Busting Out of the Box

For 11 years, I taught students at this time of year one thing: “The Box.” I emphasized the words, repeated the phrase several times in class, and made a running joke of the whole thing. Why? Well, for one thing, my English, reading, and language arts students needed to be able to answer open-ended (written response) questions in a way that pleased the almighty state scorers. When you’re completing the formulaic writing that these high-stakes tests require, you have to meet the three criteria points: restate the prompt, use evidence from the text, and explain. The prompt and writing space just so happen to appear in an ever-important box. Typically, each reading passage also is preceded by a short blurb written – you guessed it – in a box, and some students skip right over the box on practice tests because they want to get through the stupid things. (Who could blame them?) So, I emphasized “The Box” for both reading and writing during the couple of weeks prior to the testing days.

I, being the diligent teacher whose evaluations were tied to these precious high-stakes standardized assessments, actually gave my students all sorts of tricks for the test. If the federal and state governments and school district were going to require us to jump through the hoops, I was going to make damn sure my kids had all of the necessary training. I knew the one thing that could generally assure even my lowest students a single precious point was to read “The Box.” Plus, the prompt that they had to regurgitate like trained monkeys was in “The Box.” And, we were told time and again by testing officials that anything a student wrote outside of “The Box” would not be scored. “The Box, The Box, The Box…”

Joey in the box by Louish PixelLiterally, we are forcing kids to live, breathe, and think inside “The Box” with state and national high-stakes standardized assessments. Are these the types of tests that result in academic achievement? Certainly not. Can you imagine trying to tell Monet, Van Gogh, or Jackson Pollock to paint inside a box? Can you imagine telling Mozart that he had to compose neatly on a single sheet? We may not be stifling the next great artist or musician. But, we absolutely are stifling our kids’ creativity and critical thinking, reading, and writing abilities when we shove these poorly designed assessments at them and limit their thinking on such a grand scale.

Simply put, we are boxing in our kids. We have limited curricula to the narrowest scope in the name of the tests. Whether we like to admit it or not, we teach to the tests and then wonder why our kids are not prepared for writing research papers, analytical papers, or anything that requires them to draw their own conclusions. After all, the standards and their associated tests often draw the conclusions for the students and then ask them how they got there in a neat little A, B, C, or D format. We prohibit kids who aren’t proficient from taking electives, such as art, music, foreign language, vocational and technical classes, and the like because they need more remediation on thinking inside the box.

Then, we see companies like Google and Apple that require their employees to think outside the box, collaborate, design, and dream. We hear about professors bemoaning the fact that our students cannot think on their feet, participate in debates, or complete papers without an immense amount of handholding. We see more college graduates taking five or more years to complete a typical four-year track, just so they can move back in with mom and dad when nobody will hire them.

Where is the light at the end of this very dark tunnel? Who will let our kids out of the boxes that we have been putting them into for far too long?

Through Rose coloured glasses by pangalactic garglebblasterThere are some rays of light appearing. One is that Pennsylvania’s new governor said that school ratings should be less dependent on standardized test scores. Governor Wolf has been touring the state and visiting schools, and I am encouraged by his statement. I don’t know what he saw in terms of authentic learning, but I hope he saw enough word walls and test prep materials to make him wonder what we are doing in the name of education in this great state of ours. I also hope that some teachers, students, or parents were able to get close enough to tell him about the tests without their messages being filtered through the rose-colored glasses so many administrators are wearing these days.

The opt-out movement is in full swing, and the numbers are growing daily nationwide. In Pennsylvania, the numbers are growing, too. The latest Pearson spying scandal dealt a blow to the PARCC tests. Finally, droves of parents are starting to question the tests, the standards, and the curricula at their students’  schools.

Will high-stakes testing end tomorrow? No. But, we have parents who are questioning the entire system. We have kids who are refusing the tests. We have teachers who are refusing to give the tests. And, we have some lawmakers and leaders who are beginning to truly take a look at the current state of education.

We still have a long way to go. But, we finally are seeing steps in the right direction. Teachers are notorious for saying that the tide has to turn and that the pendulum eventually has to swing the other way. After all, education reform and initiatives seem to go on a cycle and teachers have to ride out the waves or completely bail out, as I did.

The one thing that hasn’t changed after all these years, though, is the fact that students remain at the center of education. These kids need to be prepared for the next step in their journey. If we continue to box them in, if we continue to narrow the scope and follow curricula that follows the tests, we are doing our students an injustice that we cannot easily correct. If Governor Wolf has his eye on testing, if the opt-out movement continues to grow, if people push back against Pearson long enough, things will change.

That means districts need to be ready and willing to view their curricula and programs with a critical eye and get back to the business of educating kids and preparing them for life beyond the boxes. Is your district ready?

Images via Flickr by Louish Pixel and panhgalactic gargle blaster and the heart of gold

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