Stages of Grief: State Test Score Report Edition

Stages of Grief: State Test Score Report Edition

post by Elizabeth Lacy-Schoenberger, member of The Educator Collaborative

Stages of Grief: State Test Score Report Edition

Recently, I received news of my students’ latest reading standardized test scores.  I felt many up and down emotions as I read them, sat in meetings about them, and shared them with individual students.  I was struck by how similar this felt to the stages of grief…which, makes sense, given the amount of time and energy we spend focusing on and working towards the tests, and how wildly out of our control the results can sometimes feel.

Shock and Denial

First, I began by looking at some of my students who didn’t do well, but should have.  How could this be? They had been working hard all year! They had made significant growth.  All my data indicated they should have passed. This must be a mistake. This must be a misprint or error in scoring.  There is no way my pass rate is only ___%. There’s just no way. There’s been a mistake…but what?

This had been the first year our students took a computer adaptive version of the test, there was probably some kind of mistake with the computers or the adaptive measures.  Yes, that had to be it. We would get updated scores soon, and they would look a lot better, right?

The scores had been miscalculated.  Different numbers of questions were worth different weights, and something about the weighting must be wrong.  Yes, perhaps we would find out that the weighting was off, and there would be new calculations.

However, we didn’t get new scores, or a state revelation of wrong-doing.  So, time to move on to the next phase.

Pain and Guilt

I felt I had failed some of my students.  I was ashamed that my scores didn’t look better.  I pride myself on being a really great teacher, shouldn’t I have nothing but really great test results?

I thought back on the days that I didn’t push hard enough.  I struggled with a great deal of illness this winter. There were several days in there where I was really sick but dragged myself to work…I just let the students read or work independently.  I didn’t do small groups. I didn’t do conferences. I didn’t push them to work harder or think bigger. Could those days have made the difference?

I didn’t do enough test prep.  Honestly, I didn’t. I was so focused on being an engaging and rigorous teacher that I just trusted it would be enough to push them to succeed.  I should have done more drill-n-kill, I should have spent more time doing boring passages and multiple choice questions, right?

And what about all of my students who did really well?  I felt guilt around them, too. Did I really get to celebrate them?  I mean, if I didn’t want to fully own the failures, then could I really own the success?  I couldn’t reconcile the two, and didn’t know how to make sense of it all.

Some of my students were really disappointed in their scores, and I felt their pain.  For a few of them, this might impact their high school trajectory. They might have to take remedial reading instead of orchestra class.  What if that means they don’t realize their full potential? What if they don’t want to keep trying, so they shut down and give up?

What was I even doing in the world of education?  What if all that I thought was good teaching was actually making EVERYTHING worse?

Anger and Bargaining

As I met with each student and shared their scores with them, some anger definitely came in to the mix.

From the student who dropped 97 points, and told me, “Yeah, I dunno, I just wasn’t feelin’ the test that day, you know?  I just clicked answers, honestly, I didn’t even read the last two passages.” To the student who said, “I just clicked random answers for 4 of them so I could move on, and I was going to go back, and fix them, but then I clicked the right arrow instead of the left, and it wouldn’t let me go back.”  Thank you computer adaptive testing for adding to the world of testing stress. To the student who said tearfully, “All of these tests are just freaking me out. 8th grade is stressful enough already, I can’t take all this testing on top of everything else.” (Her boyfriend had broken up with her for the fifth time the morning of the test…) I felt angry at them, angry at myself, angry at the test, and angry at the current state of our educational world.

How is it fair that one test on one day can hold so much weight?  I understand that sometimes you aren’t “feelin’ it” that day. I get that sometimes we have technology fails.  But so much hangs in the balance.

For all the students who were within twenty-five points of passing, the school’s answer feels a whole lot like bargaining—these students are going to retake it, under the state expedited retake policy.  They have to spend the next two weeks going to small group remediation, and then they “get the opportunity” to take it again. True, they only needed a few more questions correct to pass. Maybe we can teach them something helpful in the next week.  Maybe they will guess better the second time? Who knows, but we sure are going to try. If that ain’t desperate bargaining, I don’t know what is!

Depression and Loneliness

I remembered all the reasons I hate teaching…most of them centered around testing.  What was the point of doing so many wonderful and amazing things, if at the end of the day all anyone seems to care about is the test?  Was I even as good a teacher as I thought I was? Maybe not, according to the scores of some of my students! What was the point of any of it?

Different teachers had gotten different results on the test.  What did that mean? Was it really an apples to oranges comparison, as I told myself it was, or were some teachers doing things vastly different than others?  Sure, one teacher had twice as many honors/high level kids as I did, but what did that mean? Sure, another teacher had no English Language Learners than I did, and I had many, but so what?  Why weren’t my scores the best of the best?

I took my scores. I went to my classroom. I shut my door. I sighed. Deeply.

Reflection, Reconstruction, Working Through

Once I pulled myself out of the depths of despair, I sat down with all of my data.  I was feeling determined as I looked across unit tests, my rubric scores for their work, reading levels, and their standardized test scores.  I knew that at the end of the day, I had to own this; I could grow and plan better for next year.

I combed through resources for reflecting on data.  I embraced articles like those written by Jennifer Morrison, that reminded me that “all teachers can learn to be both data lovers and their own personal data coaches if we encourage these expanded views about measuring teaching practice and learning.”*

I began the lengthy process of analyzing all my data to draw conclusions:

  • Where did my class data and the test data line up? What could I learn from this?
  • Where were there inconsistencies between my data and testing data?
    • What theories could I form based on these inconsistencies?
  • What actions did I take on my previous data, and did these actions lead to improvements?
  • What data did I collect or have available, but I did not use to take further action?
    • Was it worth the time and energy to gather, or should I not have bothered?
    • Should I have used this as actionable data?
    • Did I have the capacity to act on this data?  If not, do I need to eliminate something else to make room for this in my teaching and action plans in the future?
  • I surveyed and talked with my students: What did they think contributed to, or detracted from, their test score success?
  • Were there trends within genres, standards or skills?
    • What about trends within certain subgroups? High-level or low-level readers, English Language Learners, Students with Disabilities, males, females, etc?
  • Were there any trends large enough to suggest a need for a whole class shift for next year?  Should I be doing more poetry? A different balance of fiction and nonfiction? More word work? Less? Excerpts from longer novels vs. short stories for assessment and class work?
  • What factors did I feel impacted my students’ scores that were outside of my locus of control, and who could I raise these concerns to for further reflection and action?
  • How can my own assessments and performance tasks better tie into the latest computer technology and testing moves students are required to know?
  • What were some areas of greatest success, and how can I expand on this to have a larger impact next year?
  • What were some areas of greatest disappointment, and what are some theories around ways to improve?

Sure, it’s all a bit of a game of chance.  We as educators are always comparable to a dog chasing its tail—I might make all these adjustments, only to find that the test makers have changed the rules again, and I am once again behind the times, but such is the game we play.  There are valuable pieces of insight to be gained by reflecting on all the data and knowledge I have about my students and my teaching.

Acceptance and Hope: Return to Love

It is time to remember and return to the things I love-teaching, teachers, students, reading, writing, learning.  I worked really hard this year, making slow steady progress with most students, miraculous, victorious progress with some, and yes, falling short with a few.

But each day before and each day after the test is one more day I get to teach.

The test is one data point.  Like any other, I will use it to learn and grow and do better next year.  For now, I will keep doing all the great teaching moves I know are best practice for kids.

We’re currently knee-deep in our final unit for the year. Students are working on a combination research and creative writing project.  They are eagerly researching environmental, social and political issues, then narrowing in on a problem and solution. They are conveying this problem/solution through their choice of illustrated graphic short story or comic strip.  They are designing villains like Poo-Poo-Polluto and heroes from other galaxies named after their best friends who will solve earth’s problems. My students are currently my heroes. I have tons of hope that someday soon they will help solve the issues that are currently plaguing our system of education.  They are the real heroes, and I owe it to them to keep my eye on the ultimate goal, not creating testing-machines, but fostering life-long learners and lovers of reading and writing.