240 Minutes

Fourth grade, four hours.  240 Minutes.  Four hours of testing per day for fourth graders last week on the end of grade testing.  Not easy, but doable, right?  Actually, four straight hours of testing (9:30-1:30).  Don’t worry, they get up to 3 three minute breaks during that time period.  Well, a break being a chance to stand up and move around a bit.  No bathroom break.  No snack.  No drink of water.  240 Minutes.

In solidarity with my wife’s class, I tried to follow the same ethic at my job.  I got to my desk and then tried to sit for 240 straight minutes, allowing myself 3 three minute breaks periodically (every hour or so) during that time.  No water. No snacks.  No other stimulation.

I lasted just over an hour and even that was painful.  But, after my second 3 minute break in 70 minutes, I decided that I had had enough. I checked my email, had some water, and ate a snack.  All things the 9 and 10 year olds in my wife’s class can’t do during their test.  Did I mention they were taking a grueling standardized test that last up to 4 hours?  Also, they’re in 4TH GRADE. On the other hand, I was working on something that had only a minimal impact on my future or on my boss’s ability to keep his job (unlike the state tests for students and teachers alike).

In solidarity, the teachers imposed the same conditions on themselves as their kids.  Actually no, the district mandated that they couldn’t have water, food or breaks either.  They or the proctor (to prevent cheating) had to walk around the classroom and monitor progress. For my wife, it meant walking around the entire time (her proctor decided she didn’t want to get up).

Why impose these rules?  Well, in an effort to “standardize” the test, no outside aid could be given.  So during the four hours, the kids couldn’t have a snack, because, not everyone would get a snack, let alone the same snack.  Or have the opportunity for a drink of water, as not every child would have access to the same amount of water in all of the public schools.  The water quality also varies, so better safe than sorry.

In some states, this also extends to encouragement.  If a particular child was struggling to continue or needed to be refocused, the teacher could not say an encouraging word to them or give them an approving nod.  No, this would be unfair and most importantly, not standardized aid.  She would have to encourage the whole class instead.

The state is doing its best to make sure it is an even playing field for the test in all its’ schools: grueling, painful, and miserable.  With these conditions, they can now compare test scores from school to school since the student treatment is “standardized.”  They compare despite the fact that the lives of the students taking this test are far from standardized.  They can’t control for that variation, so they do their best to ignore it.

The test is relatively straight forward.  58 question for reading over the first four hour testing day.  A math section with 54 items questions with calculator on for the next four hour testing day.  28 items for math with calculator off for the last 2.5 hours.  Calculators for 4th grade?  Well yes, at the end of the year, my wife spent time teaching her kids how to use the calculator.  Hadn’t used them all year, but could for the test.  Nice that they spent time calculator basics rather than instruction.  With the 82 total questions in math, it covers 5 major groups of standards varying from simple arithmetic to algebra.  Yes, you read that correctly, algebra is on the 4th grade standardized test.  Not only on the test, but 20- 25% of the test questions.  Another 15-18% deals with data analysis and probability, both classes concepts I myself worked on in grad school.  In fact, my wife’s kids are pretty good at the algebra.  They struggle with the arithmetic; any wonder they can’t multiply and divide in 9th grade, when they are focused and TESTED on algebra in 4th grade.

The reading portion of the test is filled with long passages that focus on reading comprehension.  The standards also speak to writing, but does not require a writing sample.  Not until high school in this state, which probably explains why my wife’s students are so poor at communicating through writing.  For better or worse, the kids know what they’re tested on and unfortunately, not much more.

So what’s the point of this post?

Simple. This is what education now is.  A singular focus on this test and what the scores say about the students and teachers involved.  For better or worse, this is what is cared about.

But maybe we need to start asking about what the test measures, how it does it, and is it fair.  If we’re going to teach to the test, perhaps we should make tests that are really good, reflecting what we want kids need to know and when to know it.  In this way, kids can build a foundation for future studies. It does not mean excluding extension subjects like algebra and geometry for lower grades.  Maybe it just means that we save mastery for later, and focus on the building blocks.  Anyway, time for a water break for me. . . not for the kids.

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One Response to 240 Minutes

  1. Pingback: Bringing Out the Me in Team |

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