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Watching my students flatline on the baseline exams

Hoods were up; heads were down. The sighs were audible. It was a Monday in mid-October, and I was in the middle school guidance office proctoring the six students with disabilities who had yet to complete their eighth-grade science “Baseline Assessment.”

Along with the rest of their class, they had spent two hours the previous Friday on this exam — on the heels of having spent two hours that Tuesday taking the English language arts baseline, and two hours on Wednesday taking the social studies one. As the special education teacher who travels with their class, I witnessed the whole whirlwind of testing sessions — but more on that below. For now, here we were, at the bitter end.

I circulated the guidance office, checking in with each student. Two girls were diligently finishing the essay question, but the other four students had given up. I crouched down and whispered my usual advice during such tests: “Just write what you do know. Something is always better than nothing.” But I was met with blank stares and claims of complete ignorance. They were done.

The baseline assessments are a required part of the city’s new teacher evaluation system. They are meant to help measure teachers’ performance and to provide additional data on students’ growth in Common Core skills before the Big Test at the end of the year. [Read more about the new assessments.]

In theory, the test data could be very useful. It is helpful for students and teachers alike to see more examples of the new Common Core-aligned assessments, and teachers obviously benefit from knowing their students’ abilities in the fall in relation to where they should be in the spring. (Of course, most schools and teachers already do some type of baseline assessment on their own. Because, well, duh.) Even when my grade team cautiously looked through the tests, we thought, sure, we’d like to know if our kids can do this stuff.

But my experience on the ground left me feeling more frustrated than informed. First of all, the assessments took a ton of time: six-plus hours of test-taking, all the while pausing each class’s curriculum for a day, sometimes two, just when the year was gaining momentum. Our grade team opted for the rip-off-the-Band-Aid approach, getting all three tests done in one week, but even if we had tried to space them out, the city’s timetable was so rushed that we wouldn’t have had much more time anyway.

The kids, I must say, were troopers. I detailed above a scene from the bitter end, but those white flags were only waving after hours of genuine effort. I’m always struck, and a bit saddened, by the seriousness with which students approach standardized tests. I’ve known kids every year who might spend September to March throwing erasers, but April comes and they show up early on test day, pencils sharpened, meaning business. That’s what I witnessed on these baselines: Our students might have sighed, but they gave it their all.

And that’s what made their frustration levels so high when the tests turned out to be really challenging. Over and over, I heard comments like, “We never learned this,” “I have no idea what they’re asking,” and “This makes no sense.”

Yes, yes, I know, these comments — and the test results — show us that we have work to do. But we already knew that. Our curriculum is based on the Common Core, and this was October. The kids were right — they hadn’t yet learned much of the material they were tested on.

As many times as I told them to simply do their best and not get stressed if some information felt unfamiliar, my words felt hollow even to me. We’ve raised this generation of learners to take assessments so seriously, and here they were, doing just that, and feeling a whopping sense of failure. Some were even crying — a reaction I don’t often see after sixth grade. And for what? So we could know that they didn’t know what we already knew we hadn’t taught them.

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