struggle with content area material. She has experienced the pure joy in watching her efforts translate into her students’ personal success stories. “It brings me so much joy—watching children not understand at first and then grasping it and seeing their amazement in being able to do it—it just means the world to me.”
Starr has worked hard to make co-teaching work as she and her colleagues sought to deepen students’ connections and understanding. And her experiences support what all effective co-teachers know: students with learning disabilities need more time. They need more time to process, connect, and apply. And given the proper scaffolds and supports, they can experience meaningful learning.
Time has run out
But reality took over. There just isn’t more time. There is this race to absorb content in “drill and kill” ways—just in time for the tests. But what about the PROCESS of learning? Where is the gift of time that students need to really connect to the learning process? Where is it found inside our current secondary school system? Simple answer…it isn’t.
Starr could no longer remain silent throughout her day-to-day life inside the confining educational system. The pressure of knowing there wasn’t time in the school day to help her students close their personal achievement gaps finally brought her to make a move. Here’s what she says:
I can’t do it anymore, not in this ‘drill ‘em and kill ‘em’ atmosphere….I don’t think anyone understands that in this environment if your child cannot quickly grasp material, study like a robot and pass all of these tests, they will not survive.”
When test prep replaces teaching
Sadly, as I read Starr’s experiences with her 9th graders, I am reminded of my own frustrations teaching at the middle school level. I often felt that strangling invisible force—shoving me into “Pez Dispenser” teaching mode. You know what I mean. It’s that force where we have to shoot out tidbits of facts and more facts until our students are ready to take a test to prove they listened while we shot.
This is not teaching. Teaching requires a person being human enough to connect to what students need in order for them to connect to the facts they must know. A teacher inspires and guides students to know themselves as learners. And these learners become strategic, systematic thinkers who know how to learn—for the sake of learning itself. Not for any test.
As I read Starr’s story, I wondered — Why can’t secondary level classrooms engage students in an extension of the excitement of learning that began when they were younger? Yes, the secondary levels clearly have more content they must teach. More tests loom all around to create a heavy cloud of pressure. But if we actually connected the educational levels in a systematic way so that all learning was truly built upon prior experiences, that pressure might ease as schools exerted more “self accountability.”
A disjointed system hallmarked by isolation
Currently each level in the disjointed public school system operates in isolation, with educators at other levels demonstrating little interest in what comes before or after. At the elementary level, students gain a solid foundation of facts, but they also tap into who they are as learners. They are just beginning to apply the processes needed to help them to connect to the content. They are well on their way to being strategic life-long learners.
Then students move to middle school. The content is heavy, deep, fast, and furious! It is truly an academic haven of fact, and truly exciting! Yet it seems like, in the rush to cover everything, we break the connection between the individual learner and the content. Students no longer have a chance to practice the process of learning in the general education setting.
As a result, co-teachers are left to fend for themselves in too many cases. Students find themselves scrambling for ways to grasp the information and fill in personal learning gaps. But because there is not enough time—and often not enough resources—these students end up depending on a teacher to give them “just the facts”—the study guide. It is the opposite of how and what they learned at the elementary level. And achievement gaps persist and grow through the secondary years.
And then there’s high school. The level of facts continue to deepen, and the process seems to wrap around just preparing for endless classroom tests and more tests that students need to graduate, so they can get out of a system that (at least in the case of students with special needs) has misguided, misdirected, and knocked them down for too many years.
These high school students who struggle to grasp the concepts were once the eager elementary learners who applied strategic thinking and an excitement to learn, to read, and to explore and connect to their individual strengths. What has happened? What is the real purpose of education in our current off-kilter, fragmented system? How do we bridge the gaps?
Stacie’s future in teaching
On a happy note, Stacie Starr will continue to work her magic with students. She is planning to start an afterschool mentor program where she will support students in real learning processes—not just the overly regimented, passive learning modes they experience during their school day.
Starr’s story took me down memory lane, but it also took me to my path at the present time. As a special education/UDL instructional coach, I have the privilege of teaching in many classrooms and observing teachers and co-teachers in my district. One day is more inspiring than the last! In my next blog post I will invite you to enter one of my recent classroom experiences. Co-teachers near and far at all grade levels will be inspired by the teachers’ tips for keeping true learning alive in their classrooms!
As for now…I think I’ve said enough for this week.