Ask any 3rd-8th-grade teacher about “March Madness” and there is a good chance you won’t hear much about basketball. You may, however, get an earful about a topic that is about as near and dear to our hearts as standing outside for 25 minutes of recess in bone-chilling, zero-degree weather. In Minnesota, the acronym is MCA. In Texas it’s STAAR. A whole slate of states call it PARCC (ten in all, including Colorado, Delaware, District of Columbia, Illinois, Louisiana, Maryland New Jersey, New Mexico, New York and Rhode Island).
Teachers are deemed winners or losers because of it (some have even gone to prison). Kids get physically ill because of it. Parents don’t seem to understand it. Newspapers have a field day with it and perhaps most troubling of all, legislators who don’t seem to know much about education make all the rules about it.
Testing. March Madness followed by a month-long extension of what is about as funny as a lame April Fool’s prank. That’s how the topic of testing feels for many teachers like myself. “You have got to be kidding!” is a phrase that is often used in conjunction with the pressure most of us teachers feel to prep the kids and make sure they perform.
Growing up in the great state of Iowa, I am no stranger to #2 pencils and filling in bubbles. After all, the ITBS (Iowa Test of Basic Skills) was the first standardized test to arrive on the scene way back in 1935. These days, however, we’re faced with hours, days, and weeks of eye-straining, posture-breaking, stuck-to-the-chair, online testing. Can we even be sure we’re measuring math and reading skills rather than a kid’s ability to use a mouse and scroll tab correctly?
Recently, someone asked me if I thought there was any merit to these tests. There was a hint that maybe my poor attitude about high stakes testing is directly related to the fact that my school’s proficiency rate on the reading test is an unimpressive 41.3% (more than 20% lower than our district average). Could I be a bit biased about the value of the tests because my students simply aren’t able to show what they know or that they know much? Am I just making excuses for my students because of their demographics (more than 70% free/reduced lunch, almost 50% non-native English speakers, about 90% students of color)?
I struggled to find the words to express my feelings and share the real story. If only the general public and all those uninformed legislators could spend a day in Room 123! They would see how brilliant my kids are. I have the list of all those qualities that can’t be measured by a test committed to memory. I believe in the wisdom offered up by that list. Kindness, empathy, creativity, musical talent, perseverance, positivity, etc. My students live and breathe that stuff every single day.
In lieu of hosting all those folks in my classroom (limited space that already contains 32 little people), I decided to ask my kids to share their “completely honest, totally true, and very thoughtful thoughts and feelings about MCA testing.” I wasn’t prepared for their responses. Some made me smile, others brought tears, a few shocked me and all made me proud to teach such capable learners. The spreadsheet of test scores may not back me up, but their words will. Then again, maybe I am biased. I’ll let you be the judge.
From kid #1:
I think sometimes I just can’t do some things. I think on MCAs sometimes I just press on things that I don’t even know. I think I will need a walk around the school. I think sometimes it’s so quiet and I think when it’s the MCAs I’m bored. I think I just want to go somewhere. I think I’m not even doing my best. I feel mad like I can’t do some things. I feel bad if I get bad grades. I feel hot in there [computer lab]. I feel like MCAs are not even good for you. I feel like I just want to sleep. I feel like MCAs are horet [horrid]. I feel not so happy. I feel like I just want to make things feil on the grow [fall on the ground].
From kid #2:
I feel weird doing the MCA because I’m so stressed out that I’m going to fail and I don’t want to fail. Sometimes I’m nervous because I have to think a lot and it hurts my stomach. I feel like I’m going to throw up but I don’t. When I feel nervous my head hurts and I most of the time wish I was somewhere else or someone else.
From kid #3:
Honestly I’m not really worried at all because I have been doing Read Theory a lot. I’m just happy for the MCAs and trying to stay positive that I’m gonna do great. Relax and try my best. And try to give evidence and reread and use what I know. I’m gonna try to do the MCA practice about 2 times a week to understand things and know how to do things when MCAs don’t have instructions.
From kid #4:
I think that the MCA test has a big impact on me because it’s like I’m carrying the weight of the world on my back all week. I am so so stressed out because of this test. It’s making my head spin around like a ride at the state fair!
From kid #5:
Try not to be fast. Take it slow. Think hard. Concentrate. Know what you’re doing. Reread it. Do what you can. Think what the teacher told you. Never give up. Read. Keep reading. Read more. Think what you’re doing. Answer questions. Learn new words.