Heather Wolpert-Gawron

Dear Parents: What happens in the testing room?

By on July 24, 2009

Dear Parents, 

I’m going to walk you through what happens in a testing room to help demystify your child’s test taking experience.  

First off, I’m told to take down anything from my walls that might help kids out.  That means they are now emerged in a neutral testing environment.  No Word Walls, no prompts, no student work.  The room is either stripped to the bare walls or paper is stapled up over everything.  This is so every school and every class has the same disadvantages.  It’s also very depressing.

OK, so the day of the test, I walk down to the farthest place on the other side of the world and pick up a box that has all my testing materials in it, signing away my firstborn should I lose a pencil.   I walk into my classroom, and at the bell there soon appears my testing group that consists of 36 students I’ve never seen before.  Students, you see, are not necessarily assigned to classrooms they’ve ever been in.  I don’t know them, and they don’t me.  Kinda uncomfortable all around. 

 I notice there’s a girl crying.  Her friend leans over and whispers that her boyfriend just broke up with her.  I thank the friend for the gossip and ask the unfortunate casualty of tween-dom if she needs a tissue.  She sniffs and shakes her head in the negative, suggesting she’s trying to be strong for the test for which she’s about to receive.  I have no doubt this test is very high on her priority list right now.

I distribute the question booklet as I read a script word-for-word of directions and cautionary phrases.  Profound ones like, ‘Read directions,” and such.  The script keeps me in line.  No unauthorized humor allowed on a testing day.  The directions are mind numbing, and I can’t help but wish the testing company could hire some real writers for this thing, say, from 30 Rock or something?  The script continues with monotonous instructions on where to put your name, how to write the number of the test on the answer sheet, where to write the name of our school, and where to write the school district’s name.

At this time, the students who just entered the school only a week ago from some other state or district raise their hands and in unison call out, “What district is this?”  You tell them and hope their previous teachers covered the material that they are now being tested on in your room.  bubble-test

I continue: “Everyone open to page 12 to begin the Language Arts portion of the test.  This is represented by a picture of a #2 pencil.  Now go to your answer sheet and find the picture of the #2 pencil.  (pause for students to find the pencil)  Now look at sample question A…” and so on.  You ask for the answer for the Language Arts sample question A, and it is when someone answers ½ that you realize that he was on the Math section of the test. You ask them politely to please turn to page 12 as previously requested.

“When you see the stop sign at the end of page 32, you must close your book.  Do not go to any other page.”  (Do not pass Go.  Do not collect $200.)  You say this with some skepticism knowing that at least 2 students will plow ahead simply because they are not paying attention to stop signs.  We call this a California Stop and a cop can pull you over for just slowing down before accelerating ahead.  It is a part of my job as test police to catch these students before they pull ahead of the class while in the test taking zone.

“You may begin.”  And now starts the process of walking around the classroom and not saying anything, because I am not allowed.  

The phone rings.  The front office forgot we were testing and sent a call through with apologies.

A student raises her hand.  “I don’t understand this word,” she says.  You look at the word and remind yourself that a certain percentage of the tests are meant to be above most kids’ heads, so you bite your tongue and don’t say anything.  Perhaps you say something encouraging or suggest that she skip the question and return to it later, rather than sit and struggle with it now.  

The phone rings again.  This will happen two more times.

A student raises his hand and I ask him what he needs.  He looks at me blankly and I realize he’s been placed in the wrong classroom.  He doesn’t speak English.  I send him to the appropriate room.

3/4 of the way into the testing period, the student who never shows up to school…does.  He sits down and looks around realizing that he has appeared on one of the testing days rather than the assembly day schedule he had originally planned.  He will spell out “This Sucks” on his bubble sheet with his #2 pencil.

I continue to walk around the classroom and hear a scream and a cry of alarm.  A student has just realized that when she skipped #4, her bubbling had derailed for the remainder of the 46 questions.  She has 5 minutes left to erase and re-bubble.  I realize that these kids are really being tested on their ability to bubble.

We’ve been sitting there for 3 hours of testing.  The kids are fried.  I’m fried.  The bell rings and the kids make a break for it.  I wave to them knowing that we’ll be doing this all over again the next day.  I pack up the supplies: count each pencil, eraser, scratch paper, alphabetize the answer sheets and booklets, and schlep them back down to the room on the other side of the world.  

The materials will go into some locked-down Hazmet unit to await their release on the morrow.

 And now here’s the LA Times with a report that California is having funding threatened if it can’t use test scores for their teacher evaluations.

Here are the facts:

1. A certain percentage of questions from standardized tests are meant to be too challenging (meaning, there’s only a small sliver of student pie who are meant to be able to answer those questions).  

2. Questions that too many students get right are dumped from the test as being too easy.  In other words, if every teacher did their job well, and teach the standards such that the kids can all answer a particular question, that question is deemed not challenging enough.  So if too many teachers do their job well according to test scores, the test must be the problem, not the teachers who are the solution.

3. Taking funding away from failing schools will not lead to anything but more failing schools.

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  1. Susan Ohanian
    July 25, 2009

    As a longtime middle school teacher, I very much appreciated this way of getting at the horror of standardized testing ruling the world.

    Humor helps.

    thank you.

  2. teachin'
    July 25, 2009

    Love this!

  3. Ashley
    July 27, 2009

    SO TRUE! (Unfortunately)

  4. Renee / TeachMoore
    July 27, 2009

    Interesting note: In some places the so-called “standardized” practices are very different. Some places, for example, allow teaching material to stay up on the classroom walls (as long as it is not put up within a week or two of the test). So, savvy teachers plaster their boards, walls, and windows at the start of the school year. Other places require students to be tested by persons other than their regular teachers. What does all this disparity mean when we start comparing results across states and schools?

  5. HappyChyck
    July 29, 2009

    It’s like you were in my classroom! Bravo!

    I might have added a few other creature comfort details like the temperature in the room will either be too hot or too cold and there are absolutely no restroom breaks until all students in the entire school are finished with the test. They get a little squirmy by the end of the test.

  6. Nancy Flanagan
    July 29, 2009

    I once read a piece of research indicating that students who took standardized tests in their own, subject-appropriate classrooms, with their own teachers, scored higher. As we were divvying up the kids for testing (we also used the “you will proctor kids you don’t know” method), I mentioned the article. It certainly made sense to me–go with their comfort zones, have them take the math test in the room where they do math every day, where their familiar math teacher stands smiling (well, maybe yawning) at the back of the room.

    There was no rule against it. But the teachers decided that wouldn’t be “fair” because special education teachers would have fewer kids to proctor–and teachers of untested subjects would get “free time” when there was building-wide math testing day. (Banging head against wall.)

    Besides, the principal said, we were giving all the kids granola bars and juice right before the testing (since an article he read said that would raise the scores) so that ought to offset kids’ anxieties about taking a test with a strange teacher doing the monitoring or answering the questions.

  7. Betty
    July 29, 2009

    Pretty funny stuff. I have administered many state tests, and the stiffness of it makes everyone nervous. I know I never do my best when I’m stressed out! Poor kids.

  8. heather
    July 29, 2009

    You are absolutely right! The whole bathroom thing is crazy! They can be escorted out of the room only if everyone’s done. This means that the poor kid who is the last to finish is being stared at and sometimes muttered at by the other kids who have been forced to hold it in.
    Rather savage, is it not?
    Thanks for commenting!
    aka Tweenteacher

  9. heather
    July 29, 2009

    Good to hear from you, Nancy. I read some research along those same lines. I understand that they also do it so that teachers can’t prompt their own kids, but the trade off clearly isn’t working.

    By the way, the fact that we have to give kids snacks because we can’t count on them having been given any breakfast at all says something else about education. What an interesting report it would make to add up the money schools spent doing what the homes should already be providing. It fall to us to bridge the gaps, but it costs us as well.

    Thanks for commenting. It’s always great to read your thoughts.

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