How to Overcome Apathy and Disillusionment When Standardized Tests Fail...

column | Assessments

How to Overcome Apathy and Disillusionment When Standardized Tests Fail Kids

By Farhat Ahmad (Columnist)     Oct 31, 2017

How to Overcome Apathy and Disillusionment When Standardized Tests Fail Kids

Many educators recognize that standardized tests don’t measure everything—and that some of the most critical types of growth can’t be measured by a numerical score. This is especially true for at-risk students.

Seven years ago, during my first year of teaching, all of my eleventh graders failed the Georgia State End of Course Test in American Literature. I was working as a special education teacher in Cobb County School District at the time. My co-teacher at the time told me not to worry about it. “No one expects your students to pass,” he said. This statement left me frustrated and confused. So what was my job exactly? For me, being a teacher inherently meant I needed to truly believe my kids could learn—and I did.

My students were just as responsible for learning as any other kids in the district. They all showed a willingness to learn and put in effort. The clear discrimination towards the special education population really bothered me, mostly because I could see that it was systemic and possibly out of my reach to fix. I was tired of hearing that certain students didn’t want to succeed, and observing teaching that rarely surpassed babysitting.

My students deserved more.

In 2015, when I started teaching American Literature at McClarin Success Academy, I knew I had an opportunity to break the stigmatization of at-risk youth.

McClarin Success Academy in College Park, GA is an alternative high school and many of our students have never passed a standardized test. But the reality is that our students still need to take them, and it is our responsibility to prepare them for the experience, which is an uphill battle.

Since passing a test isn’t necessarily representative of student growth, it is also our responsibility to seek out alternative methods for gauging growth that may not be demonstrated on a state exam. So, what does success look like for an at-risk student, and how do we measure it?

The truth is that it’s different for every student, and it doesn’t always fit neatly into the boxes provided by the district or the state. As a first step, we need to consider the roads our students have traveled, and what led them to an alternative school in the first place.

Some students find themselves in an alternative school because they have faced challenges outside the classroom that have contributed to learning gaps. Some of them have faced trauma or are dealing with mental illness. Some struggle with behavior and others are using drugs or engaged in a never ending cycle of gang violence.

For many of our students, there isn’t a singular, definitive reason why they came to McClarin. Many of our students are victims of societal neglect and discrimination—and that happens even inside school buildings.

Tanked Motivation Leads to Apathy

Most of our students struggle with low engagement. Years of repeated low test scores followed by disappointed reactions from teachers and family members have tanked their motivation, leading them to appear apathetic. Student apathy is one of my greatest frustrations.

There are many different ways of preparing for standardized tests, but all of them are stressful for students and teachers. Students fear that their identity will be reduced down to a number, and teachers worry their clout amongst colleagues and leaders could be decimated by a set of raw scores.

In my experience, test preparation is similar to bootcamp. Two weeks before testing day, after weeks of struggling robotically through course content, we ditch the projects and texts we are working on to focus solely on test practice, fueled by Powerpoints featuring sample test questions from prior years. It should come as no surprise that this approach doesn’t hit the mark when it comes to increasing engagement and raising motivation.

When an exam is designed to assess a wide set of skills and content, and success is calculated by one total score, students walk away identifying as a letter, number or percentage. When a student's score is repeatedly low, enthusiasm for learning often plummets.

Even though most of my students won’t come out and say it, they all crave the feeling of success—and it’s hard to come by.

Quantity Vs. Quality

The year before I came to McClarin, less than 20% of students taking American Literature at the school were passing the Georgia Milestone test. Schools in less economically challenged parts of the district had average scores of 90% or higher. I found it hard to believe our students were less capable than students in traditional school settings, so I designed my own curriculum-based diagnostic exams to learn more about my students. Many of them were scoring higher than the expectations I had based on their standardized test scores from the prior year.

Something didn’t add up.

It quickly became obvious that the standardized test wasn’t an accurate reflection of what these kids knew—so I tasked myself with finding out how best to how to best measure their success.

At the time, it seemed like the best thing to do was to get my students the most remediation I could and to squeeze it in as quickly as possible. I tried to fit everything from 8th, 9th and 10th grade into the curriculum.

This plan of attack always started out strong, but it unraveled quickly. Struggling students just struggled more—some shut down completely from the sheer amount of assigned work. What I didn’t consider was how overwhelming this was for my students. It set the expectation that if they wanted to “catch up,” they needed to work around the clock. I couldn’t have been more wrong about what my students needed. I knew I had to switch gears.

Image Credit: Farhat Ahmad

Curriculum Overhaul

In 2015, I was hired as a Fulton County School District Learning Architect, which meant I was part of a team tasked with identifying power standards for English Language Arts. Our team collaborated to determine how mastery was achieved for each of those standards, and developed sample tasks for each level of mastery on a given standard.

My work on this team prompted me to reevaluate my approach to curriculum and assessment. Rather than aiming to hit every skill and standard, I decided to focus on fewer tasks, but to keep them at a higher level of rigor and scaffold appropriately for each student.

I redesigned the entire curriculum from the ground up based on the data I had collected from diagnostic tests and ongoing classroom formal and informal assessments. I wanted to move away from the typical structure of a lesson with warm ups and exit tickets—which my students had been conditioned to expect—and go beyond blindly assigning multiple choice and vocabulary questions and calling it measurement.

I had my first evidence of success with the Georgia Milestone test, doubling my passing rate from 2015 to 2016. It felt good, but it wasn’t enough.

Shifting Perspective: Passing Vs. Progress

In 2017, I did a close analysis of how Lexile and Georgia Milestone scores aligned. Based on my findings, students who scored a 1300 on their Lexile test typically scored an 80% on the milestone test for American Literature. I had high hopes for my students, but the average lexile score at my school was 800, which is equivalent to a late elementary or middle school level.

I had to face some hard facts. Some students weren’t going to pass the test no matter what and that was completely out of my control. I needed to find other opportunities to showcase student success. I reframed my mindset to look for progress rather than mastery on the milestone test, as well as other less formal curriculum-based assessments throughout the semester.

For the American Literature milestone test, I stopped looking for a specific percentage, and started looking at change over time. If I could see a student’s scores trend upwards, it meant something to me, even if it wasn’t a passing score.

The milestone included three types of essays: informative, argumentative and narrative. I started to work one-on-one with students on accessible topics, and began to work our way up to more complex prompts. My students were writing one essay a week, and I was collecting them in a Google Drive folder. At timed intervals, I could compare their writing samples using a rubric and I started to see their growth reflected—and they could see it too.

For curriculum-based assessments, I started using a pre- and post-test model, assessing students at the beginning and end of the semester to see if I could notice change—and I did.

As far as passing the milestone, I knew it was a gamble. But for the first time in my career, I was able to show every one of my students how they were improving.

Measure What Matters

Sometimes, the progress we value most as educators doesn’t align with the academic achievement measured by traditional assessment. Heightened engagement, improved work ethic, more self-regulation and stronger communication skills are often the types of growth that keep us coming to work everyday. These traits will serve our students well as they exit high school and move on to higher-education programs or into the workforce. But growth in these areas is hard to prove.

Educators wear a lot of hats. My biggest priority and the responsibility I hold most dear is finding ways to reflect student growth so that I can help my students gain confidence. It’s not always easy.

Though I’m constantly coming up with creative ways to find ways to make my students shine and celebrate their successes—it’s not enough. No matter how much a student’s work ethic improves, or how far a student comes with self-regulating their behavior, states still use standardized testing to define student success—and our kids know it.

There isn’t much I can say when a student comes to me deflated after putting months of work in and says, “Why did I fail?” That’s why finding ways to show my students how they have grown, and how those traits can serve them well in their futures is so critical.

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