I lied to my students today.
You see, today was the first day of state testing. They showed up filled with anxiety. So I did what any good teacher would do. I lied.
I lied and told them that today was my favorite day of the year. I told them that I loved the smell of fresh tests in the morning. I sang them a song, “It’s the most wonderful time of the year.” I told them they had nothing to worry about.
The truth is, they had quite a bit to be worried about. You see, there is a dirty little secret that most people don’t know. But ask a Title 1 teacher about it, and they’ll nod. They know. Here it is:
If you’re a student from poverty, or an English Language Learner, or you have a learning disability, well, the test is stacked against you.
<Insert gasp here>
“No way!”, you might be thinking. “That sounds like an excuse a bad teacher might make for failing test scores.”
I’ve heard it before. But when you’ve been teaching for 11 years, you know.
Just hop online and take a math practice test. The first thing you’ll notice is, it’s 90% reading. They wouldn’t even think about simply asking a student to multiply 394 x 27. Proving that they had learned a math standard? Nah, that would be too easy. Instead, it’s hidden in a 5 paragraph word problem that’s actually testing problem solving instead of math. Many of the problems are difficult for me; a middle-class, college educated, English speaking, white woman. My Somalian refugee students who don’t hear a word of English at home? They don’t stand a chance.
The reading test might ask them about museum exhibits, or board games, or karate classes (of course, this is merely speculative as I wouldn’t DARE take a peek at the test we have been preparing all year for!). If they’re from a middle-class family, they’re probably familiar with these things. The stories make sense. They have a hook to hang their new knowledge on. However, when their parents are Mexican migrant workers working two jobs just to put food on the table; they’ve probably never experienced any of these things. When the choice is between paying rent or playing board games, I’m sure you know what choice they make. These students? They don’t stand a chance.
The social studies test might ask them to write a letter to the Department of Agriculture arguing the need for fresh, healthy food in their communities. If they’re a student from extreme poverty, their family is most likely more concerned with putting ANY food on the table. There’s a good chance that they haven’t sat around the family dinner table discussing the benefits of fruits and vegetables over processed foods and artificial food dyes. They don’t stand a chance.
What about the students who have learning disabilities? The students who have been evaluated by specialists and proven to have a more difficult time with learning than their peers? We spend the year teaching them where they are at and focus on making growth. They feel successful every single day. However, someone in an office somewhere decided that a learning disability = slower. Just give them a few extra minutes to take the test, that should do it! That evens the playing field, right?!? They don’t stand a chance.
Now, this isn’t true for ALL students. Some thrive. They wear their hardships like a suit of armor. They defy the odds. But most? They are crushed under unrealistic expectations. I see it year after year.
This year, it looked like a single tear running down the face of one of my sweetest students. When I asked her afterwards why she was crying, she told me that she worked so hard but she couldn’t figure out some of the answers. She was so, so sorry that she was letting me down. She worried that her family would be ashamed of her score.
What an awful burden to place on a ten year old.
And for what? So that some politician somewhere can scream, “Look at these awful teachers! We need to do something about this!” Or some big testing company can argue, “Look at all these failing schools! You simply MUST continue paying us millions of dollars every year to make these tests. How else will we know what schools to fix?!?” Or our Secretary of Education can swoop in claiming, “You know what will fix this? Vouchers! You get a voucher! And you get a voucher! Everybody gets a voucher!”
Every year I get angrier and angrier. Yet every year I give it again. I don’t let it defeat me; damper my spirit. And every year, when it’s finally all over and done with, I DON’T lie. I look my students in the eyes and tell them how proud I am of them. I tell them that even if they don’t get a perfect score, they gave me perfect effort, and that’s what matters. I hug my crying student and tell her that of course she didn’t let me down. I’ve never been more proud of her.
Then I go home and pray. Pray that next year will be different. Pray that next year they’ll stand a chance.