Saturday, May 18, 2013

Disappointment Comes for Us All

I had a humbling experience this year. After four consecutive years with writing pass rates at 98% and above, my students’ pass rates for the 2013 Writing EOC SOL were at a dismal 81%. No matter how much people tell me theirs were similar, or that the state in general saw a 10-20% drop, I still feel responsible. It does not matter to me that the test was changed and that variables were different and not what students have ever seen—what matters is that much of my instruction didn’t help them on their tests. They are required, by law, to pass these tests in order to graduate.

It’s not important to me that I don’t agree with this testing, or that I think it squelches creativity, shows an inherent lack of faith in teachers and wastes valuable instructional time and money. I have to meet the standard where it is…even if it’s the minimum of what I teach…or at least this has been my philosophy. 

I've been rocked to the core. I always felt I taught above and beyond the standardized tests. I’ve always hoped that my teaching went deeper and further than necessary to provide my students with a good, solid base in preparation for senior year and beyond. Now I don’t know.

So I have a few choices. I can sit here and feel like an ineffective teacher, berate myself and carry guilt, or I can move forward, use this as a tool to help better my teaching and figure out strategies that work. The problem is that teachers have to move through that first stage to get to the second.
Here are some things we can do to avoid this situation:

1.       Be honest with kids. A study of Chinese and American moms showed that American moms are less likely to be honest with their children when it comes to failure. When children fail, Chinese moms talk about practical strategies with their children and give them a review session. American moms, perhaps trying to boost their child’s confidence, ignore the problem. The result? American children become discouraged and Chinese children do better. (I'll find this video and post it soon.)

2.       Not everyone can be a winner. As I learned this year, a consistently high test score means that at some point you go to the bottom of the heap. You can’t always be number one, right? The same with students. Honest reflection on their work ethic means an honest conversation about learning. You coast, you don’t learn. I wish I’d had these conversations explicitly with my students this year, but like a good American, I didn’t want them to feel bad about themselves.

3.       Phoenix rising. Breaking the news to students who failed their assessment wasn’t easy, but I’m fortunate enough to have a very insightful co-teacher. She gave the explicit message that this test score does not reflect upon them as human beings, it does not reflect their self-worth and that what it means is at that time, on that day, for the skills assessed, the students did not have the skills needed to pass. We also explained to them that a low score simply means they need to keep chugging along, which is the hard part. They need to work and with work, they will do well.

4.       Praise hard work for those who work hard. One of my girls said to me, “Mrs. Stocker, I feel like my score is wrong.” I asked, “Why?” “Because it shouldn’t be that high.” This girl did an amazing job throughout the school year. She’s worked hard, has made sure to complete her assignments and somehow still thought she wasn’t good at English. Something is wrong. My response to her was, “This is the reward for your hard work throughout the year. Of course you did well on that test!” 

I wish my pass rate was up to where it was last year. Knowing that I’ve had 100% of my kids pass some years has given me a lot of confidence, but I can’t help but think it may have stymied my growth as an educator. 'Cause, ya know, that's what makes you reassess and grow.

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