My school is currently T minus 1.5 weeks until state standardized testing, and I’m going through a slight crisis. I call this time of year The Test Prep Darkness; the moment I realize that I’ve done very little test prep with my kids and I become increasingly frantic and insane. Here’s the cycle I experience annually:
At the beginning of the year, I do what they tell you to do in teacher school and reflect on my priorities. What is most important to me that the kids learn this year? This involves a little bit of conscience-examining. My administration would tell me (or at least hint heavily) that the kids succeeding on The Test is the most important thing. We’re a charter school; not only do our test scores matter for the kids’ futures, but they also contribute to keeping our school open. The media tells me The Test is the most important thing, too. Basically every resource or tip or mandate that’s thrown at teachers today is focused on helping them excel on a standardized test. Those voices are loud, and it’s hard to drown them out.
So every year I try to convince myself to focus more on The Test, and every year I change my mind. This is the point at which people start to avoid me, because I become unpleasantly sanctimonious. I decide—and announce, when there are no administrators in earshot—that our holy calling as teachers is not to prepare kids for a test, but to help them gain the skills and knowledge and compassion and fortitude to become people of competence and integrity.
At this point, my short list of student goals really gels. It always looks something like this:
1. Get the kids through the year alive. Help them develop some social and emotional coping skills, and work toward a positive self-image for the ones that seem irreparably broken.
2. Prove to them that they actually love reading, even if they don’t know it yet.
3. Make them better writers.
4. Make them pass a standardized test.
The old adage about parenting is also true about teaching: The days are long, but the years are short. There’s not enough time in the school year for me to build my kids’ confidence, offer them positive experiences with great books, do complex, multi-step writing assignments, and spend a lot of time on test prep. So I spend August until about the middle of March teaching in ways that align with these values.
I let the kids guide the curriculum and study what makes them feel engaged and capable. I give open-ended projects that play to their strengths instead of multiple choice tests. I read them the best books I can find—and I do all the voices. We write in journals about our fears and our beliefs and our relationships, and sometimes we end class early to have a group meeting about some struggle the kids are facing. We write and write and write, and I conference with every kid about their writing, which takes forever.
Then March comes, and we have a faculty meeting about The Test. And all anyone talks about is The Test. And I realize that The Test has barely been mentioned in my class all year. So a few weeks prior to The Test, I freak out and try to cram an entire year’s worth of test prep into my poor little 13-year-olds, and I make all of us miserable. That’s the Test Prep Darkness. That’s where I am right now.
However, I know what comes next, because it happens every year. Pretty soon, I’m going to give up. I’ll realize that I’m creating an environment in my class where nobody is learning, and I’ll chill the hell out. We’ll all breathe a sigh of relief. The kids will start the two weeks of testing, and I’ll go back to worrying about their emotional well-being instead of their scores. I’ll spend a large part of class trying to boost their confidence and reduce their stress, and then we’ll read something amazing to take their minds off The Test.
In a few months, we’ll get scores back. And I don’t want to tempt fate, but chances are that my kids will do well. Really well. Better than I ever expect when I’m in The Test Prep Darkness. Because it turns out, when kids feel smart and valued, when they read for fun, when they know how to write confidently, when they can manage stress, they do well on The Test.
I’m not there yet. I’m still in Test Prep Darkness, where I make everyone around me frantic and miserable. But a kid wrote in her journal last week, “This class made me love books. I didn’t like reading, but now I read at home even when I don’t have to.” And I can feel myself moving a little closer to the light.