When Funding Falters

I teach in a Title 1 middle school. Those in education know the lingo. Others likely have little understanding of the label and its ramifications. Certain subjects hog the spotlight. Poverty, especially in a region of growing affluence, is not one of them.

Title 1 provides additional funding for schools with significant populations of students from low-income households. Title 1 was first enacted as part of the 1965 Elementary and Secondary Education Act. The program provides funds to the school district which are then distributed to the schools. Greenville County School District is the largest school district in the state of South Carolina and the 44th largest school district in the nation. Out of the 21 middle schools in the district, three receive Title 1 funding: Berea Middle, Lakeview Middle and Tanglewood Middle. All three of these schools are located in the area generally known as West Greenville, home to some of the highest poverty neighborhoods in one of the more affluent counties in the state.

Why does all of this matter?

This funding provides critical resources that benefit the students tremendously on many fronts: academic, social and physical. These funds provide for the salaries of additional teachers to lower the student to teacher ratio. It provides funds for afterschool tutoring sessions and summer programs to help bridge the summer brain drain. These funds enable the schools to host health clinics and vision screening so students can get glasses and see the board in the classroom. These resources, when properly administered, help bridge the gap that poverty creates.

This year, as I stated in the title, the funding has, euphemistically, faltered. Certain upsides and downsides come with living and working in such a large school district. The size of the district means that the schools within its purview have access to a wealth of resources that smaller districts lack. However, a huge downside comes from an ostensibly wonderful thing. Over the past few years, one would have to hide under a rock to miss all the buzz about Greenville’s revitalized downtown and impressive economic growth. What has been largely overlooked is the inequitable distribution of that growth. Gentrification has begun around downtown Greenville which has pushed and continues to push low-income households into areas they can afford, mainly the west side of Greenville. I suspect that this movement also spills into surrounding, lower-income counties. This economic growth means that Greenville’s median income has risen. When that number gets put into the Title 1 funding calculator, out comes a number $3 million less than last school year.

The funding faltered. Who pays the price?

The students.

The median household income of our student body did not increase in a commensurate amount to the six figure additional Title 1 funding our school and the other twenty Title 1 elementary and middle schools would have received. Our Title 1 facilitator now has the unenviable responsibility of trimming everything she possibly can without causing harm. It’s like she’s forced to play a game of giant Jenga with the blocks already placed in positions with just enough support to remain upright on a windless day. So far, we know that our afterschool program had to be cut. The summer programs will also likely face the ax. Few, if any, teachers and administrators will be able to attend professional conferences which enhance their skills in the classroom. I’m sure much more that I am not privy to, has also been nixed.

Lakeview, however, is immensely blessed to enter its second year of partnership with a local charity startup, the CURA Foundation. These wonderful people have stepped up in a major way to provide so much like extra uniform clothing for needy students, winter coats, local field trips and even prize giveaways for teachers during teacher appreciation week. They also provide intangibles like mentorships and this year a partnership with Greenville Tech to open the door to advanced manufacturing. Students will learn about the profession, training and scholarships for Greenville Tech. I ams o excited for my former students to be given this opportunity.

As absolutely amazing as this is, these wonderful people cannot plug the gaping hole of a six figure funding cut. Few single individuals or charities have the ability to do so. That is one big reason that I have a huge problem with the Libertarian small government ideal but that is a topic for another post.

I have painted a rather bleak picture. Reality lacks rose-colored Instagram filters. I am not discouraged. If anything, I am energized, nearly overflowing with ideas of ways we could bridge that gap. Like I mentioned in my post on homelessness, the whole problem is not something I can tackle and solve as if I am Wonder Woman. I can, however, make the difference in at least one child’s life. I will, this year and all future years fight like Wonder Woman for these kids. I will not give in to pessimism and defeatism. I will set high expectations for them and do whatever I can to push them higher despite the faltering funding.

For example, towards the end of the year last year, my principal asked the English and math teachers to pick one of the bubble kids, kids so close to meeting state standards, to work extra with, motivate them to peak performance on the upcoming state tests. I chose a student in my lowest class, a student that several of us saw performing well at the beginning of the year but had subsequently struggled with attendance and self-esteem issues. I’ll call him Barry. So many times Barry told me that he know he was going to fail this test or that. He immediately dismissed any comment of mine to the contrary. I don’t know how many people, if any, ever told him that they believed in him.

As soon as I saw Barry’s name on that list of bubble kids, I knew he was the one I would target. I started by pulling him aside one day and telling him that I believed in him. No matter much he tried to deny it, I believed he could and would succeed. I kept reminding him, even when he decided to act all embarrassed or try to shush me before I could say it.

We got the state test scores back a couple weeks ago, the day I originally wrote this post. Barry popped that bubble. He met state standards. My heart about burst when I saw that. I cannot wait to find him once school starts and tell him, with a smile, “I told you so!”

This is why I continue to teach, why I am so passionate about education. This is why I will fight for my students and pay out of pocket for things when the funding falters.

This budget cut will not spell failure for our students. Why? I am just one member of a team full of people with the same or similar drive and passion for these amazing kids. Each of us will fight like Wonder Woman or Superman for them.

Back to School

Today marks the first day of my fourth year of teaching or year two of my teaching career reboot. I am excited for what this year will bring.

For the first time I feel confident. This time around I know the curriculum and the school. Every positive lesson I documented in my reflection provides incredible benefits for the upcoming year.

Last week I walked back into the building, ready to get things started. I greeted everyone I saw with a cheerful “Good Morning!” I headed to my new room with all of the things I took home back in June. I couldn’t wait to get my book cover posters laminated and up on the walls. I had to make a couple trips to bring everything in but I didn’t mind; I needed the steps.

Normality opened the door about half an hour before we met as a staff in the cafeteria. A fellow teacher walked over to my room with me and shared some information gleaned from the previous day, a day when many chose to come in to start the preparation process. Nothing she shared breached any written or unwritten codes of conduct. The conversation simple reminded me of habits I formed last year.

That cracked open door swung wide open during that afternoon’s department meeting sending cynicism careening through the open doorway. I realized with alarm and a bit of shame that my first reaction to a change in lesson planning or a new requirement was negativity. I, the all-knowing, knew without a doubt that whatever it was would not work and would simply add undue burden to our already overworked workload. (Sarcasm. obviously.)

Each time these thoughts intruded, I caught myself with a sharp, silent, “stop that, Jen!” I prayed for wisdom and strength from God to battle the all-powerful temptation. That night I went home and prayed extensively. This school year would not start out on that foot.

Wednesday dawned, a brand new day. We started with department meetings where my new cohort partner and I dug into planning the first unit of the year with one of those tools I had too easily dismissed the day before. God blessed me with another partner eager and willing to collaborate. Once I set aside the negativity and doubts, I started to get excited.

With Thursday came our back to school event where I met many of the children who will no doubt change my life over the next school year. I greeted a few of our old students, no “big men on campus” eight graders. I nearly finished my classroom preparation when I fired up the hot glue gun and hung forty book cover posters that I DIY-frugal-weirdo produced for the win. After I placed the last poster and stepped back, I felt like the room had gone from simply a room with some desks in it to my classroom. I feel more at home in this room than I have in any of the other three rooms from which I have taught.

I know that things will not always be easy. I know that administration will hand down weighty directives. I know that our test scores are low and with that comes increased pressure. I know that this year I will undergo ADEPT formal evaluation for the second time and with that comes additional workload and pressure.

Most importantly, I know that the almighty, omnipotent God who holds me secure in His hand, will provide all the strength and wisdom I need.

When Reality Intrudes – Homelessness

Every time I travel to San Francisco for the marathon, I encounter homelessness on a scale that I have not encountered any where else in my travels. Obviously, San Francisco is not the only city in the United States with a significant homeless population or even the city with the highest population. However, I see it prominently displayed in San Francisco, especially as we walk down Market Street.

At first this made me uncomfortable. I did not know what to do when I walked down Market Street the first time in 2012. Every few feet I saw another person lying huddled against the wall with a mound of belongings beside them. I did not know what to think about seeing a person pick through an overflowing garbage can. I had never encountered homelessness on a level like this before.

I wish that i could say that simple ignorance caused my discomfort. That certainly contributed. However, a large part of my discomfort came from many of the most common fonts of prejudice. I could list all of the individual fonts but they all stem from the fact that I did not view these people as individual people with unique stories. I saw them as “the homeless,” one large amorphous group where every aspect applies to everyone in the group. For instance, all homeless have drug problems or mental issues. All homeless are lazy and don’t want to get off their butt to pull their own weight. Even writing that now makes me cringe.

All of those terrible stereotypes have something in common. Each one of those statements places responsibility on the shoulders of the other person, the “homeless.” Those statements absolve the speaker of the obligation to help his fellow man. They give permission for the speaker to walk on the other side of the road like the religious leaders in the parable of the Good Samaritan.

Over the past several years, God has used various circumstances and people in my life to help me learn how to value each person. Every human life has value. When you believe that, you can no longer view any person as an amorphous label. Labels cannot withstand such scrutiny.

Now when I go to San Francisco and walk down Market Street, the sight of each person both breaks my heart and makes me think. I wonder what their story is, what happened to them and what choices they made.

On this most recent trip, we walked past something I have never before seen in person. We walked down Market, heading to Honey, Honey Café for breakfast. I looked ahead and saw a small cluster of people sitting on the street side of the wide sidewalk. One girl had her arms raised while another guy leaned towards her. My first thought was that she needed some sort of medical help. Then we walked closer. You could say that the help he prepared to give could remotely be considered medical. As we approached and then walked past the pair, I watched him hold up a syringe filled with a dark liquid. I saw no more than that yet I couldn’t help but think about the stark contrast between the blatant middle class privilege we exerted as we headed towards brunch and their life, a life that clearly robbed them of dignity for their own life leaving them with nothing but that dark liquid.

Later that same day, we kept walking past people fast asleep, completely in the open. Mom commented several times that she could never do that. Ellis asked why. Mom stated that she would never be able to fall asleep out in the open like that with no security. That provoked serious thought. I’ve never thought about what it would take for me to be able to sleep. I remembered a time when I did not feel secure while trying to sleep. The first time I traveled to the UK, I ended up staying overnight on the last night of the trip in the Heathrow airport so that I would not miss my flight. One café remained open all night. Several other travelers hung out in this café for the same reason. I tried to sleep using my bag as a pillow with all my things bunched tightly under the bag figuring that if anyone tried to take something, I would wake up. I dozed periodically but slept anything but deeply or for any length of time. I had no security. I cannot imagine what it takes to lose that need for security.

We also encountered people suffering, in addition to a lack of a home and the security it brings, from some sort of mental illness. I often struggle with my response in these situations. Sometimes I am literally scared such as a few years ago in San Francisco. Mom and I stopped at a Subway on our way to packet pick up. At one point Mom left the table to use the restroom. A homeless man entered and wandered towards our table. He mumbled something about money. I never carry cash so I told him, “I’m sorry. I don’t have anything.” He cursed at me and walked away although he did not leave the restaurant. Mom returned. The man still did not leave. He continued to shout and curse at me. We hadn’t finished but we immediately got up and left, looking over our shoulders multiple times. We had no idea what we would do if he followed us. Thankfully, he didn’t.

On this trip, we observed a man sitting on a bench outside the Starbucks on Embarcadero. He carried on a vociferous, colorful conversation that made no sense to outside observers. This conversation drove away anyone else who thought about sitting on those benches leaving the man all alone. My heart broke for him. Mom observed afterwards that so many people say that “the homeless” need to be willing to realize that they need help yet some life that man, have no idea that they need help. How could they be the ones to seek aid? We need to go to them, to see their need and extend a hand.

While I know this to be true and want it to be true of me, I struggle with the application. While in San Francisco, I thought about this. I thought about the needs of the people I saw and how to possibly help them. I have no idea how to apply any sort of practical solution.

Perhaps, in the end, this is not my crusade. One human cannot solve the whole world’s problems. That’s God’s job. No, I go back to the observation that compassion begins with viewing each person as valuable; every human has value, created in God’s image. This is what drives my passion for the immigrant, for my students. At the beginning of the school year, this serves as a powerful reminder for those times when that particular student seems to have no redeeming value.

Bottom line, every human life has value. We should acknowledge, respect and promote that value.

Loss Examined

On Sunday, July 9th, my grandmother passed away unexpectedly. According to the doctors, she suffered a silent heart attack the day before. Her body simply could not recover.

Obviously, I am not the first person to write on the subject of loss, nor will I share any unique or profound insights. However, I feel compelled to write, to ponder the significance and ramifications.

I spent my childhood at the Enjaian house, Grandma and Grandpa’s house or G and G’s. They came as a package deal. After school, one of them would pick my sister and me up and take us over to their house. We hung out there until supper, after which Mom took us home. Every holiday and birthday celebration took place at their house. Immediate family to me meant mom, sister, cousins, aunts, uncles, and my grandparents.

For as large of a role that Grandma filled in my life, we were never that close. I knew from a young age that she favored my cousins, her son’s children. My sister and I bore the subconscious taint of our father’s misdeeds. I knew it, resented it for a bit but then got used to it. Grandma and I showed love different ways. We shared few interests in common. Honestly, I barely remember what our relationship was like before my aunt first started her battle with cancer.

During my junior year of college, my aunt underwent the first of several significant, disfiguring surgeries to remove a rare, recurring cancer in her jaw. (It wasn’t bone cancer. It was more rare than that, so rare that I do not remember the specific name.) Over the next seven years I watched this battle strengthen my aunt’s faith while my grandma grew weaker both physically and spiritually.

From that point, Grandma sank into worry and negativity. It became difficult to be around her which nearly killed me because avoiding her meant not spending time with Grandpa, one of my most favorite people in the world. I never totally physically separated from her. In fact, in some ways I was the grandkid who spent the most time in her company. Emotionally though? A gulf grew even as I watched. I loved her but I didn’t really like her. I rarely admitted that though.

After Ruth died, Grandma continued her descent. As she aged, she faced many typical ailments like hearing and sight loss. She chose not to fight them, at least that’s what her attitude conveyed to me. As her mobility decreased, her walk became a shuffle. So many times when this first started, I remember wishing she would just pick her feet up and work to regain the mobility. I saw her shuffling gait as a manifestation of her defeatism.

These post-2012 years also saw the growing up and leaving the nest of her grandkids. One cousin married a wonderful woman and moved to Maryland and then Maine. One cousin joined the Marines. Another cousin joined the Air Force. My sister moved to Chicago, a city she has, justifiably loved for years. This whole time I stayed put, still living in the same house that I have lived in for almost sixteen years. I watched my grandma bemoan the fact that all her grandchildren were leaving and didn’t talk to her anymore. I fought bitterness in myself when she said this while I sat across the table from her at the table every Monday night and most Sunday lunches. God used this to strengthen my faith and help me learn from my mother’s tireless compassion towards her own mother who constantly told her how tired she looked or that she was working too much.

I failed many times. I often grew irritated with her ignorant or prejudiced statements and snapped at her. I fought, many times unsuccessfully, the urge to pull away from her smothering hugs and kisses. Mom helped me learn that that was Grandma’s way of showing love.

In the midst of failure came growth. Over the past couple years God has been growing me, pointing out my weak points and giving me the wisdom and strength needed to improve my relationship with Grandma. He has given me the ability to take what has been a sore spot, my singleness and her chagrin at my lack of a husband and turn it into laughter. How could I not laugh when she asked me if I saw any handsome men on my runs and chased them or did they chase me? I laugh every time I think about it.

Then came Sunday, July 9th. I had just found Hamilton Park and the dueling grounds after blasting the Hamilton soundtrack on the drive from my airbnb. My phone started vibrating. Caller ID revealed it to be Mom. I answered excitedly, planning to ask her if we could Facetime so I could show her Manhattan across the river. I never asked her. She told me that they were at the ER> Grandma’s prognosis did not look good.

Although I did not think about it then, later I remembered the other time Grandma had a heart attack. Mom called to tell Laura and me while we were over at Dad’s house for the weekend. When I found out back then I panicked. I couldn’t imagine life without my grandma. I did not react that way a decade and a half later.

After talking to Mom, I hoped that everything would be fine, that nothing would interfere with Mom and Ellis’ anniversary trip or with Uncle Stephen and Aunt Joanna’s family vacation in Maine or my own current trip. I kept going with my itinerary for the day with the news constantly present in the back of my mind. Mom promised to text me if there were any updates. By the time I reached Sleepy Hollow Cemetery, I had not received any. Before I started walking around the historic cemetery, I sent a quick text to Mom, “any updates?” I did not expect her reply. While I stood in the cemetery, I read the news that Grandma’s heart gave out; she died.

The irony of my situation contributed to the surreality of the whole thing. I had head knowledge that Grandma died but things felt distant, disconnected. I stood in a cemetery in New York, hundreds of miles away from home. I thought that maybe things would come into focus, take shape when I got back home. On some levels, it still hasn’t.

I immediately asked Mom if she wanted me to cut my trip short and come home then. Honestly, I did not want to; I still hadn’t gotten to Maine, to Acadia National Park, the primary inspiration for the trip in the first place. I would do it for Mom though. I would do anything for her. I asked her if I could help her by coming home. She told me I was sweet to offer and then asked if I wanted to cut my trip short. Later she asked if I wanted them to factor my trip into the scheduling process for the funeral. I felt conflicted. I did not want to go to the funeral. The ceremony did not mean that much to me. I wondered what that meant that I did not want to go to my grandmother’s funeral. I asked Mom if it was wrong for me to feel this way. She told me no. She’s been on the listening end of many “debriefs” after encounters with Grandma. I told her not to factor my schedule into the planning. I figured that the funeral would likely be held on Thursday, the last day of my trip, the drive all the way back day.

I ended up rearranging my trip, cutting out some stops in Maine and shortening the trip by a day so that I could arrive home in time. I’m so thankful that I did. All eight cousins were together at the same time for the first time in years. I kept thinking about how Grandma would be both overjoyed and also mildly annoyed that it took her dying to finally have all eight of us spend time with her.

We had an amazing time that day, from recreating old cousins pictures to an hours long Apples to Apples game that had us laughing until our sides hurt. I’m glad that I made the arrangements to be there, for Mom’s sake, for Grandpa’s sake, for the sake of having the family all together. None of these reasons had anything to do with Grandma. They had to do with the people left behind, the people with whom I share a close emotional bond.

On many levels, Grandma’s passing brings relief. Grandpa can finally return to repairing printing presses, his happy place. Aunt Kathleen no longer has to endure the stress of working full time and still putting dinner on the table promptly at 6pm. Ginger, the dog, no longer has to deal with being yelled out for being a dumb dog. (Okay, that’s stretching it a bit too far.) When looking for a vacation place, we no longer had to make sure that the house had a master suit on the first floor with a minimal number of stairs.

All of those reasons rest on the surface. I have no idea how Grandpa is processing this loss. He and Grandma would have celebrated their 65th wedding anniversary at the end of this month. I cannot speak to what Grandma’s death means to Mom or her siblings. They’ve had their mom around their entire lives.

Where does this leave me?

I don’t know.

Nearly a month has passed since Grandma’s death. Things will evolve as the days progress. I hypothesize that in a few months, when the first Thanksgiving and Christmas roll around, we will have to deal with the ramification of the loss of the one person for whom family would gather to keep up the traditions.

Loss presents differently every time. I cannot help but wonder how I will feel and respond when the next family member died. No one lives forever.

It’s hard to close a post without concrete answers yet that is what I must do.

Julie Valentine Run2Overcome 10k – 2017 Race Recap

Race #132
10k #11
2017 Race #15
2017 10k #2
Julie Valentine Run2Overcome 10k #4

I had absolutely no time goals for this race. The only thing I kept in my mind was a thought about restraining myself because I had nearly 10 miles to run afterwards. Fall marathon training for the win.

Even though I ran a nearly identical time to last year (Mom ran 40 seconds faster than last year!) I think the fourth time around may have been the charm when it comes to this race.

I have run the race enough times to know the course fairly well. (It also helps that they haven’t changed the course at all.) I’m prepared for all of the hills on this course. I have learned my lesson regarding summer heat and humidity. I know better than to aim for a PR or a fast time at this race.

Julie Valentine Run2Overcome 10k 2017
Ellis tried to hid me from the picture by telling Mom to keep moving over until she stood in front of me.

Starting out Mom pushed the pace faster than I probably would have run if I were by myself. Our splits do not show that but that’s what the effort felt like. We kept up fairly even effort even though the pace varied quite a bit due to the hills.

I never felt too winded. Mom never asked to walk. We powered up the hills, including the last one on Cleveland Street that usually takes my breath away. I barely noticed the incline this time.

Ellis stood at his usual spot just before mile 6 to get a few pictures.

Julie Valentine Run2Overcome 10k 2017
Julie Valentine Run2Overcome 10k 2017

We pushed the pace at the end and finished strong.

Mile 1: 8:28
Mile 2: 8:43
Mile 3: 8:40
Mile 4: 8:20
Mile 5: 8:36
Mile 6: 8:10
Last .2: 6:53 (average pace)

After drinking some water and arranging where to meet up, I headed out for another 9.8 miles to make 16 for the day.

Julie Valentine Run2Overcome 10k 2017

Mom and Ellis stayed for the awards. Although it apparently took a while to get started but once the awards were announced Mom collected her award, second in her age group, and mine, 3rd in my age group. I love the awards this year, the Run2Overcome logo with individualized age group place and age group.

Julie Valentine Run2Overcome 10k 2017
Julie Valentine Run2Overcome 10k 2017
These pictures are included per Ellis’ request.

I continue to love this race and plan to run it and support the cause for which it raises money for as long as I can.

A Toe into the High Stakes Waters

I am by no means an expert on the topic of high stakes standardized testing. However, as an educator, I have on the ground experience and an opinion based both on that experience, my own education and solid-research based theory. This post, as evidenced by the title, will barely scratch the surface of the topic even though it may end up being one of my longer posts so far.

First, I want to share a few personal anecdotes, examples of both good and bed experiences with school-based assessment. The first clear recollection I have of what I considered to be an unfair assessment came in fourth or fifth grade. I craved the A honor roll yet kept being foiled by my reading grade, ironic for a girl who read books as frequently as she breathed oxygen. While I do not remember the story or the exact question, I do recall expressing frustration at a question that asked what color the main character’s shirt was. I could not figure out what on earth that random fact had to do with comprehension of the text.

In high school I succumbed to the peer pressure of taking the easy language class, Spanish. (That choice had a significant impact on my life but is for another post.)That easy class did not adequately prepare me for college level courses. I almost did not get to test out of the first semester of Spanish in college. Why? Half of the grade in that high school Spanish class came from homework which was a completion grade. We did not even check over the answers. My teacher walked around the room, casually glancing over the assigned page. I saw that many times some of my classmates wrote nonsense words in all the blanks and still earned credit. We could also earn 10 extra credit points for going to a local Mexican restaurant, 20 points on “Mariachi Night.” My learning suffered from poor assessment.

In college I took a basic chemistry course and managed to earn an A despite my non-existent chemist skills. That’s because my professor crafted appropriate assessments, assessments based on the curriculum he taught that unit. Beyond that, before each test he allocated a significant amount of time to reviewing the topics that would be on the test. As he reviewed those topics, I went through my notes and marked that information. My classmates, for the most part, groaned about how difficult his tests were. I did not understand at the time why they thought that when he lai8d out the test so clearly to us beforehand.

As far as high stakes testing is concerned, I remember those tests being administered far less often, maybe once a year. Yes, I did attend a private Christian school. However, I also attend pre-No Child Left Behind era. This piece of legislation grew out of good intentions but led to a harvest of unintended consequences. That one test was administered over one or at the most two days. My students endured five days of testing spread over three weeks. That was just the official state tests for each subject. My students also had testing in the fall (to show how much knowledge they lost over summer break, I assume) in math and English Language Arts, benchmarks at the end of the first three quarters, testing again in the spring and a field test for the writing portion of the state ELA test. Anyone with half a brain can see that that is beyond excessive.

So where do we stand? To paint an accurate picture, I have to step back and look at the purpose for high stakes testing. At its roots, testing is meant to evaluate schools and hold them accountable to the high standard of excellent education for every student. Every student deserves an excellent education. Schools should provide this. Teachers should be well equipped to prepare and present that education in the form of daily classes in particular subjects. These teachers should strive to continually learn and grow through professional development that each district should provide for its employees. Local governments should provide adequate funds to compensate teachers properly and provide students with any and all resources each student needs to succeed. Parents should engage in the schools of their children and their local communities to hold educators and lawmakers accountable.

That’s a lot of “should”s.

The rubber meets the road when it comes to translating the “should”s into reality. How does every person in this process execute their jobs as prescribed? For many, the answer is testing. This testing, ideally, provides data on the effectiveness of the application methods implemented at every level of the education process. I am a huge believer int he use of data for analysis and application. If you don’t learn what works and what doesn’t, you run the risk of insanity caused by repeating the same action expecting different results. I also firmly believe that, just like words, data can be misappropriated, taken out of context, or simply be faulty. If the data does not actually measure what it is being used to evaluate, it has been misappropriated. If the data collection process falls prey to flaws whether intentional or accidental, any analysis based on that data is invalid and should not be used for decision making. Furthermore, data can be manipulated to produce desired results, especially if the flaw is introduced at the time of collection.

Here is how these flaws play out when it comes to high stakes testing. First, I teach middle school. Countless verified studies have proven that developmentally, the students are not physically capable of performing at an optimal level while also sitting for several hours each day without talking. There are outliers, of course. However, this developmental factor should play an important role in creating accurate assessments.Second, teachers are not, for legal reasons, ever given access in any way to the assessment. The reason behind this is obvious. With such enormous stakes leveraged on the results of each test, the pressure to cheat weighs heavy on many teachers and administrators. However, the extreme crack down on security has consequences that reach far beyond cheating prevention. The most significant is that teachers are unable to prepare their students for this all important test. I am talking about a concept fundamental to accurate assessments. When a teacher creates an assessment, she should create one that gathers data on what the students mastered after competent instruction. It should not be designed as a trap ready to spring on unsuspecting victims. After experiencing this round of testing, even without seeing any of the questions, I am drawn increasingly to the hypothesis that the questions on these tests lean towards the completely invalid method of assessments, those designed to trick the students, however inadvertently.

For example, ELA testing started with a writing test. Several weeks before that test, students took a field test. That field test consisted of one writing question. That made sense to me for an assessment of writing. Then came the actual test. That test contained way more than one question. Obviously, I do not know the content of the questions; I like my job and want to keep it. However, logic dictates that those questions must have concerned grammar and/or the writing process. This troubles me because the information given to us early in the year was that unless grammar errors interfered with understanding, said errors would not factor into the students’ scores. Thus, after receiving this directive, as much as it pained me, I modified my instruction accordingly. When it came time for the assessment, imagine my surprise and that of my students when more than one question appeared on the writing test. I felt terrible. I want so much for my students to succeed. That test, however, if it in fact looked like what I hypothesize it to have looked like, would have made the students feel less than. When a child continually fails, they internalize the belief that they are failures. When the student faces this sort of failure again and again in a short period of time, this internalization crystalizes and takes root.

A third flaw comes into play with regards to teacher evaluation. Most people realize that a teacher should not be evaluated solely on the test scores of the students. Some, however, persist in this terrible avenue. Charleston County Schools has recently dealt with something that could become a crisis. Rumors circulate that teachers are being evaluated on the test scores, the sole criteria. This potential crisis has reached the point of causing a principal to resign and publish his resignation letter in which he explained that he refused to evaluate his teachers on that sole criteria and thus was reassigned to a new school before he resigned.

Don’t misunderstand, I firmly believe that teachers should be evaluated and routinely held accountable. Test scores, if the test is valid and measures applicable data sets, can be used as one measure amongst several in teacher evaluations. Those sterile numbers do not factor in the child who forgot to take his medicine that morning after staying up all night on Snapchat. He just wanted to sleep so when faced with the prospect of part two to the test, clicked random answers for the remaining questions and presented the review page a mere 30 seconds after starting the second part. Those scores do not account for a student so new to the country that he has no paperwork in place to provide the same oral accommodations that some ESOL students who have been in the program for years. Those scores do not account for the student who decides, for no apparent reason to have a temper tantrum, shut off his computer mid test and lay full out on the floor.

If you wanted to play devil’s advocate, you could argue that good data factors in the inevitable outliers so that the average score is what is used for the purpose of teacher evaluation. That might work if these examples were outliers. I could, unfortunately, continue to list student testing behaviors that should not reflect on the teacher. Simply put, at least a the middle school level, students are not capable of sitting without fidgeting in complete silence for more than two hours, sometimes three.

Fourth, the high stakes nature of these tests comes from weighty purse strings and increased pressure from district personnel. My school, which I love immensely, ranks extremely low in terms of test scores. Because of these low scores, my district has allocated increased funding for reading and math as well as pressure to bring the scores up because the district has shelled out the money. Those purse strings and the responsibility that comes with them, comes at the expense of science, social studies, music, art, world languages and everything that helps complete a student’s education. Bills have recently come before the South Carolina congress eliminating or reducing testing in science and social studies. Every science and social studies teacher’s gut response is “Don’t cut testing! Our subject matters too!” Most of those teachers would also, if able, point out the flaws and shortcomings of those tests. Thus, their argument for continued testing of their subject succumbs to logical fallacy. The ends, adequate promotion of critical subjects like science and social studies, does not justify the means, ill-designed tests that gather invalid data.

After all this, where do we stand? The thing that is clearest to me is that the system is broken and in need of a fix. That fix will require hard work, political capital and the magic it-factor yet to be discovered.

These kids are worth it.