Friday, April 30, 2010

When In Doubt, Just Put Down “C”

Ah, it's that time of year again – warm breezes rich with the sweet scent of ripe blossoms, the flutter of feathered creatures taking wing into the sun-dappled twilight, and the gut-wrenching panic which storms into every elementary and middle school across the city of NY. I'm talking, of course, about State Testing time – that two-week period of the year in which administrators lock themselves in their offices, teachers race like frightened mice through the halls, and children from every borough vomit uncontrollably before trudging to school. For you see, the entire 180+ day school year is but a mere farce, a façade of "education", a mockery of enlightenment. The DOE does not care one iota about what takes place in the classrooms for 174 days; the real measure of a student's success, and by extension, the success of the school and the efficacy of the teachers is what transpires during six days in April and May. During that time, every single student enrolled in the NYC Public schools (except for those that are exempt for "language" difficulties) must take and pass two tests in Math and ELA (English Language Arts). And by "pass" I mean, "Score higher than a 13." Because that was the minimum raw score for a passing grade on last year's 8th grade ELA exam. 13. Out of 44 points. If you took a pencil and randomly guessed at the questions, the odds were in your favor to pass the tests. Education blogger Diana Senechal did exactly that on the ELA and Math tests' multiple choice sections and passed both despite not filling in the written portions of either test. Yes, she left the entire written portion of both tests utterly blank and still managed to score high enough for promotion.

Long story short, a comatose raccoon could pass the NY State Performance tests, so do the schools really make as big a deal about them as the papers and pundits say they do?

Oh hell yes.

In our school, it all started six months ago. We received a memo reminding us that the testing period was rapidly approaching (rapidly, as in "six months from now") and we should begin preparing the students. Preparing them for what? Randomly stabbing their pencils at a Scantron grid? Like I do with most memos from the school, I quickly and dutifully added it to my circular file. Since then, every single "Weekly Bulletin" has included a note at the bottom informing the staff of exactly how many weeks were remaining before the "big day." Once March was over, the pressure really began to mount. We administered two full-scale practice tests in two weeks time in both subjects. This meant that for six days, the first four periods of the day were spent doing nothing except forcing the students to take a practice Math and ELA exam. And we did this twice. 48 periods, or approximately 36 hours of instructional time were completely diverted to taking practice tests that could be passed simply by bubbling in A B C D over and over again until the end.

Then, last week, we were all given a memo outlining the "procedures" involved in administering the tests. Look up the phrase "Pants-Crappingly Ludicrous" in a dictionary and you will find an image of our school's testing memo. For legal reasons, I cannot reproduce it here, but nothing is stopping me from giving you, dear readers, a taste of the mind-bending idiocy that is the NYC DOE:

  1. Everything in the room that contains text must be removed or covered. Everything. Vocabulary words, student work, calendars, even the maps. One year, long ago, I was told by the principal that I had to take down the American Flag. When I asked him why, he said, "There might be a reading passage about flags on the test." Why do we cover these things up? Because, according to those involved in establishing the testing procedures, those things "have words on them." And do you know what they tell us to cover them with? Get ready for it: Newspapers. Motherfucking newspapers! When I pointed out in a meeting once that newspapers, as far as I could tell, contained words, I was told to stop being so "contrary."
  2. While the students are taking the test, the teachers are not allowed, for any reason, to sit down. They must "vigilantly" circulate throughout the room the entire time. The first portion of the ELA test takes 3 periods to administer. That's two hours and 15 minutes. That's right, during testing, NYC tells teachers that they are not allowed to sit down for two and a quarter hours and must walk up and down the aisles. And for what purpose you might ask? I haven't the slightest idea. We're not allowed to speak, gesture, or otherwise engage the students during that time. Even if a student is sitting at his desk and filling in every circle on the grid, or doodling dinosaurs in the essay section, we are not allowed to say one word to them.
  3. Teachers are not allowed to have a pen in their pocket during testing. I have never once been given a satisfactory reason as to why not. All NY State tests must be taken in pencil; at no point may a student use a pen. So it's not like I'm going to use it to change student answers or anything. To be fair, we're not allowed to have pencils or markers on our person, either. A few years ago, as I was proctoring an exam, the testing coordinator came around to my room specifically to tell me to take the Sharpie marker out of my pocket. Seriously.
  4. The school is expected to provide a testing environment that is free from distractions. Ok, I can see that. However, during two separate "testing meetings," the faculty was told that we should refrain from "wearing clunky shoes or loud jewelry." Yes. Loud jewelry. Obviously, the ridiculously high failure rates in NYC schools can be directly attributed to thunderous necklaces and cacophonous watchbands.
  5. In my third year of teaching, I was assigned to hallway duty during the tests. My job, I kid you not, was to stand in the hallway and escort students to and from the bathroom during the tests. Not because the school wanted to make sure that they went straight there without lingering, but to prevent cheating. How? Because, and I quote, "Students might try to read something in the hallway." What would they read?! The Fire Exit signs?! How the Christ could that possibly help them on an ELA test?! In any case, while I was standing in the hallway (for three hours), I passed the time by enjoying a fresh cup of steaming hot coffee. While I was sipping my morning drug, a man who I had never seen before approached me and said, "There's no eating or drinking during the test." I thought he was joking or something, so I responded, "Well, it's a good thing that I finished my test early, then. Ha Ha Ha." Without cracking a smile, he repeated, "There's no eating or drinking during the test." I explained to this man that A) I was not proctoring a test, B) I was a teacher, not a student, and C) Who the hell are you? Turns out he was an auditor from the state who visited schools to make sure they didn't "Breech Protocol." Those were his words. As if we were conducting nuclear missile launch drills or something. So, we had a little discussion about the reasoning behind this particular edict. I swear on a stack of Silmarillions that this was his answer: "Let's say that there was an emergency in one of the testing rooms, and you were called in there to help, but on your way in you tripped and spilled your coffee on a student's test." He didn't say anything else, so I prompted him: "Yeah, and…" But he didn't answer. He just smirked at me and stood there. So, I responded in the most reasonable, logical fashion – I took another sip of coffee. He stormed off, and, as I later found out, reported to the principal that I had "Breeched Protocol" and the school ended up getting fined. Fined! Because I was drinking a cup of coffee in the hallway! Of course, the guy neglected to find out my name, so I didn't receive any disciplinary notices, but according to a colleague of mine, and fellow union representative, I could have. Not only that, I could have lost my teaching license for drinking a coffee in the hallway during a NY State test.

So, after all the memos, all the warnings, all the pressure placed on everybody, I bet you're thinking that the school took every measure possible to prevent a "protocol breech," and everything went off without a hitch, right? Wait, hold on, I can't stop laughing at that sort of naivety. Here's what actually happened:

  1. The school forgot to turn off the "change of period" bells. So much for a "distraction-free testing environment." Every 45 minutes, the bells went off three times. Oh, and then the fire alarm was pulled by some miscreant, leading the principal to make an announcement over the PA to disregard it.
  2. Three rooms which were scheduled to be used for testing were not "prepared," meaning that they still contained a vast amount of visible words. Neighboring teachers (including myself) had to rush around and tear down everything from the walls, lest the students gain an unfair advantage on the ELA test because there was a map of South America on the back of a door.
  3. The testing coordinator only packaged three spare pencils in with each testing packet because she refused to believe that more than 10% of the students would forget theirs. Teachers were racing around the hallways looking for extra pencils, because, let's face it, half the students aren't prepared for class, ever. Why should this day be any different for them?
  4. The test was supposed to start at exactly 9:15 (this is a time set by the state, and cannot be altered for any reason). The AP didn't announce the start of the test until 9:18. This seems like a minor point, but when you consider that a teacher can lose his credentials for drinking a cup of coffee, then it doesn't seem so trivial anymore, does it?
  5. At least two teachers that I know of were scheduled to be in two different testing locations at the same time. Hence, when they finally worked it out, they were late to the next assignment, causing the teacher they were replacing to be late to his next assignment, and so forth. The person who was supposed to be replacing me didn't show up until 35 minutes into the fourth period.
  6. The testing coordinator was supposed to generate labels for each student – labels which list their name, address, class, school student ID number and other such pertinent information and are affixed to the tests. She didn't. It would have taken all of 10 minutes to do so, as the data is already in the computer, but she didn't. These labels are used by the scoring committee in the grading process. When I inquired as to what we should do, I was told, "Oh, just write it on the back of each test." Irritated, I said, "You want me to write all that information by hand on the back of 30 tests?" The answer? "Nah, just their names, the other stuff doesn't matter." Right. Because there is only one "Ashley Rodriguez" enrolled in the entire NY public school system. Oh, wait, there are five of them in the 8th grade at our school alone.

Here's the best part of it all. Our school has five Assistant Principals. We don't need five AP's, but five we have at a cost to the taxpayer of roughly half a million dollars a year. If you are a regular reader, then you know that they spend their days either hiding in their rooms, or sauntering about the building whipping "Unsatisfactory" ratings on hardworking, unsuspecting teachers. On the first day of the test, two of the five Assistant Principals were absent. On the one day of the year where their particular skills of "roaming aimlessly about" might have actually come in handy, two of them decided to stay home.

And before you ask, yes, I had two cups of coffee during the test. And there was a Uniball Vision riding in my pocket the entire time. As far as I can tell, the Earth didn't crash into the Sun because of my breech of protocol. Although somewhere, the Angel of Idiocy was weeping…