Sunday, March 8, 2009

Reflecting Upon an Exam Pass Rate

Illness. No ride. Death in the family. Short prison stay. Oversleeping. Helping sick parents. Feeling overwhelmed. Dentist appointment. In the past two weeks, my students have given me these reasons for their absences. We take the state exam in two weeks, and students who do not pass will need to repeat the course. Additionally, my students’ state exam results will be charted and compared with my department and our cohort schools. Gulp.

More than two thirds of my students maintain excellent attendance and will most likely pass the state exam on basic writing without much trouble. They engage; they practice; they try. The one third I worry about have struggled with writing for much of their educational careers, and their lives actively impede concentration. Seriously, some of the problems they go home to would have knocked hundreds of points off my own SAT score, I’m sure.

I don’t have a magic wand for helping students pass this exam. I use clickers to promote interest; I tell anecdotes to highlight relevance; I grade writing quickly to create momentum. The content is remedial, the test unrelenting in its pursuit of the comma’s proper placement. I teach the course beyond this basic writing class, and it offers variety through its realm of ideas. This course’s canned curriculum with required multiple choice tests offers no such variety. I do different lessons at the start of the semester and once the exam is over, but right now, in the last weeks before THE TEST, I dare not deviate from the test conditioning. We take a total of six practice tests, discussing the way the questions are structured, reviewing the grammar rules in isolation of anything we might write or discuss.

I truly enjoy teaching this course, but I start to wig out about our pass rate as the test approaches and my vulnerable one third show up only intermittently. How can I drag them across the finish line if they aren’t here? We have meetings, we teachers, where we are told of our influence, of how we must relate to students, imprint upon them like baby birds, and take them to great educational distances with heartfelt dedication. I buy into that. I feel a little frenzied when I take attendance and the seats of the students I think need the most practice sit empty. Yet when they tell me where they are, (Illness. No ride. Death in the family. Short prison stay. Oversleeping. Helping sick parents. Feeling overwhelmed. Dentist appointment.) I see clearly into the face of our economy, of our community problems. Wash your hands and eat better! Pay your court fines! Set an alarm! Ask a neighbor to sit with your parent! Whistle a happy tune! Change your appointment for later in the day! Really? I can’t say any of that because it is so insufficient to these students’ problems. They might not know how to eat better. They didn’t have the money for the court fines. They sleep through alarms, exhausted from working and going to school. No one else will sit in the ER with the sick parent. Their problems are overwhelming. The dentist appointment needs to be during class because missing work would mean diminished wages. So when students tell me where they’ve been, I nod. It feels incredibly narcissistic to suggest to them that I can fix what keeps them from focusing on their studies.

Getting 100% of my students to test competency requires social resources I don’t have to offer my students. My one third will try their damnedest to be in attendance on exam day. Some of them might pass, too. However, when I look at my work as a teacher distilled to a graph of who passed and who didn’t, I need to remember that I didn’t withhold the affection or the dedication that would have pushed all those dots to the mark. Some of my students might fail this test because life can be difficult, and a public system that teaches everyone will reflect the trials people face.

co-posted on Between Classes: Living a Balanced Life as a Quality Teacher


Anonymous said...


Katie said...

I am an educational student. This is my 5 semester and I have carried an acumulative 3.56 gpa. I am a mom of two magnificent children (13 and 7).

As a student, I know the pressure of school. I think that every damn politician, administrator, and test pusher should have to go back to school, full time for a year. It isn't easy when life is normal.

I've learned true grit this semester though. I came out of remission (I'm not permitted to miss classes without it affecting my grade EVEN if my papers are A's). My son developed a congenital heart defect and is suffering Manic Depression. My husband got addicted to my prescription medication and left us. My youngest daughter sobs in her sleep every night.

What should come first? Should I keep re-scheduling appointments with my oncologist because I can't possibly miss a class? Maybe I should just tell my son to get over it and my daughter to grow up?

I think that standardized testing is going to run this country into the ground. How are they teaching our students empathy, compassion, integrity, or life skills?

I think that we should follow John Dewey's example and go back to true Progressive Education. Hands on relevant learning.