State test scores became available to us this week. I always get mixed feelings - my kids work SO HARD on the CSTs (California Standards Test) every year, and I always think, "They are going to do well. They worked so hard and really tried. They knew the information. This is the year." Every year I get my hopes up. Then my hopes come crashing down when I see the results. It is a mixed bag - the scores range from amazing to holy-crap-how-did-that-happen? But this year what stands out for me is one story - the story of Cristina.
Cristina is an English learner who was in my class for two years. She came to my class at the beginning of her third grade year. The following year I had a third and fourth grade combination class, and she was one of the many students I looped. What a gift!
I conduct IRIs (Individualized Reading Inventory) with every one of my students three times throughout the year. I have done this for as long as I can remember, but it became especially important when NCLB and high stakes testing really kicked into gear. (More on that later.) Two years ago, Cristina, along with a few other students, could not pass the pre-primer IRI. Further assessment revealed she had major gaps in her reading skills in all areas, but especially decoding/phonics. After parent-teacher conferences, it was clear why. Cristina had missed a great deal of school her first few years. I had my work cut out for me.
By the end of her third grade year, Cristina passed the pre-primer, primer, and first grade IRIs. She also improved in all of the other assessments that I use to assess reading skills. I was so proud of her! When she returned for fourth grade, she was the only one of my "loopers" who showed increased reading scores over the summer. She told me, "My mom worked really hard with me." It showed. (Even more impressive? Her mother is a beginning English learner herself.) Cristina was still at the first grade level, but had increases in her accuracy, comprehension, and fluency. Yet the second grade IRI was just out of her grasp. Still lots of work to do.
By the end of her fourth grade year, Cristina passed the third grade IRI with flying colors. Her scores on all other assessments had increased as well. She had made phenomenal growth over the past two years - she moved up five levels! Again, I was so proud of her. In addition, over the course of the two years Cristina went from a Beginning level EL to an Intermediate, bypassing the Early Intermediate level completely.
That brings us to the CSTs. Cristina's third grade ELA score earned her a "Below Basic" rating. Not surprising. In fourth grade, she scored one point higher than the previous year, but due to increased cut-offs, she is now labeled "Far Below Basic." Heart-breaking.
If Cristina is to be judged solely by these numbers, one might think a host of things. Maybe she has a learning disability? Maybe she doesn't try? Maybe she doesn't have support at home? Of course, all of these assumptions are false. This kid works her tail off and gives her best every single day, and so does her mother. How else could she have made such amazing growth?
Is it fair that I be judged by these numbers? Of course not. This is the problem with high stakes testing - it tells you NOTHING about what students know, or what teachers have done. It tells you nothing about how far students have come. These numbers tell you nothing about my instruction as a teacher. These numbers tell nothing about all of the small group instruction and interventions this child received. The numbers do not tell how hard this kid has worked, or how hard I have worked. This child made AMAZING growth. But you would never know that from the test scores. Test scores do not tell you each child's story.
If standardized testing is going to be a part of what we look at when assessing student and teacher performance, fine. (Well, not really.) But it sure as hell shouldn't be the only thing. And it definitely does not deserve much weight. Authentic measures, such as IRIs, are what is needed. Measures that show growth. Measures that paint a more accurate picture. Measures that actually work to inform instruction. Measures that mean something. It is time for this madness to stop. The Cristinas in our classrooms deserve better. And so do we.