I completely understand that I, as a teacher, should be accountable for learning in my classroom.
I'm fine with that.
It's what I signed up for.
The instrument used to measure the achievement of my students, however, is questionable in terms of its validity.
This week, we got a new student on our team who inspired my team leader to question our state's Education Commissioner:
Dear Dr. Breed,
A new student started in my math class last Thursday at [Our] Middle School in [Our Town]. Her name is (name removed for privacy reasons). She moved to [Our Town] from Iraq and speaks no English. She also does not understand English nor does she read English. She is in math and ELL 1 classes. She is a lovely, scared young woman who had to go home her first day because she couldn't handle the school situation. I have been told that because she is new to the country and does not speak English, she will not have to take the NeSA reading this year. However, I have also been told that she will have to take the NeSA math test. My understanding is that the NeSA math test has many word problems. I, of course, have not seen the test. Our district is anticipating a heavy emphasis on word problems; but, of course, they haven't seen the test either. If any of this information is incorrect, please let me know. However, if it is correct, please explain to me how giving this test is in any way fair to this young woman or an accurate measure of what she knows in the field of math. I look forward to hearing from you.
6th Grade Math Teacher
Here is the response that she received:
Thank you for sharing about your new student. Your note is an example of reality hitting the NeSA test process and your question of fairness may be reasonable for a variety of similarly situated students throughout Nebraska. Although the mathematics test includes word problems, the items have been built to measure math, not reading. The item writers were instructed in that way and really do understand that the validity of the test must measure the right thing.
As to the fairness of the test to an individual student, this will vary with the myriad of circumstances that impact teachers and students. I do not have a response for the fairness question except to say that the NeSA test is a valid, one-shot measure of learning regarding the state standards. No more, no less. Although [your student] is required to take the test, the test can be read to her per the administration practices found on page one of the accommodations guide. I would advise you to consult the [district] central office to set up appropriate guidelines for test administration for this student.
Again, thank you for your note. I hope you, [lovely, new Iraqi student] and all of your students have a productive and positive school year.
I am tempted to send a follow-up e-mail asking Mr. Breed how, exactly, it will be beneficial to read the test out loud to a girl who understands no English. Maybe if we speak slowly and loudly, she will understand some of it?
Something else that Mr. Breed doesn't know about our student is that there was a two-year span of her life when she didn't even go to school because of the war that was going on in Iraq. So, not only does she not understand the language, but she has missed out on many basic skills with which other sixth graders come to us.
I am grateful that Barbara received a response from a man who, I'm sure, is very busy. But I'm still not confident in the NeSA. On the NeSA reading last year, my school did not meet AYP in the category of ELL students. While students who have been in the country for less than a year are not required to take this test, I hardly think it's fair to test those who have been here for slightly over one year.
I guarantee you that if I moved to another country in which I understood not a word of their language, it would take me much more than a year to be reading and writing in that language at my grade level.
There is just no way.
Our ELL teachers and our classroom teachers are excellent. But they are not miracle workers.
These students are often very bright, and I'm sure that if I was able to communicate with them in their native language that I would be blown away by what they know and can do.
And bless their hearts, they work their tails off in our school every day.
They put on a brave face on that first day of school when they literally don't speak one word of English and have nobody around who can understand them. They put a friendly smile on their faces when a teacher or a peer speaks to them. They nod their heads, pretending to understand, in attempt to show that they want to be there. They are patient when we, their teachers, don't know how to explain something differently.
They listen. They think. They try.
So incredibly hard.
And yet, we shove a standardized test at them and we tell them that their hard work isn't good enough. They are not proficient. They are performing "below expectations." They have failed.
Who is really failing here?
I would argue that it is not the students.