What am I preparing them for?

A couple colleagues and I were talking today as we figured out what the interventions would look like for the 8th grade students that didn’t meet the standard on the math STAAR test. As teachers are wont to do, the conversation turned to reflection on the year, our overall results and how our students would do moving forward to 9th grade. During that talk, I said a few things that, before saying them out loud, I would probably not have admitted to. But now that I have, I also have to make a full confession to my readers.

The vast majority (90%) of our 8th grade kids showed some improvement from the 7th grade STAAR math test. The percentage of students that met the standard also dramatically improved in two different ways: Dramatically fewer 8th graders need these interventions than last year and we had many students that did not meet the standard in 7th grade but did meet it this year.

That’s all well and good. Many teachers congratulated me and the other 8th grade math teacher when the results came in. My administration is over the moon. Hell, even the district Superintendent passed along his kudos.

So why do I feel lousy?

By way of these results, the state of Texas believes the kids that DID meet the standard to be ready and prepared to move on to 9th grade and tackle Algebra I. If I’m being honest with myself, I don’t fully agree. The kids that ‘passed’ certainly know how to pass a 50+ question multiple choice test. They might know a process for setting up and solving a proportion, usually when they see three known things and one unknown; if they see a right triangle, they probably know how to set up the Pythagorean Theorem; they can use decimals, percents or fractions with some measure of accuracy; they can recognize three dimensional shapes and perhaps use provided formulae to find surface area or volume; they might be able to interpret a graph or find probability when using spinners, dice, jellybeans or the like.

But do they know how to solve a problem? Have I taught them that?

Have I become what I am advocating so strongly against? Have I stooped to the point of valuing a collection of test scores instead of the welfare and future of the individual student? In my first few years of teaching, I was given the freedom and encouragement (from two amazing administrators) to teach and literally not worry about the test scores. This year, I feel like the directive was to increase the test scores. That directive (whether or not it actually was a directive I suppose is up to interpretation), coupled with a school culture that had not encouraged students to be self-accountable admittedly beat me down. (God bless the other 8th grade math teacher…I would not have made it through the year without him talking me off the ledge a few times.) Just a few months into the school year, I stopped fighting the conceptual battles that I usually fight and just went the way of showing them how to answer different kinds of questions. And that is far afield from solving problems.

I can make myself feel better by saying ‘Oh, if I had kept fighting those battles, we wouldn’t have gotten through a quarter of the curriculum’ or ‘they will have calculators next year so they don’t need to know how to convert decimals to fractions.’ But those are excuses. If these kids struggle with Algebra, I will take the some (or even most) of the blame. But I won’t take all of it.

The egg that No Child Left Behind incubated has now hatched into an accountability Godzilla that is destroying the very foundation of our schools. All over the country, teachers like me have compromised their instruction…indeed their morals…for the sake of the almighty test score. I didn’t think that would happen to me. But, this year, it did. I am truly sorry and will have to find some way to apologize to my kids that won’t get me in some sort of legal jeopardy.

I pledge that this won’t happen again. Wherever I end up teaching in the future, I will again teach…test scores be damned.

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