First Person

Voices: Am I a proctor or a teacher?

Jessica Cuthbertson is a literacy teacher who loves achievement data about her students – until she fears she’s drowning in numbers.

I have a confession to make: I love data.  As a literacy teacher, I feel traitorous saying such a thing.  Don’t get me wrong.  I love words and poetry and prose too, but data is so … neat.  Evenly-spaced rows on spreadsheets, columns of numbers, levels and layers, bar graphs, line graphs – documents that appear organized and precise and usable.  Even if they aren’t.

Image of pencil erasing a multiple-choice test answer.Data doesn’t scare me.  I know its strengths and limitations.  I know what it tells me – this student performed in this way on this assessment at this moment in time.  And I know what it doesn’t tell me – did they eat breakfast that day?  Did they read the directions completely? Did they feel comfortable in the environment?  Did they know what they could (and couldn’t) ask the proctor?  Did they go into it thinking it was easy or hard?  Did they think about it at all?

Information about our students at the beginning of the school year is a gift.  Like the action-packed trailer of an anticipated film, such information offers teachers a “sneak peek” at the strengths, possible challenges and potential needs on their rosters.  But it is just a snippet of what our students can do.  Nothing more.

I received the gift of one-on-one 45-minute assessment appointments with my students the first two days of school. Our building decided to pilot an in-depth reading assessment system that was rolled out district-wide in kindergarten through fifth grades with our sixth- and seventh- graders, so that we would all have critical information about our readers right away.

In that time, I heard nearly 20 students read fiction and nonfiction texts at various levels.  We talked about their summer, their genre preferences and their hopes and dreams for sixth grade.  Beyond the academic snapshot, these appointments gave me the opportunity to begin building rapport and relationships with these readers before the first “regular” day of school.  It was heaven.

And then the school year really started.  And with it came … more assessments.  More data.  More information on my 65 students.

By the fifth day of school, my students had been assessed three times in my content area via the one-on-one reading assessment, a building-wide two-day writing assessment and an in-class pre-assessment outlined in the district unit-planning guide.  And then an email arrived in my inbox with an attachment for an assessment schedule for the following week.  Diagnostic computer-based assessments touted as “TCAP predictors” in reading, writing, math (and science at state-assessed grade levels) for all students with an end-of-August administration deadline.

Three assessments within the first five days of school and three class periods (or 270 minutes) zapped out of the following week’s schedule for more testing.

It was then that I began to wonder if I would be the first teacher to actually drown in data.  Worse, I wondered and worried that my students were going to think that in art you create, in Spanish you speak, in science you experiment and in literacy … you take tests!

Sadly, if my students gauge their literacy learning based on the first two weeks of school, they are likely to believe that assessment is the equivalent of learning and that reading and writing is about performance, prompts, timed tasks and rubrics.  And that’s just not okay with me.

Recently, an EdNews commentary reflected on the angst teachers feel at the beginning of the year awaiting TCAP results from the previous spring.  Truth be told, I haven’t even begun to dig into TCAP data.  Why would I?  The results are months old, and sitting before me are piles and piles of fresh data.  More data than I know what to do with.  Easily a semester or even a year’s worth of teaching points.  That is, if assessments subside long enough for teaching and learning to actually take place.

I love data.  But in our quest to measure student learning, we waste valuable instructional time and then wonder why our students aren’t progressing further faster.  And we pile data onto teachers and give them no collaborative time to dissect it, make sense of it and do something meaningful with the information.

We must ask ourselves: are we proctors or are we teachers?  Are our students test-takers or are they learners?

First Person

I’m a teacher in Memphis, and I know ‘grading floors’ aren’t a cheat — they’re a key motivator

PHOTO: Creative Commons / Shelly

Growing up, my father used to tell me not to come to him with a problem unless I had a solution.

That meant I learned quickly what kinds of solutions wouldn’t go over well — like ones involving my father and his money. His policy also meant that I had to weigh pros and cons, thinking about what I was able to do, what I wasn’t, and whom I needed help from in order to make things happen.

I sometimes wish decision-makers in Memphis had a father like mine. Because more often than not, it seems we are talking about the problems void of a solution or even possible solutions to vet.

Right now, the issue in Memphis and Shelby County Schools is the “grading floor,” or the policy of setting a lowest possible grade a teacher can assign a student. They have been temporarily banned after a controversy over high-school grade changing.

Grading floors aren’t new to teachers in Memphis, or to me, a fifth-grade teacher. I have taught and still teach students who are at least two grade levels behind. This was true when I taught fourth grade and when I taught sixth grade. Honestly, as the grade level increased, so did the gaps I saw.

More often than not, these students have been failed by a school, teacher, leader or system that did not adequately prepare them for the next grade. Meanwhile, in my classroom, I have a responsibility to teach grade-level material — adjusting it for individual students — and to grade their work accordingly.

That’s where “grading floors” come in. Without a grading floor, all of my current students would have grades below a 65 percent.

Can you imagine seeing the face of a fifth-grade boy who tried his hardest on your test, who answered all the questions you gave orally, who made connections to the text through auditory comprehension, only to receive a 0 on his paper?

I don’t have to imagine – I see similar reactions multiple times a day. Whether it’s a 65 percent or a 14 percent, it’s still an F, which signals to them “failure.” The difference between the two was summed up by Superintendent Hopson, who stated, “With a zero, it’s impossible to pass a course. It creates kids who don’t have hope, disciplinary issues; that creates a really bad scenario.”

I know that as years go by and a student’s proficiency gap increases, confidence decreases, too. With a lowered confidence comes a lower level of self-efficacy — the belief that they can do what they need to do to succeed. This, to me, is the argument for the grading floor.

In completing research for my master’s degree, I studied the correlation between reading comprehension scores and the use of a motivational curriculum. There was, as might have guessed, an increase in reading scores for students who received this additional curriculum.

So every day, I speak life into my students, who see Fs far too often in their daily lives. It is not my job as their teacher to eradicate their confidence, stifle their effort, and diminish their confidence by giving them “true” Fs.

“This is not an indication of your hard work, son. Yet, the reality is, we have to work harder,” I tell students. “We have to grind in order to make up what we’ve missed and I’m the best coach you have this year.”

In education, there are no absolutes, so I don’t propose implementing grading floors across the board. But I do understand their potential — not to make students appear more skilled than they are, or to make schools appear to be better than they are, but to keep students motivated enough to stay on track, even when it’s difficult.

If it is implemented, a grade floor must be coupled with data and other reports that provide parents, teachers, and other stakeholders with information that accurately highlights where a student is, both within the district and nationally. Parents shouldn’t see their child’s progress through rose-colored glasses, or be slapped by reality when options for their child are limited during and after high school.

But without hope, effort and attainment are impossible. If we can’t give hope to our kids, what are we here for?

I don’t have all the answers, but in the spirit of my father, don’t come with a problem unless you have a solution.

Marlena Little is a fifth-grade teacher in Memphis. A version of this piece first appeared on Memphis K-12, a blog for parents and students.

call out

Our readers had a lot to say in 2017. Make your voice heard in 2018.

PHOTO: Chris Hill/Whitney Achievement School
Teacher Carl Schneider walks children home in 2015 as part of the after-school walking program at Whitney Achievement Elementary School in Memphis. This photograph went viral and inspired a First Person reflection from Schneider in 2017.

Last year, some of our most popular pieces came from readers who told their stories in a series that we call First Person.

For instance, Carl Schneider wrote about the 2015 viral photograph that showed him walking his students home from school in a low-income neighborhood of Memphis. His perspective on what got lost in the shuffle continues to draw thousands of readers.

First Person is also a platform to influence policy. Recent high school graduate Anisah Karim described the pressure she felt to apply to 100 colleges in the quest for millions of dollars in scholarships. Because of her piece, the school board in Memphis is reviewing the so-called “million-dollar scholar” culture at some high schools.

Do you have a story to tell or a point to make? In 2018, we want to give an even greater voice to students, parents, teachers, administrators, advocates and others who are trying to improve public education in Tennessee. We’re looking for essays of 500 to 750 words grounded in personal experience.

Whether your piece is finished or you just have an idea to discuss, drop a line to Community Editor Caroline Bauman at [email protected]

But first, check out these top First Person pieces from Tennesseans in 2017:

My high school told me to apply to 100 colleges — and I almost lost myself in the process

“A counselor never tried to determine what the absolute best school for me would be. I wasted a lot of time, money and resources trying to figure that out. And I almost lost myself in the process.” —Anisah Karim     

Why I’m not anxious about where my kids go to school — but do worry about the segregation that surrounds us

“In fact, it will be a good thing for my boys to learn alongside children who are different from them in many ways — that is one advantage they will have that I did not, attending parochial schools in a lily-white suburb.” —Mary Jo Cramb

I covered Tennessee’s ed beat for Chalkbeat. Here’s what I learned.

“Apathy is often cited as a major problem facing education. That’s not the case in Tennessee.” —Grace Tatter

I went viral for walking my students home from school in Memphis. Here’s what got lost in the shuffle.

“When #blacklivesmatter is a controversial statement; when our black male students have a one in three chance of facing jail time; when kids in Memphis raised in the bottom fifth of the socioeconomic bracket have a 2.6 percent chance of climbing to the top fifth — our walking students home does not fix that, either.” —Carl Schneider

I think traditional public schools are the backbone of democracy. My child attends a charter school. Let’s talk.

“It was a complicated choice to make. The dialogue around school choice in Nashville, though, doesn’t often include much nuance — or many voices of parents like me.” —Aidan Hoyal

I grew up near Charlottesville and got a misleading education about Civil War history. Students deserve better.

“In my classroom discussions, the impetus for the Civil War was resigned to a debate over the balance of power between federal and state governments. Slavery was taught as a footnote to the cause of the war.” —Laura Faith Kebede