Case Study: When we do our job, yet still fail students. Part 1 of 2

At school today (October 26) our first testing schedule came out, describing the TNReady writing tests that students will take next month.

It was a monstrosity of colliding testing paradigms.

Students were scheduled to meet during 1st and 2nd blocks (3 hours) in four locations throughout the school where they would be taking their writing tests on the computer. The tests (we already knew) would consist of two essays and two responses--a choice among informative, argumentative or narrative prompts.

This, despite changes that Tennessee had made to the writing test after last year's two-essay challenge, where students' efforts had too often flagged and waned in the second half of the exam (which was a much harder, multi-sourced synthesis essay).

This year, I had learned through my role as a TNCore coach that the test could be split up--hat students could take it at different times over a span of days. I had advocated for this change to testing since I got back to school, both with my department chair and with my principal.

When I saw the test, I thought of these test scores of one of my standard ELA students from last year:

I wasn't afraid of the rigor of the new test. I was banking on that. What scared me was the timeframe.

In the proposed schedule, the old paradigm of herding hundreds of kids into a large room to answer multiple-choice questions for two hours was still present, even though there was new technology and relaxed regulations that forestalled taking it all at once.

I talked with my department colleagues at lunch about this. Something needed to be done. Since I was still on planning, I went to the vice principal with my concerns. I brought a copy of the test results above. I was sure he would move.

He wouldn't.

He gave me a look at testing from the administrator's perspective: a limited number of computers, hundreds of kids to move here and there, CTE teachers complaining about lost classroom time as their rooms were commandeered for tests (despite explicit regulations that technology be used only for those subjects), and the fact that we had additional computers but no place to put them and minimal help from the district for installation.

[An aside, I'm waiting on a work order for technology in my classroom that was submitted in winter of 2014. I felt his pain there.]

The subtext of his rejection was professional. He wasn't mad at me or put off by the pressure I put on him. He wanted me to see this:

He had done his job.

Mr. [Principal] had delegated the role of scheduling to him. He had tried his best. Others had failed to do their jobs--the district, the state. He had done his.

As I reflected on this, I realized something. That was the problem--not his problem, not my problem, but our problem as an education-focused society that always overpromises and seldom delivers the resources that students need. There is always blame to go around. Seldom is there responsibility. And true student-centered leadership is a rare pearl of great price.

There is so much noise surrounding education today--at my America Achieves conference last weekend, I heard David Coleman call it "unproductive noise." Buzz words like "technology," "standards," and "testing," get thrown around all the time. Standing in the middle of a melee as it seems, I must admit it's hard to stay focused on the main thing: the individual student.

And yet we do our jobs. This is an excuse for every one who parents, teaches, administers, supports.

We do our jobs, we cash the checks, we pay the mortgages. Yet some students, put in very challenging conditions, fail. (I would challenge any college student or professional adult to write for 3 hours on two challenging prompts.)

This was a tough situation. Everyone had done their job, apparently. Yet students were facing seven days of ELA writing tests that would uproot schedules for the entire school; that would make them test in conditions that weren't optimal for success; that would grind learning to a halt and reap rewards/results that weren't that accurate.

Something more needed to be done.

[This tale is only half finished. This post isn't a complaint--so please don't use it to bash administrators, especially mine. I waited four days for a reason. It's a report. A search for solutions will be in the next post. Here is the link.]