Monday, April 9, 2018

Communicating About The Big Test At The End

Like most classes at this time of year, my kids are about to embark on that wonderful stretch of time known as The Big Test At The End. In schools across the country students will be bent over screens, logged into secure browsers, and take whatever their state's version of the big standardized test is.

No one likes this. There's not one teacher who says, "I can't wait for The Big Test! It's so fun." No, we all want that time for ourselves. Some of us hate it more than others. I am not in the Vehemently Hate group. I can't be. I have to give this test. I could hate it all I wanted, but then I'm spending a good chunk of time doing something I hate. So I choose to tolerate it. Railing at my principal is complaining at the waiter because your food isn't seasoned right. The Test isn't her choice either. She's doing her job too, because sometimes in teaching, in the moment, we've got to Do Our Job. On our own time we speak up and argue against what needs to change. Telling the kids how much I hate something is the opposite of motivating. It's like parent conferences when the parent say, "Well I was never good at math either." Awesome, thanks for that.

At the end of the day, unless their parents opt out, I have to give the test and the have to take the test. This is a hoop we're all jumping through together. When faced with something like this the choice is not to jump or not to jump, but how do you jump? How do you sell it to the kids? How do you sell it to yourself? Because, remember, I don't like this and I look forward to the pendulum swinging in the other direction, so I need to convince myself too.

I sell it two ways- Mockery and Making It No Big Deal.

First, I rarely call it the OAKS test, to my kids or otherwise. It's The Big Test At The End. I'm gonna make fun of it. That's how I deal with things. It's also how Herb Brooks, coach of the 1980 gold medal winning US hockey team, dealt with the unbeatable, intimidating Russian team. He would show pictures of the Russians and make fun of them during team meetings, David poking at Goliath until he wasn't as scary. We all get a script we have to read, full of test directions. "I will now read you the directions for this section of the test." I read these to fidelity and by the rules. But with a look, a glance, a flourish, overplaying the importance before I start. Let the pressure off. I could sigh, sending that energy into my kids. I choose to smile.

Second, the Big Test At The End is No Big Deal. Sure, it is to some and in some ways. It is to the district and the state and the school, and I care about it as much as I should. But I'm not gonna send any of that energy into the kids. There's this terrible comic, which I hate so much I'll only link to but not post, that depicts everyone in the education chain sweating and stressing over a kid testing. No. Newp. I refuse. I admit that even though I talk a big game there's still a part of me that sweats and worries about the test, because of how its treated in education right now, but I hold it inside and keep it in perspective. I constantly talk to my kids about keeping it in perspective. It's No Big Deal. To demonstrate how I communicate this, I am going to share the letter I send home to parents and guardians on Big Test Eve.

Parents and Guardians of Room 17,
As I’m sure your children have mentioned, we are about to start the process of what I like to call The Big Test At The End and what the school calls OAKS. This week will be the science test, and the follow weeks will be Language Arts, Math, Language Arts Performance Task, and Math Performance Task. The Performance Task tests are less questions but more combining of knowledge into a few big questions.

I want to stress this very strongly- While the state and the district feel the Big Test At The End is important, is it not something I want to worry our kids. As I tell the students, I want them to do their best on it not because it’s this Big Important Test, but because the expectation in our class is that we always do our best on anything we do. Students should come to school rested and ready to go, but again, that’s always been the expectation. 
These tests don’t measure everything that our kids know and how a student does on a test certainly does not reflect who our kids are, and I work hard to make sure the kids understand that. As I said, we take it as seriously as it deserves and we do our very best because that’s who we are as learners. It will be difficult, but hopefully we’ve learned that challenges can be overcome with perseverance and critical thinking.
Testing time will only be one hour a day, maybe an hour and fifteen minutes. It will not eat our whole day and Mrs Farmer and I will be working hard to ensure that our students are still learning in the fun, creative ways we have been trying to do all year. Just like the test does not define our students, it also does not define our classroom.
Please let me know if you have any questions. My email is ____.

-Doug Robertson and Kristine Farmer

Please notice that I repeatedly stress that my expectations for student effort on the test is high not because it's The Test, but because we always do our best. So I expect no less. That doesn't mean kids should worry, because it's nothing new. I tell the parents that yes, we will be testing for about an hour every day for a few weeks. But it's only an hour. I have them all day. I am good at this. I will not let one long hour determine our entire day. I set the tone. My kids set the tone, but we can all admit that the kids follow the lead of the teacher. I refuse to believe otherwise, because if that wasn't true then I would have no explanation for why I have the weirdest group of kids in the entire school every single year.

A leadership characteristic that I love, one that I try to cultivate whether I'm teaching, leading a professional development, or running a committee, confidence. Not hands-on-hips Superhero Confidence. More a sense of "I got this. We got this." A smile. A joke. A breath and a pause. We got this. Be it a writing assignment, a Big Test, or a maker project.

We got this. Because we always got this. None of this is new to us. We put in full effort, because that's how we live.

If you like this post and the other posts on this blog you should know I’ve written three books about teaching- He’s the Weird TeacherTHE Teaching Text (You’re Welcome), and the just released A Classroom Of One. I’ve also written one novel- The Unforgiving Road. You should check them out, I’m even better in long form. I’m also on the tweets @TheWeirdTeacher

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