My Visit to the Death Star

Last week, I had the opportunity to travel to Austin and be a part of the 8th Grade Reading STAAR Item Review Committee. I am super grateful for the opportunity, but in the days leading up to, and during breakfast on the first day: sitting around a table for 8, the seats filled with fellow English teachers from all over, I joked that since our meeting was being hosted by Pearson, and was located at the Pearson Event Center in Austin, I had decided to lovingly refer to it as the Death Star; i.e., "Yeah, I'm headed to the Death Star tomorrow," and similar witty Star Wars-related nonsense that you've all come to love from me. I would tell people that I felt a little bit guilty, voluntarily being a part of The Man (Pearson)'s grander scheme to monetize this thing that I hold so dear: ensuring our students are going to be successful adults. 

I was being quite lofty, of course, in my resolute belief that I was simply going to go to Austin, be a part of a process for a couple of days, but that my input wouldn't actually have any kind of real impact--that I wasn't really going to be heard--just so The Man could check the box, they could say, "Oh, sure. You hate us, but, we had these committees of teachers come, so we're good here."

I'll pause here to share another John Oliver joint with you. I watched this, and then emailed the link to everyone close to me not in education with the title, "THIS." John talks about the business of standardized testing, nationwide, and the effect that is having on our students and education system as a whole: 
(pardon some of the more crass comedic's worth the 18 minutes...)

While that thought process was a real thing, I think the thing I wasn't saying along with that, is that I wouldn't have anything to contribute. I've never been a part of one of these committees before, and I had no idea what to expect. What if it came down to it, and I just didn't know what to contribute? It was easier to build in the safety net of their impassivity, than my own inability to have all the answers. I'm not sure what I was picturing. Someone turning to me, calling my name, asking me to write a better test item than the one we were looking at and my balking? I don't know. But that's not what happened. 

Before I get into the specifics of how those two days changed things for me, I want to be clear about a few things:

  1. I think we test kids too much. Period. 

I accept that the system, as it exists now, necessitates the testing of the standards we've all agreed that students need to know before advancing to the next grade. TEA (and the education agencies of other states) has set the curriculum standards for each grade and subject. They also create resources that go with those standards, like a scope & sequence, so that all schools are teaching material at about the same time during the year, as per what is developmentally appropriate for that grade and subject. I get that; I also understand that when you set standards for students, you have to have something set up to measure who is meeting that standard and who isn't. Got it. At it's most basic level, I understand all of these things. But realistically, it is impractical (and unfair) to teach students while following the curriculum, doing what you think is best for them, and not assess how that process is going until the high-stakes test at the end of the year. They're unprepared for the stress, you, as the educator, would be unaware of how your students are mastering those standards as the year progresses. If we don't assess during the year, also, we're missing real teachable opportunities. Testing isn't the only way to assess mastery, but when the students are expected to perform on a standardized test at the end of the year, not giving them authentic practice in the test taking, like we give them practice in the mastery of skills, a student who knows a lot may not show it because they felt unprepared for the process itself.

2. I work in a district and at a school that works really diligently to see our students succeed.

Do we test too much? Yes. But ultimately, I look at it like this: if the system that necessitates high-stakes testing isn't going to change, then we adapt or die. I know that people's experiences and feelings about testing vary not just from school to school, but from teacher to teacher. It has a lot to do with what we believe individually is important in education, but it's also formed by our experiences with what is mandated of us--how much (or how little) freedom we feel in accomplishing the task of preparing our kids. I am lucky. In my district, it is expected that teachers teach the curriculum, the state standards for our content. It is also expected that we follow the scope and sequence of the year (for my non-education friends, this is basically the order of the standards--when we're teaching and reteaching what); there is an instructional focus document that basically goes into detail of each of the standards, and what mastery looks like for each of these standards. Outside of that, I have complete freedom to figure out and use best practices to teach my kids. I know that it's not like that everywhere. Some places it's very prescribed and rigid, all the way down to specifically what is said by the teacher in class. That isn't my situation, and I'm glad. But even in a place where I get to choose what's best in terms of how I teach my kids, there's still a lot of testing. At the end of each grading period, we have benchmark tests--this serves as a barometer for how prepared our students are for the end of the year. This is basically one week per six weeks devoted to giving the benchmark, and using it as a teaching tool when going over what we missed the mark on. Testing isn't the only way I judge how well my students are mastering their skills, but it is one way. And the reality is they spend a lot of time preparing for and completing tests. 

But I don't know any teacher who loves testing. It's not why we're doing what we're doing, obviously. Ultimately, though, if I spend the majority of my time lamenting that that's how we're spending our time, it's a waste. I tell my students like I tell any person who will listen to me: The end goal of 8th grade English isn't passing a test. That is something that has to be done to move on, but it's not the end goal. The end goal is being ready for 9th grade. I believe that to the core of my being. In addition to many other positive opportunities that truth allows, it also prevents me from hanging all my hopes on a test, or it's results. Do I want my kids to see success on that test? Duh. I feel incredible pressure with that date at the end of the year looming in my mind from the very first day of school--really. But, I take a ridiculous amount of pride in my students' success on the STAAR test, which might seem counterintuitive to what I just rambled about, but I get to shower them with praise when they see success on that test because it's not written with them in mind--their experiences, their disadvantages when it comes to the prior knowledge required for full understanding; it doesn't count on the success of the many, many kids I teach who read far below grade level. And when they beat it, when they show that they're more than their stats make them look on paper, we celebrate the crap out of that. Then we keep doing what we've been doing all year: working toward being prepared for 9th grade. 

All of that to say that Pearson has been the image in my mind when I think about my kids showing ThemThey'll see how capable my kids are, even though they don't really care. They're just looking to make money off of continuing to make the successful kids successful, and kids like mine a step or two behind. We'll show Them

While I think it's a waste to spend time complaining about the test, I have no trouble concocting the picture of the Pearson people--the antagonists of our feel good story. 

Except, when I got there? Not so much. My expectations of the teacher opinions not mattering? Not what happened. I was a part of a committee with about 20 other teachers representing their regions of the state, like I was representing mine, and we worked our tails off, got into real arguments over items or passages that we felt like were biased or misleading. And our opinions were heard, documented, and the changes we wanted made happened. It was crazy. 

I have lots of new insights about what this state testing mandates. Yes, it is a giant, cog-filled machine, but if it weren't Pearson getting paid to do it, it would be someone else (and is, apparently, as of May of this year). My point is that it was really easy to make Pearson the bad guy. To villainize them, make them a caricature of all that is wrong with education, but that was not my experience with the Pearson people who were there. And so, I can't anymore.

It takes a ton of work, a crazy amount of resources to publish an 8th grade Reading test at the end of the year that is fair, and rigorous, and developmentally appropriate, and without error. And that costs a lot of money to make. And that's one test for one grade and content area. There is a truly overwhelming amount of work that has to go into creating fair, viable standardized tests each year. The system isn't perfect, and Pearson isn't either, to be sure, but my experience in Austin, working on the passages and items has shed a more understanding light on their side of the process.

Not once was Pearson itself really mentioned--all we talked about and worked on was selections (so very many) and test items (almost three hundred over two days), with input from the Pearson and TEA people, but I couldn't help but think about how Pearson, or whoever takes their place, is imperfect, and the idea of the sheer amount of money that company makes on selling all the tests makes my head spin, but as long as the education system is set up the way it is--requiring these high-stakes tests--there will always need to be a Pearson, a Them, and I'm grateful to have been able to be a part of the process of developing a good and fair test. 

It doesn't change anything, my going there. I learned some things about the process, and mostly felt affirmation of the job we do at my school and in our district. I feel good about getting to help in the process. But on a macro level, things are the same: my job is to get my kids ready for the 9th grade. Passing the STAAR test is one stop on making that happen, but it's not the only one. Villainizing Pearson or whoever might make me feel better, but it's not really the problem. 

I want my kids to be successful, I want all kids to be successful, and I really wanted to be able to spend two days in the Death Star and be able to walk away affirmed and indignant about my distaste of The Man--but I didn't. They're doing the job they were hired to do, and they brought in real life teachers to help make the test what it should be, if we have to have them, and I really appreciate that. They heard what we had to say, and changed what we asked they change. And they paid for our hotel rooms--so, ya know, what more can you ask?