Sunday, April 10, 2016

Thirty-Six Questions

*Special thanks to Barbie Jackson for fact-checking!

I waxed hyperbolic in a conversation the other day when I said I was put on this earth to advocate for vulnerable kids. Hyperbole, yes, but it comes from every cell in my body. I am here to speak for struggling learners. That’s why the Reading Sufficiency Act which requires third graders to show on-grade reading to progress to fourth grade has been a windmill I’ve tilted at for years.

Remember the number 36. It will be important later.

It all started my second year of teaching when I taught ‘reading’ to eighth graders…that meant I had the SRA box in my room and I was supposed to make kids progress through all the colors. I knew there was more to reading that that, and got my Reading Specialist degree so I’d never feel that inadequate again. I spent the next thirty-seven years working with struggling readers in one classroom or another. Remedial, Title I reading lab in an elementary. Remedial reading in two mid highs, and Reading for Pleasure, where I made sure struggling readers felt welcome. My goal was always to help students learn to love reading, to read a lot, because I knew good test scores would follow. I saw it year after year.

I preface this post with my background to make the point I know reading instruction, and I know kids, and I will fight for those kids who are labeled failures.

I  fought the current RSA bill, when the original author Sally Kern and I had heated email exchanges. I’ve tried to share my expertise to craft a law that actually works for kids and supports their learning. I was there when the House overrode the Governor’s veto of HB2625, which would allow a team of educators and parents to actually make appropriate decisions about a third grader’s placement. The Senate added its vote to override as I was driving home, celebrating the House victory.  I wrote about the shameful responses of our policy makers to that override…shameful in their zeal to flunk our kids.  I watch with fear as I know third graders next year must score proficient on their reading test, or risk retention. The teams of teachers and parents will still be in place…for now.

I shared Jason James’ posts analyzing the tests for our third graders, when we realized the test is not a reading test, but a reading-ELA test. Questions range from comprehension and vocabulary, to alphabetizing guide words on dictionary pages, and the use of almanacs.

I researched beyond policy makers’ rhetoric that a child who cannot read (I’ll come back to that) at third grade is destined for a life of misery. I’ve found forced retention is just as harmful, is more expensive for schools, and leads to higher levels of high school dropouts.

I’m tired of the rhetoric.

“Third grade is crucial, because that’s when we stop learning to read and start reading to learn.” Oh, Puleeze. This one lights my hair on fire. We are always learning to read. And we are always reading to learn. Every new book gives us new comprehension challenges. Even as adults…this one is just an excuse to blame kids who are learning at their own rate…you know, that internal compass that cannot be changed, no matter how many times you try to cram reading strategies down their throats. We all learn to read our entire lives. We all read to learn…our entire lives. If you don’t believe me, try reading a bill from the Oklahoma Legislature.

“Teachers and parents put too much emphasis on the tests and that makes kids stressful and nervous.” WHO put the high stakes on this test? Not the teachers. Not the parents. Who tried to tie test scores to teacher evaluations? Not the teachers. Not the parents. Who tied test scores to bogus school A-F grades? Not the teachers. Not the parents. 

“We need to use tests to hold schools and teachers and students accountable.” You know, standardized tests were designed to be a snapshot of achievement…one piece of information. They are good at predicting performance on the next test. They were NEVER designed to be high stakes…for students, for teachers, for schools, or for districts. The current testing climate is based on the misuse and abuse of standardized tests, and the children who take them.  Teachers do not run away from accountability. They can share multiple examples of student learning and growth. They can share lesson plans and teacher-made assessments. Accountability through standardized tests is an idea that needs to disappear.

“We all took tests – they aren’t so bad.” If you are an adult, your experience is not at all comparable to our kids’ experience. Yes. We took standardized tests. And those scores were put into our permanent records and promptly forgotten. No one was flunked on the scores, no teacher was fired, and no school was labeled as a failing school. We took those tests and then went about the real business of learning.

“Kids will have to take high stakes tests in the future. This is no different.” This is very different. Students will take ACT and SAT tests for entrance to college, or to earn scholarship funding. Those tests are voluntary. They can be taken multiple times. There are high-powered test prep courses and books galore. In many professions there are high stakes tests that must be passed as a gateway to the profession. Also voluntary. Also chosen. Also supported by test prep materials. Also may be taken over and over. Our third graders get one shot. One day in April.

“If kids can’t read, they shouldn’t move on.” In my career I met exactly two students I considered non-readers. One, a fourth grader, came to us in early March…we were his 4th school of the year. When asked to read ‘cat’ he laboriously mouthed, “Cuh-AAh-Tee.” Words held no meaning to him on the page. We set him up with recorded books about cars and he listened, read, and learned to read his first book. I remember how excited he was to read his book to our principal. Just as we hit our stride, though, he was gone…on to his fifth school of his fourth grade year. At Norman North, I had a freshman in my Reading for Pleasure class who’d been homeschooled by his very-ill grandmother. She was not equipped to teach and control him, so he steadfastly refused to learn. He came to us with pre-primer skills. And we started working…working…working…Just as he was beginning to show progress, he too, disappeared from school and we never saw him again.

Every third grader taking the test this month IS A READER. Make no mistake every child is a reader. Now, are they all reading ‘above average?’ Of course not. Are they all the same height? Do they wear the same sized shoe? Can they run equally fast? Only a non-educator could expect every kid in third grade to read at level. Educators know kids begin at their own starting place and make progress…not steady progress, but they make progress.

My third graders years ago remarked on how well I read…I had not thought about how intimidating it must be for a child to hear a proficient reader. I told them we all started learning to read when we were six years old…they were not eight and nine. I was forty.  Who should be a better reader?

I also asked them about how they learned to ride their bikes…how did they get better and better? By taking the bike apart on the lawn? By taking a test identifying all the parts? By watching others? They got better and better by riding…by getting on, falling off, wobbling down the street. By picking themselves up and trying again. This is the only way our kids progress with reading…by reading. Not taking tests and benchmarks. Not by pronouncing nonsense syllables, by reading unrelated words quickly. We must give them books they will love and we must support them as they read.

“Retention will give kids the gift of time.” I had a student in my elementary class…he struggled as a second grader, as a third grader, as a fourth grader. But we had supports in place for him. We cheered his small victories and his large victories. We didn’t flunk him. We individualized for him and supplemented  for him. Yes, he struggled, but he never gave up, and he never doubted himself, and he never saw himself as a failure. Today, that young man is a teacher…a National Board Certified Teacher. A teacher who looks out on his classes and recognized himself in his students’ faces and is the teacher they need.  Would he have gone on to be a college graduate and a teacher if we'd've flunked him as a nine-year-old? We gave him the gift of time…

“Kids won’t even understand that they’re repeating a grade. It won’t hurt their emotional well-being.”  A friend recently told me about her morning ritual with her children, one of whom is a third grader…they pray on their way to school each day, to set the tone for a good day. Her third grader prays every day to pass the test.

I have a friend who is a child therapist. She tells me more and more of her patients are talking about the anxiety they feel about the test…and how that test will decide their futures. This is not pressure others are placing on kids…this is pressure they’re trying their best to survive.

Last month my third-grade Grand, sitting in the back seat of my car, said in a tiny voice, “I hope I get to go to fourth grade next year.” She never looked up, hands in her lap, face down, hidden by the curtain of her shiny brown hair. Her sisters, middle school and high school, laughed and said, “Of course you’re going to fourth grade next year.” I couldn’t stop them. It’s not guaranteed. She DOES struggle…she IS a reader, but she struggles to perform on these tests. I looked at all three and was so sad at the changes in our schools since the older girls were in elementary. It IS different now.

This year’s third grade reading/ELA test will have 50 questions. But only 36 are identified as reading comprehension or vocabulary. So, third graders’ placement for next year will rest on their performance on 36 questions mingled with the other literary analysis and reference questions on one test. One day in April.

Thirty six questions.

For those kids who have yet to prove proficiency on the other measures schools can use…for those kids whose last chance is THE TEST…I say, ‘best of luck, little one, on those 36 reading questions. Do well. Or stay in third grade. Thirty-six questions will decide their future. Not the progress, albeit slower progress, they’ve made. Not the small victories. Not your love of reading or your love of learning.”

Thirty-six questions. 


  1. My anxiety level rose dramatically while reading this. It breaks my heart to watch my students with special needs struggle through standardized testing and it makes me angry that I am forced to inflict this on them. I know the progress my students have made because I know where they were when they started. Thirty-six questions on one test will never show how hard they have worked. Thirty six questions will never show the real progress they have made. And thirty-six questions from a less than perfect test given under highly stressful conditions (because believe me, it is highly stressful!) should never be used to decide if a student goes on to fourth grade.

    1. I'm so grateful they have you to remind them how much they've learned and how far they've come. That should be all that matters.

  2. I can't tell you how much I love this. My youngest was the first class subjected to this abuse. I will continue fighting to eliminate until it is gone.
    My oldest would never passed that test. Despite every intervention imaginable, was a very struggling reader. In 3rd grade she was barely on 2nd grade level. By the middle of 5th, she was just a few months behind grade level. But by the middle of 6th, she was at the middle of 7th grade level! A full grade ahead! This whole RSA is nonsense.

    1. There's your story to your legislators. We must always have faith in our youngsters...they will, like Leo, bloom in their own time.