By Carly Mitchell / New York City
(The author, a public-school teacher, is using a pseudonym for professional reasons)
The time has come at last. My students were given New York State’s English Language Arts test this week.
As you probably know by now, I am a seventh-grade English teacher at a Title 1 school in Brooklyn, meaning a high percentage of the students are from low-income families. Most of my students read at a third- or fourth-grade level, but they must sit through two days of tests that align with New York’s seventh-grade learning standards.
On Tuesday, March 29, the multiple-choice portion of the test was given. This involved reading a combination of literary and informational texts and answering a total of 35 multiple choice questions (roughly seven per text).
On Wednesday, students took the written portion of the exam, which requires reading two texts, answering seven short response questions about them, and writing an essay.
My fellow teachers and I prepare students throughout the year for these exams, but test prep has been in full swing for the past seven weeks. Beginning in mid-February, I hosted an English extra help session that ran from 7:15 a.m. to 8:00 a.m. Fortunately, I was paid for this work (thanks United Federation of Teachers!) Monday through Friday. In addition, I held a Thursday session from 2:30 p.m. to 4:00 p.m. There was also a test prep during my regular class.
Are you tired of hearing the words “test prep” yet? Yeah? I don’t blame you.
In order to lure students to the morning sessions, I promised extra credit. Fortunately, this attracted a few loyal students. (About eight consistently showed up.) Thursday afternoons were another story. Students who are in our after-school program were required to attend. This meant that roughly 40 of them crammed into my classroom. It got so crowded on some days that there weren’t enough desks or chairs to accommodate everyone. Needless to say, those were not the most productive sessions.
As I have previously written in my column, this year has been incredibly challenging. Throw state tests into the mix and you’ve got a recipe for a very stressful meal, indeed. Students and teachers alike are simply burned out.
These tests are presumed to measure a student’s understanding, therefore we must take them very seriously. But as I write this, I feel like emitting a loud sigh. If you cannot tell, I am not a fan of these exams. How can we consider standardized tests to be an accurate measure of student knowledge when not every child learns the same way? Standardized testing has long been criticized as a one-size-fits-all approach to education that simply requires kids to memorize and regurgitate information without really thinking. I agree with this critique. In my classroom, I have students who struggle to read and write, but who are magnificent artists or master conversationalists.
This is not to say that students should not be reading and writing. In fact, I do not think students are doing enough of this. The Internet (specifically social media sites like TikTok) and video games are hugely distracting. On many occasions, I have had a child come into my classroom and proudly tell me they were up all night playing Fortnite, a violent video game very popular with many of the young men in my classes. But this issue is something I, and many teachers, feel powerless over. After all, we are only with these kids from 8:00 am to 2:30 pm.
If I had to choose one adjective to sum up the testing sessons, it would be “overwhelming.” If I had to choose two to describe how I feel right now as I sit in my apartment, they would be “exhausted” and (somewhat) “relieved.”
As with any testing day, there were scheduling kinks to work through and questions galore. Is this student in the right classroom? Were all of the tests distributed properly? Collected properly? Do the teachers have all of their proctoring materials? Where is (insert name of teacher)? Have you seen (insert name of student)?
Students have the entire day to take their exams (and many of them indeed take the entire day, with a break for lunch, of course). This is a new initiative, a response, I assume, to the learning deficits caused by the pandemic.
After enduring the first day of testing, I think this approach has both benefits and drawbacks. I appreciate that students do not have to feel stressed by the clock. However, I think it still led some students to rush because they felt like the exam would never end, while others spaced out and fell asleep (yes, proctoring involves playing the role of alarm clock) because they felt like the exam would never end.
Perhaps Goldilocks has a “just-right” suggestion for the amount of time that should be required?
Nevertheless, most of the students and staff were in good spirits today. Are we tired? Yes. Are we enthusiastic about state tests? Not really. But we survived.
Carly Mitchell (a pseudonym) is a public-school teacher in Brooklyn N.Y. who loves to learn, to educate, and to expose the hypocrisy of New York City politicians.