Monday, May 10, 2010

Crazy State Exams

In New York there are two tests that matter in the eighth grade: ELA and Math. Our students took both of these tests over the course of the past two weeks and I was especially happy with what I saw them do with the ELA exam. Their writing skills far exceed those of last year's eighth graders and I can't help but think that our concerted effort as an eighth grade team to promote those skills was a large part of that. During the exam I was given several reminders of how valuable their successes are, as they are achieved through far more difficult circumstances than their average peer around the state and country.

During one day of testing we had a milieu of interesting distractions. I was proctoring the exams in our multi-purpose room, which is located on the ground floor of the building facing the busy street outside. Directly above that street is a train trestle (only several yards from our third floor windows) on which trains are constantly arriving and departing as part of the NYC subway system. Needless to say they are rather loud- so much in fact that I had to pause no less than seven times while reading a passage that was part of the listening comprehension section of the ELA exam. In addition to the noise of the trains, numerous buses went roaring by, as well as a few vehicles blaring sirens. At one point a "sick" woman passerby was outside of the window screaming at herself about a quarter. I couldn't tell if she was claiming someone had stolen it from her or if some kind of evil demon was a playing a trick on her that day, but it was pretty distracting. My students thought it was pretty funny, at the very least.

Inside of the building we were placed next to a classroom full of "energetic" sixth graders, divided by a movable partition. Because their test was on a slightly different schedule they had breaks while we were testing and vice-versa. This is a the class of sixth graders we have that has a large number of students who came with "mandated self-contained" on their IEPs- a classification that is generally abused to put the kids who have huge behavior problems into small, separate classrooms. Needless to say, sometimes they can be a bit noisy.

Even without all of these distractions I was surprised by how well the students did on these tests. If you'd plopped a group of soft, suburban students down in this environment I doubt they'd test half as well as they would in their regular setting. I know that at that age whenever I saw anything that even looked remotely like the block outside of our school it was incredibly unsettling. Perhaps our students would also be uneasy being plopped down in the middle of the suburbs, but I doubt it would have the same effect.

Another thing that was astounding this year, as it was last year, was the real sense of urgency the students seem to pull out of no where when the state tests come around. They know these two tests are important and that they will not be promoted to the next grade if they cannot pass them. It would be incredible to create this urgency in the majority of our students on a more regular basis, I can't help to think that it will also be incredibly difficult to do this as long as a large number of stakeholders (not just administrators or teachers) demand that students be socially promoted en masse.

What do other folks do to create this sense of urgency on a regular basis? My only half-smoking, cap guns are: reminders of the state test, vague references to high school and explanations of how I personally have used the skills I teach since high school. Hardly what I keep keep kids trucking along on the front line.

Today's Wine: Casa de Campo Cabernet Sauvignon 2007. I feel like my reviews of wine are generally very positive, which perhaps means my pallet is not yet refined enough, but it may also mean that the stores from which I buy wine know their stuff. This one was less than $7 at the Best Cellars at 86th and Lex and it was nice, a bit spicy and not too fruity. It was a solid cab.

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