Significant Gains

Closing the Teach For America Blogging Gap
Jan 20 2013

Test Anxiety

Regents week begins this Tuesday. Students will be retaking the exams they failed last June — and August, or January, or the June before that. We have students in their senior year of high school sitting for exams they first took in ninth grade. They have failed these same exams repeatedly. For a number of them, scores have actually declined — particularly on content-heavy exams like the Living Environment exam. Now, in their senior year, these tests present the last hurdle to graduation. Many of them were mere points away.

This year, the city is finally moving to grading off-site and I am thankful that I will no longer experience that shameful urge to find that “one more point” for a student. How often have I felt, “Oh but they know this, they meant that“? I’m glad I’ll be able to avoid that conversation with myself this year. I’m striving to be a good teacher, but at the least, I can ensure I’m an honest one.

Generally, though, I’ve been shielded from a lot of testing anxiety as a teacher. I teach upper-level science courses and while my students need the credit, the exams are not required for graduation. Besides, the credits could be met by any science — forensics or anatomy are favorites — so learning chemistry and physics isn’t a graduation requirement, either. As a corps member, however, I needed some way to measure my success, some indicator that my time and energy was not wasted. I clung to the small numbers I had: my first year, six students passed the chemistry exam. No one scored above an 80%. Still, the other two high school chemistry teachers from my corps had lower passing rates, so if anyone was counting, I was in the lead.

When we are striving to ensure students pass exams, when a 65% is what we’re hoping for, we begin to actively work against real learning. We continue to press our students with testing strategies for multiple choice questions on reading passages we don’t expect them to understand. We continue to teach them ways to complete short response answers without writing coherent paragraphs. I give them shortcuts for solving algebra problems so that they don’t actually have to learn inverse operations. They know all kinds of ways to get the right answer without ever having to understand the question.

In my fourth year, I’ve finally taken the luxury I have as an upper-level science teacher, and have shifted my focus from the exam to the content. It’s been so freeing and so rewarding. My students can tell you the graphical and algebraic relationships between two variables, given a set of data. They can setup proportions. They can relate pH to [H+] and [OH-] concentrations and use powers of ten to determine how a change in pH affects that concentration. I swear: they’re learning math. And true to my origins, I document the data. My school has been using the TFA-approved online student tracker, JumpRope, and I’ve followed my students’ progress on specific outcomes throughout the year. There has been growth.

Unfortunately, it won’t be growth that results in a Regents exam credit. Only about 10 of them will be sitting for the physics Regents in June. It’s a small number — it’s certainly not enough — but they’ll all be shooting for scores in the 80s and 90s. And for once, I’m reasonably sure they’ll be getting them. A 65% on that exam doesn’t mean much, but a 95% definitely does.

It’s part of what’s so troubling about the emphasis on testing in many of the new teacher evaluation systems, including the one that’s at a standstill here in New York City. Along with real concern about the validity of value-added modeling (see: and and the possibility of score tampering (see: and, is the uncomfortable reality that our tests are essentially flawed. Grading seeks to establish ranks — testing seeks to assess progress and comprehension. Our current methodologies conflate the two and ultimately fail to do either.

I hope my senior students pass the exams they need for graduation. But doing so won’t necessarily mean they’re prepared for graduation — or for college. That takes much more than the Regents can assess.

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