An Open and Extended Response (On Testing Season)

I laid my lesson plans on top of the roller tray. I pulled off my “problem of the moment” off my printer and put scissors on top of them. I turned on my Promethean board and connected the AppleTV to it. I pulled out my iPad mini and turned to the released questions from the New York State math test for both 7th and 8th grades year 2017. I flipped quickly to the extended responses as shown on my lesson plan.

The students came in. Besides a salutation, I didn’t say anything. After a few minutes, I felt like I was merely floating about the classroom, not angry or elated. Just floating. Then, a student asked me, “Mr. Vilson, are you OK?” I snapped up and said, “Yes, but I’m getting concerned that we’re taking a little while to get ready for class.”

No, I’m actually fine.

The NYS math test starts on Wednesday and I’ve done everything in my power to teach the major (and minor) topics that could potentially be covered by this exam. Because I generally don’t do multiple choice assessments, I’ve geared the vast majority of my learning through open, extended response questions. For the eighth graders, I delved into scientific notation, gave multiple renditions of linear relationships, and drew comparisons between linear and non-linear functions through multiple representations. For the seventh grade, I made the vast majority of the work about proportional reasoning through modeling, calculations, and contextual examples. I was equal parts architect, linguist, and lecturer throughout the year.

I gave lots of space, but still tightened. I stayed after school and still heavily peppered classes with questions. I read every released question I could and made my own questions even more complex and as well aligned as I could. I’d testify that my work isn’t just to prepare students for the current grade, but the next as well because math is a student’s life work. I asked colleagues in and out of school about pedagogy and strategy. I immersed myself in professional development and perused the books in my library hoping to find the set of items that would help me help them.

But to what end? What are we opting into when we exert this much effort for achievement? Also, how can we not blame ourselves?

Tomorrow, hundreds of math teachers will be reviewing topics for another 45-90 minutes in the hopes of aligning student responses to what test-makers might want to see. “I like your answer, but I don’t know who’s grading you.” “Nice response and you still need to show ALL of your work.” “If you only put an answer down, no matter how correct, you won’t get full credit. How hard is it to just take your calculations and put it on your paper?” “Circle. Your. Answers. Yes, even if there’s already a response line.”

“No, we can’t just watch movies and play basketball after the test is done.”

We plow through the doldrums now for a set of exams that still affect stakeholders’ perceptions of students, parents, and educators in so many different ways. Even opting out, which I heavily support, is fraught with complexities and projections. Are students opting out because they’re anxious, because they feel unprepared, because they’re rebelling against the over-reliance on standardized testing, or because they just don’t feel like it? The latter seems to make so many adults twinge for so many reasons. Too many reasons.

Hope and anxiety meet at these crossroads.

The test doesn’t define us. The test isn’t the target. The test shouldn’t even have this much (undue) influence on our ways and means. The test makes us contradictory as our ideals and our actions conflict in plain sight. The easy thing to do, for those not in the classroom is to definitely make a case for one “side” or the “other.” The harder thing to wrestle with is the reality that in less than 48 hours, my students have been scheduled to take this exam that supposedly reflects the learning they’ve done all year.

These leaves fall on their desks, after which we don’t see the product until months afterwards. We’ll be fine. Or something.