Friday morning, 9:45 AM. Students had been taking session two of the ISAT math test for nearly 30 minutes. I rose from my seat in the back of the room and circulated the rows of desks again, trying to make as little noise as possible on the hardwood floors. Students were silent, heads down, intently filling in circles on on their answer sheets or answering short-response questions. Occasionally, someone would knock their calculator, water bottle, or test booklet onto the floor; the brief disturbances were startling in that eerie quiet. Walking through the rows, I was crestfallen. So much adding fractions, I thought to myself. My students had struggled immensely with fraction equivalence, so I didn’t try to cram operations with fractions. I thought it would upset their tenuous grasp on the material. We needed to practice word problems, anyway, I consoled myself. As I walked around, I paused frequently at students’ desks.
“Take your time, Silvio,” I whispered. “Read the question again, Nora.” “Barbara, your brain is better than a calculator.” “Take a break, Pablo. Take some deep breaths, drink some water.” I tried to give each student quiet, personalized support without giving hints.
Finally, I reached the first row of students. I was most worried about Elliot, the student nearest my very messy desk, the kid who always stays for after-school tutoring, the kid who comes to every after-school function, and asks me the silliest questions after school. The kid who is one of my (admittedly many) favorite students.
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My classroom library in August, before the school year began.
Today is my half-birthday; I am 22 years old. Today is also Abraham Lincoln’s birthday, which means I have the day to engage in domestic activities, like finally cleaning my house, and frivolity, such as watching television and blogging. Somewhere in there, I will also prepare activities and exit tickets (mini-quizzes) for school tomorrow, and write 16 back-dated Individualized Bilingual Education Plans for my students. These documents are of little service or relevance to anyone, unless a state auditor stops by (thus the back-dating). And, of course, there are always papers to grade.
Tomorrow, I will try to wake up before 6:00 AM. The morning darkness will partially obscure the dozens of foreclosed homes and boarded up business I pass on my way to school, chugging coffee and listening to WBEZ in the safety of my car. If I hear about another child victim of the pervasive violence in this city, I will cry the rest of the way to school. Tomorrow is my 6-month anniversary as a 5th grade bilingual teacher in an urban Chicago school.
I am not unique. Tomorrow, I am accompanied by thousands of teachers in the city who rise early and arrive at school at dawn in an attempt to do right by their students and their students’ families. And this month, we have something else in common. Most public school teachers in the city and the state of Illinois will be devoting significant instructional time and resources this month to preparing students for the Illinois Standardized Achievement Test, or ISAT, which is administered in early March. While the skills I teach in preparation for the ISAT are still valuable, the constant cycle of Teach-Assess-Reflect-Teach has taken on a new, stressful urgency that impacts both my instruction and my students’ performance.
Broadly conceived, I agree that the state must measure student achievement. I believe that teachers should be held accountable for their classroom practices, and that failing schools must be identified to staunch the hemorrhage of personal talent that is lost annually in Chicago to poor education and its lifetime detriments. But ISAT is the third standardized test my students will take in the space of 6 weeks, with each test having at least two sessions. And with the new Common Core standards being included in this year’s test, I have few illusions about my students’ performance on ISAT. My school had been failing for a decade before it was turned around. Last year, few of my students met expectations; many received academic warnings. If the letter Chicago Public Schools CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett sent out to parents is any indication**, any academic gains my students have made this year will not be recognized; instead, they will likely appear to have lost ground. For me and my class, this year’s ISAT seems like a farcical waste of time, rather than an accurate picture of their progress since last year. At least my kids and I have another three weeks to stretch before this exercise in futility.
Tomorrow, I will keep trying to address as many of the ISAT assessment criteria as I can before March 5th. Each subject I teach, including Reading in the Native Language (Spanish) and Science (not assessed), will have some element of test preparation. I will explicitly teach process of elimination and skipping hard questions without messing up one’s bubbled answer sheet. I will discuss my feelings of hopelessness with my coworkers at the copy machine in the teacher’s lounge, before we all run back to our classrooms to continue our lock-step march towards ISAT. So we beat on, boats against the current. Happy 6 months, CPS. I love you, too.
** Hilariously, a typo in the Illinois State Board of Education (ISBE) website linked parents to an erotic website. Click here for details.