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Selling Our Souls

[Editor’s note: Mr. Foteah is a second-year teacher in an elementary school in Queens. He blogs at The World As I See It, where this post originally appeared.]

VThe imposing forces known as the ELA and math tests have been moving in since September. If you’ve seen the television show “V,” you are familiar with the image of the alien visitors’ ship hovering above New York City and hanging there as an ominous sign of the new world order. That’s the best way I can describe the tests.

We are in full-fledged testing mode now (invaded, you might say). It’s flowing all the way down to the children from the top. Every morning, after we dutifully pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America, our principal assumes the public address system to remind the kids how many days remain until the ELA and math tests.

At grade meetings, our supervisors tell us to sell the tests, sell the solid blocks of reading, sell the notion of getting a 3 or a 4. And in turn, pretty much all of the teachers feel we’re selling something much different: our souls.

The day’s routine is now dominated by test prep. I cut my kids a break by refusing to use those words, for fear of bringing up memories of treacherous experiences gone by. I call our test prep “3/4 prep.” What does this say about me, that I so unabashedly submit myself to these monstrous forces?

Aside from preparation taking away from the precious moments of discovery that intuitively drive children, the scores, despite what they’re led to believe, really mean diddly squat to the students, who become pawns in the political game that determines funding and support for the school. The kids have no concept of the greater picture here, and are made to believe their promotion, and thereby their whole lives, rests on their performance on the tests.

All this being said, you’d think my students were plodding through willy-nilly, tuning me out at every opportunity, and positively dreading the first day of the ELA test. My first inkling that this wouldn’t be the case with my group came about six weeks ago, when I offered them the choice of doing shared reading or “3/4 prep.” Miraculously, they voted overwhelmingly for 3/4 prep.

I don’t know exactly what it is that makes them find this all so enjoyable. My colleagues and I agree the students love the structure — each partnership has folders, packets of articles, explicit instruction, and “rush of paper.” The repetition of “read the directions, scan the passage, look over the questions” gives them a sense of empowerment.

My big hang-up about all this is that they are investing themselves so much in a “unit” that, from what I can tell, means little in the grand scheme of things. I don’t force the prep down their throats or apply extra pressure. They feel it enough already. My push is this: “I’m giving you strategies to be successful, and you know what to do. On the day of the test, you’re going to come in and use those strategies, and you’re going to do your best.” I encourage them to get 3s and 4s, but I stop short of demanding them or placing unrealistic expectations on them. I do what I’m asked by the administration, but I do it my way.

And I guess because I do, the kids buy it. Yet, I’m always left with the same lament: “If only these kids knew what they were missing.” It kills me that when they reflect on their elementary years, they’ll likely put the tests high atop their list of memories. And when they do, will they see any benefit for having done well on the tests? Conversely, will they see any consequences for not having done well?

Those in the know deride testing cultures as anathema to students’ true success and development. Yet, they seem to be here to stay, with teacher merit pay not far behind. That’ll only increase the pressure on teachers, who will thereby ride the students even harder.

I say, give it a rest. No one’s life is going to end over a 2. No one is going to become president of the United States just because they got a 4. Numbers: that’s all those grades are. And sadly, to the invaders, it’s all the kids are, too.

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