Tuesday, March 8, 2011

An American Call to Test

It's March, the month of the annual writing championship (aka 'the PROMPT'), and as of Tuesday, it was finally done! Are they smarter than they were in fifth grade, well I guess we'll find out for sure.

The Connecticut Mastery Test, the other March Madness...is finally underway. For anyone outside the States, this means our testing season has begun. For the next two weeks, kids are being tested in reading, writing, math and some in science too. For the past two days, our kids have had a forty-five minute essay writing assessment (the writing prompt) and an hour of editing and revising as well. And now, after two long months of unrelenting snow, closed schools and frequent delays, we're pretty sure we've squeezed in just enough learning to ensure our students succeed...I think.

But on Tuesday? My nerves were a little on edge. Just as they were about to put that pencil to the page, a litany of ideas started rattling around inside my teaching brain. Anecdotes, quotes, similes/metaphors, statistical information, what else did I think they really could use? What have I missed out on this year? But then, I watched them creating boxed lay-outs, webs and bulleted execution plans. I'd taught how to plan out each of the component parts, and I spent time modeling my own plan too. The second thing I worked on this year, was stamina. Writers must write regularly in increasingly long spaces of time.

When the period was up, I strolled around the room, eyeballing each student's work. Every student had a minimum of two and many had three pages written in just under forty-five minutes and most wrote right up to the end. Of course, I have no idea what the level of content is, but if I adhere to my previous assumption, generally longer tends to earn a better score.

In my earlier teaching years, I didn't want to overwork the plan for fear that I'd stifle creativity! I sometimes laugh at the way I thought back then. Yes...they were creative, but did I not see all the pointless, wandering trails? Today, I'm satisfied. I started this year with many able writers, but many were compromised as well. I tend to shy away from the 'one size fits all' teaching, spending many long hours in small conferences, catching kids on the way to lunch or during their reading time. I kept it casual, but I kept it specific as well.

Many disparage these high stakes test, and I certainly can understand why. Millions of dollars go into them, test variation among states is incredible, and the pressure on staff and students is great. And while I'm not a fan of lock-step teaching/learning, I am glad that I live in a state where standards and expectations are high enough to ensure that students can and will succeed.

As March turns to April, we'll move on to the finer art of writing poetry and believe it or not, fictional short story in the form of mystery writing (a new state requirement) too! We don't expect our kids to become novelists necessarily, but it is a well-established fact, that the more varied opportunities you have to hook them as writers, the more strength and creativity they'll show overall.

Now, I'd like to see a fresh approach to ensure the students in America's cities will have an equal opportunity to be creative and experience the same learning opportunities too.

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