Saturday, May 8, 2010

Rain, Concrete and Standardized Tests

I spent my rainy Saturday morning today in “The Bowdoin Room,” a windowless room where I tutored a delightful 13-year-old girl for two long hours. I was there as a spy, checking out what seems to be a very successful, very organized tutoring program at a 7-year-old charter school that has had more improvement on MCAS (state test) scores than any other school in the entire state; quite a feat. I was spying because I run my own tutoring program during the week at a new Boston Public School, and am trying to get ideas for how to improve the program for next year, as well as attempting to impress my bosses so they'll hire me to be a teacher at the school.

I was impressed by several aspects of the program, particularly how organized it is and the turnout of both tutors and tutees. Tutors congregated in the Harvard Room, which is a 6th grade room during the week, and in total there must have been at least 30 people there. The kid count must have been closer to 50, and despite the rain and a school overnight two nights ago at a museum, only three were absent. Free donuts and coffee were provided for the grownups, as well as a “30 minute training session,” which turned out to be five minutes of useful pointers for how to talk to the kids.

Still, I found the whole experience to be incredibly depressing. When I drove up to the school, I was shocked to discover that it shares a building with a CVS. It used to be a bank, and windows are so limited that only 8th graders get them, as a “special privilege.” The kids spend their recess in an area immediately outside the back door of the school, which once upon a time was used as a loading dock. Even the lucky kids who aren't required to attend Saturday school start school during the week at 7:30 and end at 4:30 or 5:15, making their day at least 3 hours longer than my Cambridge kids' days. One of the most horrifying aspects, to me, was that all of the teachers were required to be there every Saturday morning at 9 a.m. I imagine their retention rate is quite low; if I were in their shoes, I would probably quit mid-year for lack of Vitamin D. When I asked the girl I was working with how she felt about school she scrunched up her face and said, “No comment,” then leaned in and whispered, “It's really boring and they're too strict.” After two hours of mind-numbing test prep, I was at the end of my rope, and I have a pretty long attention span (and I didn't have to spend an hour doing homework ahead of time like the kids did).

She was astonishingly well-equipped with knowledge about how to take a test, and seemed to have memorized an endless supply of formulas and definitions. She didn't hesitate a single second when answering questions about means, medians and modes, which I continually confuse to the point where I have taught entire lessons using the wrong word, which in turn will probably lead to a lifelong confusion for my students. Still, she struggled to understand what many questions were asking, even when the question was relatively simple: “Tim gets $0.05 per can he returns at the redemption center: money earned = $0.05(number of cans). Mary gets $0.05 more per can than Tim does. Write an equation for how much money Mary earns.”

Last year, 100% of students at the school received a passing score on both the ELA and math components of the test. No doubt this is very good news for the school. But, how much significance does it actually have for the futures of these kids? I'm not sure. Personally, I've been able to get by just fine without knowing the definitions of mean, median, and mode, and I don't think any of the skills these kids learn to take tests really helps them out in life. However, our society does place a high value on testing. It's possible that these test scores will help them get into good high schools, which will lead to good colleges, which will lead to good jobs, which theoretically should lead to productive and fulfilling lives. They may have to suffer through a few years of misery, but perhaps in the long run it will pay off for them. Or, the message that learning is not fun will be ingrained into their minds, and they'll take the first opportunity they can to escape school and get a job at the nearest 7-eleven.

I'm sure I can glean some helpful lessons from the charter school's program, and I'd love to become as successful at recruiting volunteers as they are. Still, despite its disorganization and occasional haphazardness, I love my tutoring program best, and not just because it's my baby. It's a happy place with beanbag chairs, lots of Patricia Polacco books that are in high demand, and frequent hugs from kids; everyone is happy to be there, even me at my most stressed out. And my tutoring program is not ending next week like the charter school's, just before the state tests, because we hope to do more than just get the kids to pass the test.

1 comment:

  1. Sooo curious to know what school you are referencing here! And glad that it was at least rainy and blechy while you were stuck in the windowless school. That sounds very glum indeed.