Today, at least in the state of Michigan (and I’m pretty sure in many other states as well), is testing day.
How do I know this? I’m not currently teaching in a public high school, but somehow, the ACT and its conjoined twin, the MME (Michigan Merit Examination), are not only on my radar, they are having an impact on my research and my teaching.
Let’s begin with teaching. I’ve mentioned a few times here that I work with some local students, most of them “Gen 1.5” kids who speak a language other than English at home, giving them some extra English instruction and support. Yesterday, I went to see four students, two of whom are juniors this year. They are both taking the ACT for the first time. I’ve known it was coming up for some months now, because their mothers had alerted me to its date. Yesterday, they were worried (the kids, not the parents. well, in reality, probably the kids and the parents). Not crying, panicking, freaking out, anxiety attack worried, but worried. They asked what pronouns they “could use” on the essay, and they asked how many examples they should have. We talked about what a good thesis might include, and they asked how to improve their reading comprehension scores.
My plans had included talking to them about color imagery in The Handmaid’s Tale and the role of memories and remembering in Beloved, along with a rhetorical analysis of an editorial response to Beloved’s banning in a nearby city high school. So much for that.
These tests are also encroaching on my research plans. Since I’m doing research in a high school this year, I am “on their schedule,” which means while all my buddies at UM and MSU are on spring break, I’m still working. But that work is happening at home this week, because the teachers at my research site are busy proctoring these tests, which run from Tuesday through Thursday and thus eat up the entire week. I need to do full-day observations with my participating teachers soon, and was going to do that this week while my own classes and obligations on campus were cancelled. Momentary brain lapse — I forgot about testing.
So observations will have to wait. No worries. I’m just trying to make education better for students in our nation by learning from incredible teachers how they go about their important work. But we can put that on hold, along with students’ learning, to ascertain (or maybe not) whether they’ve actually learned anything with wildly outdated, culturally and racially biased, over-administered, ridiculous tests.
But what bothers me about this week isn’t the ways in which these tests are impacting my teaching and research life. I will be at the school next week, and it will not be the end of the world that I couldn’t do observations on my own schedule — that’s the life of a researcher. And my tutoring plans can go on hold for another week without these kids (who are all doing just fine in school and will likely do just fine on the ACT this week) suffering any grand consequences. If talking to them a little bit last night about what they can do in an ACT essay conclusion helps them out a little bit today (emotionally or otherwise), then I’m glad we took the time.
No, what frustrates me is that with each passing year, these tests get a little higher-stakes. I can see it in the eyes of my students, in the panicked tone of parents, and in the frustration of teachers, whose livelihoods get more tied to these tests in more states every year (see one teacher’s thoughts on that, among other things). The other day, a teacher was telling me about the standardized testing “police,” people who come in from the department of education to make sure everyone is at attention and no one is cheating with a rogue water bottle. A couple years ago, this teacher posted some comical suggestions of things one can do when proctoring these tests, which, though funny, points out just how ridiculous some of the testing conditions have become for all involved. For more on that, check out this (anonymous) teacher’s depiction of what proctoring these tests is like (read the whole post for the real effect):
The first day of testing is the longest, most physically and emotionally draining. But days two and three get progressively worse as the voices in our heads start telling us to do crazy things like grab as many test booklets as we can manage and run up and down the hallways of the school, ripping them to shreds while screaming incoherently.
She tweeted from her classroom 20 minutes ago (must’ve been during a break, because I’m pretty sure the school becomes a wifi and 4G deadzone during the test), “Forget Guantanamo Bay. Just force enemies of the state to proctor the ACT for 4+ hours. That’ll drive an innocent person to confess to mass murder.”
Yesterday, a student told me she wasn’t allowed to bring her book in with her (do you remember when you were a kid and you would finish your test early and read, and it would be the best part of testing day — all the reading? Yeah. Those days are gone.) Kids would rather be reading and teachers would rather be teaching, folks.
Teachers and students aren’t the only ones whose nerves are being plucked like guitar strings, either. Every year, the pitch of my tutoring parents’ voices gets a little higher, a little more strained, a little more urgent, when they talk to me about their kids needing to do well on the SAT and ACT. And they want me to start preparing their kids sooner and sooner. They show me the ACT and SAT prep books they bought for their freshmen, or the SAT vocabulary book they want me to use with their 8th graders, and I try really really hard not to scream and run away forever. As someone who’s basically privately contracted, I feel some of the pressure — what if the kids don’t “correctly comprehend” the author of that dry passage’s meaning? Will their parents fire me?
Pressure’s on this week for many students, who must pass the MME to graduate with a diploma, and who want to do well on the ACT so that they can get into a good college. My thoughts go out to them, to their parents, and to their teachers, who are likely pacing up and down rows of desks wishing they were engaging students in a lively discussion about a novel, fractions, or the periodic table right about now.