First Person

Ask an Expert: Testing season tips

EdNews Parent expert Ilana Spiegel offers up some helpful anecdotes and tips about how to help your child through testing season and how those results are really used – or not. 

Q. My fifth grade daughter is having trouble sleeping and seems to be stressed out over TCAP testing, which happens this entire month at her school. I heard the school is using TCAP results to decide whether she will get into advanced math next year.  So the stakes for kids are high – as they are for schools. Do you have any tips to deal with testing weeks at school?

A. As an educator I am supposed to remind you of the importance of a good night sleep, a good breakfast and good effort during TCAP. Hopefully your child is getting a good night sleep, eating a good breakfast and putting in a good effort every day, not just for high stakes testing.Education - Pupils at school doing homework

Our children are smart enough to know that these days and weeks are different than every other day. Concerts and practices are cancelled, appointments are postponed until after the testing window, parents are monitoring the hallway, snacks and drinks are brought in, and as a reward there is no homework! Those efforts to cushion the blow of high stakes tests inevitably fail, because, quantifiable tests take up so much space and weight in the lives of adults in schools that the weight and burden is inevitably felt by our children.

Learning from fourth-graders

Recently I had the incredible opportunity to sit side up side with some fourth-graders preparing for TCAP. Fourth-graders are a unique bunch of high stakes test takers; not only do they have one year of experience with the testing machine, but developmentally they are less egocentric. It is around 9 or 10 that kids begin to realize that the world does not revolve around them.

The day I came in most of the students had finished two cycles of practicing the extended writing portion, which included a plan, rough draft and final copy. Jack had the beginning of one plan and not writing. When I pulled up my chair next to him he teared up and explained how he hated TCAP and did not understand why he had to take it:

“Why do you take any test?” I asked.

“To see your progress,” he replied.

“Why is this test different?”

“Because it is bigger, badder and longer.”

Although Jack recognized and appreciated the importance of testing in general, he was struggling with the purpose of a “bigger, badder and longer” test. Tests, time constraints and demands we don’t like are a life skill. But when we are confident and inspired, those lines in the sand feel more like scaffolding than quicksand.  Jack was feeling neither confident nor inspired.

I know, as does his teacher, that Jack is a kid who reads widely and thinks deeply. When we pulled out his (blank) paper it turned out he knew so much about the topic he didn’t know where to start, what to include and what was OK to leave out. Unfortunately, a blank paper on test day would not have led to a discussion and progress, but judged as “unsatisfactory.”

And he knew that.

If he doesn’t do well on this test, he saw it as not just failing a test that he, his teacher, and parents will see, but he has failed himself because others have seen it. When we played out a “worst case scenario” of him not finishing, or getting a low score, he said he would be mad at himself because he would end up in a “low” or “bad” literacy class the next year. Jack understands that tests are intended to help us progress and improve, but this type of test can limit opportunities and serve as a gate-keeper. How do we help our children, therefore, see the test as a bridge – not as an impassable chasm?

The truth about TCAP test scores and class placement

Another “what I am supposed to tell you” as an educator and a member of multiple accountability committees is that your child’s score has a direct impact on her placement. The reality is that the impact is minimal. With the exception of third grade reading scores, test data and results are not available until August. Most placement decisions for middle and high school are being made now, without the test score. Yes, I hear middle school students reporting that their teacher said they have to get a certain score to be recommended for an advanced or honors class, but I have never heard of a child denied access to an advanced class because of a TCAP score.

If you or your child are concerned about your child’s placement:

  • Talk to the teacher;
  • Ask to see a “body of evidence” including test scores, classwork and anecdotal observations.

Most teachers and administrators will tell you that they want to see your child in the most appropriately challenging class. How she performs day in and day out is a better indicator of class placement than a single test score.

TCAP, and the new PARCC assessment coming in 2015, are designed to determine proficiency toward a standard. That is it. By themselves test results cannot determine a gifted and talented identification any more than they can diagnosis a learning disability.  The same is true for TCAP. In fact, many high schools struggle to motivate students to preform well on these tests because students know that their transcripts simply state their proficiency level amongst a sea of grades, and colleges are more interested in ACT, SAT and AP scores.

We need to help our children find that place of balance between stress and carefree lack of concern. Learning to navigate tests, time constraints and external demands is a life skill. When I don’t know a student, the first thing I ask for is test data, not because it is a definitive end point to describe who she is as a learner, but it is a place to start.

Find out why child is stressed

What I learned from the fourth-graders, and specifically from Jack, is the importance of finding out why your child is stressing.

Pull up a chair, a pillow or a piece of floor and listen to what she is telling you. After Jack and I conferred about his struggles, he went on to write pages and pages. Occasionally he asked me questions about organization and content. The question that stuck with me, however, was about process:  “What do I do next week when I’m not allowed to ask you for help?” At the heart of that question is his realization that learning is collaborative and constructive, and assessment is independent and evaluative. That rub, that dissonance, was the cause of his shut down.

“Jack, what you know about reading, writing and math you know by heart. It’s in you. The questions you have about your learning show me what you know, not what you don’t know. This test is just about showing someone you don’t know not what you know, but what you can do on that day.  What you do on the test isn’t going to change what I think about you or what your teacher thinks about you. Some guy downtown getting paid $10 an hour might think something different, or he might not.  Just ask yourself what you want him to know about you.”

On a personal note, my oldest once took that very advice a little too far. A few years ago when the writing prompt asked him to describe his perfect day he wrote a story about spending the day with Thomas Crapper, the supposed inventor of the flush toilet.  He wrote about different types of flush systems, toilet paper choices and the consistency of what gets deposited. With a smirk of an 11- year-old, he explained that his response was really a metaphor for what he thought of the test.

First Person

‘I didn’t feel like I had anyone to ask for support’: Why it matters to have teachers who look like me

PHOTO: Alan Petersime

For 10 years — the first decade I was in school — all my teachers were white women.

As a Mexican-American kid, I didn’t get the chance to have a man of color as a teacher until high school. Going into my senior year, I like how diverse my teachers are now, but I wish I’d had the same experience when I was younger.

When I think about why it matters to have a teacher I can relate to, I think back to fifth grade. A classmate said to me, “Mexicans are illegal—they cross the border every day! How about you, did you cross the border?” This bothered me. So, after class, I asked the teacher for help. But all she said was, “That’s OK, he was just playing.” From there, I had nowhere to go. She was at the top of the food chain.

In 1990, before they met, my mother and father came over the border from Mexico. My mom’s parents weren’t making enough profit from their cattle ranch, so they had little choice but to immigrate. My mom came with them to the United States and worked at a restaurant so she could send money back home. My father followed his older brother here because he wanted to start a new life. Little did he know he would one day cross paths with my mother and eventually start a family.

But my classmate was “just playing” when he insulted all of this. I wish my teacher had done something else.

If I’d been the teacher, I would’ve taken a different approach and worked to understand why we were acting and responding the way we were. Maybe the other student and I could’ve found common ground. But, unfortunately, we never had a chance to try.

Up until ninth grade, I had zero male teachers of color. I didn’t feel like I had anyone to ask for support when things like the fifth-grade incident happened. Many of us students felt that way — and that’s why I want to be a teacher, a fifth-grade teacher in particular. I want to make my culture an asset in the classroom and be a teacher students feel comfortable confiding in, no matter their background.

A teacher’s perspective: Cut from the same cloth: Why it matters that black male teachers like me aren’t alone in our schools

In middle school, I started seeing more male educators, but they were all white. Then, when it came time for me to start high school, I ended up going to school in a different neighborhood — an hour commute away—and things finally changed for me. Since starting high school, I’ve had six male teachers of color, and it’s made a huge difference.

My high school makes a big deal out of the whole “building relationships” thing. To my teachers and everyone else at the school, relationships are just as important as academics. At first, it was hard to get used to, but eventually it started making sense to me. I’m in an all-male mentorship group led by two African-American men who openly share about their struggles growing up in New York, and give us advice in any area of life — including what it means to appreciate our cultures. This is one of the things I like most about my school.

It’s hard to explain the way it feels to have a teacher who looks like you; they’re like older brothers who become a huge part of our lives, even if it’s just for four years. They make it easier to connect and socialize and help me feel more like I belong. To me, learning from someone who reflects who you are is one of the best things a student can experience.

Near the end of the school year, my mentorship group did an activity where we took turns getting asked questions by other students and staff. One of the mentors asked me, “What’s it like being Mexican American and how has your background influenced your goals?” No one had ever asked me that before, and it took a long time for me to process the question.

After a few moments, I spoke a bit about my family’s story and shared some of the stereotypes I had encountered and how they affect me today. Everyone was so supportive, and the mentors encouraged me to continue breaking stereotypes and defining myself rather than letting others define me.

It was nerve-wracking at first, telling my story in that group, but after three years of high school, we’d developed that level of trust. It was the first time I’d shared my story with that many people at once, but it felt intimate and very different from the time in fifth grade when that kid tried to tell my story for me.

Finally having teachers that look like me has made a huge difference. They don’t just mentor me and help me with my academics, they also make my goal of becoming a teacher seem more realistic.

Having men of color I can look up to and model myself after is a big part of why I have no doubt I’ll make it to college — and eventually be able to give other kids the type of help my mentors have given me. I know where I’m needed, and that’s where I’m headed.

Jose Romero is a senior at EPIC High School North in Queens, New York. This piece originally appeared on the blog of TNTP, a national nonprofit and advocacy group that trains new teachers.

First Person

A Queens teacher on Charlottesville: ‘It can’t just be teachers of color’ offering lessons on race

PHOTO: Bob Mical/Creative Commons

In a few short weeks, school will resume in New York and I’m already thinking about how we are going to address racism within the four walls of my classroom. I’m thinking about what texts, historical and current, we can read and films and documentaries we can watch to support dialogue, questioning, and solutions for combatting that ugly, pervasive thread in the fabric of our country’s patchwork quilt called racism.

Last year we read “Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass,” a former slave turned abolitionist, and juxtaposed its reading with a viewing of Ava DuVernay’s documentary “13th,” which discusses modern-day slavery in the guise of mass incarceration. Students asked questions of the documentary as they watched it and discussed those queries within their groups and with the class at large afterwards.

We do our children and ourselves a disservice when we don’t have these difficult conversations as a part of our collective curriculums. However, many teachers from various walks of life are neither well-versed nor fully comfortable discussing race on any level with their students. Not talking about racism won’t make it go away. If anything, not talking about racism in the classroom further perpetuates racist ideologies that are, at their root, born out of ignorance. Education’s goal is to dispel ignorance and replace it with truth.

With that being said, just how many teachers feel equipped to facilitate lessons that touch heavily upon race in the classroom? Not nearly enough.

According to Teaching Tolerance, “The dialogue about race should start in the classroom — the teacher-prep classroom, that is. Preservice teachers should be exploring multiculturalism and discussing ways to honor diversity in their future classrooms.”

But often, Hilton Kelly, a professor of education at Davidson College in North Carolina told the site, the coursework isn’t giving future teachers the training they need to talk about race. “Even when future teachers take courses on diversity and multiculturalism,” Kelly said, “those courses don’t take the critical approach to race that future teachers truly need.”

“Food, folklore and festivals are not the same as an analysis of race in America,” Kelly argued.

But an analysis of race in America is exactly what needs to happen. Furthermore, it can’t just be teachers of color solely facilitating such lessons in their classrooms.

I don’t want to write about the events going on in Virginia. I don’t want to think about it. I’m so tired of the hatred and I long for peace, but I can’t very well in good conscience remain silent. That would be akin to protesting with those hate-mongers in Virginia last weekend. I can’t just write about back-to-school shopping, lesson planning, and business-as-usual while my brothers and sisters in Virginia are being murdered in cold blood by white supremacist American Nazis.

Are the children of Virginia safe? Are our children anywhere safe? What can I do to make a difference within the hearts and minds of the children whom I teach? If education is our best vehicle for bringing about change — which it is— how am I going to infuse the lessons I teach with critical thinking and analysis about racism in the United States for the seventh-graders entrusted in my care? How are other educators planning to address these events with their students at every grade-level?

I pose these questions to all who are reading. Whether you are a teacher, a student, a parent, an administrator, or a community member, I plead with you to work together to create answers that work toward healthy conversations and hands-on action in the fight against racism.

Vivett Dukes is a teacher at Queens Collegiate: A College Board School. A version of this post first appeared on New York School Talk