Tuesday, March 20, 2007

Ten Things Tuesday--MCAS

The MCAS is the Massachusetts version of a high-stakes test used in part to determine whether students in the state are eligible for a high school diploma. The 10th grade test (the one that counts toward graduation) covers four subjects: English, mathematics, science, and history. Initially, a passing grade was required in all the tested subjects. Currently, only English and mathematics are required. While originally 4th and 8th graders were the only younger students to take the MCAS, in response to mandates by the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001, there are now annual progress tests in each of the grades 3-8, in addition to the big test for the sophomores.

The English Composition portion of the test is being given this week (the remaining portions are given in a two week interval in late May). It goes entirely cntrary to the culture of our school to have these tests, not because we don’t do tests or because they can’t pass them (in fact, we have placed in the top 10 of schools in the region for English the last 3 years running). On the contrary, it is simply that our assessments run much more to the creative and the alternative, than paper-and-pencil tests. Especially, we are not a school with a culture of seriousness surrounding test taking. People can listen to music, sit on the floor or take it in crayon, if they want. Sometimes, they can take them with buddies. Almost never do I tell them, “This is a test. If you talk, you will get a zero.” However, the people who make the MCAS do not allow for such frivolity, and so we are bound by a certain degree of formatily in our administration of this test.

This is not to say that we don’t do everything we can to make light of things. My school that incorporates the performing arts into everything, and we strive to do it in ways that mock or otherwise deride unnecessary stuffiness. Therefore, in keeping with that spirit, below is a list of 10 things we are doing at my school that make the experience of taking the MCAS fit our school’s culture and attitude:

1. The test is administered in the Sunset Lounge (what we call our library). This space is so named because it is on the top floor of the school (which is on top of a hill), and there are lots of big windows which provide a full view of the exceptionally picturesque countryside.

2. We provide brain food before, during and after the test. Fruit, bagels, granola bars, juice and water for all the students taking the test. For the teachers? Coffee and donuts! We don’t have to take the tests, and we’d fall asleep out of boredom without stimulants of some kind.

3. The lead proctor comes to school in costume--a different one each day. Today, she came as a bureaucrat wearing a hat announcing same.

4. We take a minute to breathe in and out three times before we start the testing event for the day. Ahhhh! That’s better!

5. We read the instructions from the proctors booklet using accents and voices. Those of you who know me can imagine the kind of fun I have with this.

6. During the testing, the proctors circulate every couple of minutes, smiling and giving a smile, the thumbs-up sign or a quiet high five whenever we make eye contact with a student as we pass by.

7. During break, the students play Magic the Gathering®, strum the guitar or talk about the school’s upcoming musical, Little Shop of Horrors, which opens this week at the Academy of Music. If you’re anywhere nearby, and can get to this show, I strongly encourage you to see it. This is most decidedly NOT what you think of when you hear “high school” and “musical”. Trust me.

8. Very few classes are actually teaching anything this week. This is not just because of MCAS, but because, in addition to Little Shop, there are a number of other shows, trips and lectures going on that students are involved in. It’s a busy week for everyone, and it made sense for most of us simply to tread water for the week. My classes, for example, are using class time to make up tests, revisit works in progress and put the get help with the outlines for their research papers. The outlines are due Monday and are not eligible for extensions, which is making some of them nervous because they’ve never really done outlines for research papers before.

9. When they finish the testing for the day, the students go to a “decompression chamber”, where they can talk, play cards or chill for a little bit before they head to their next class. In May, when the weather is warmer, they’ll be able to go outside and relax in the field behind the school. There is an organizational reason for this, believe it or not. Because the students finish testing at odd times, giving them a place to go means they don’t keep interrupting classes as they come in at staggered times.

10. When all the testing is done for the year, we’ll have an ice cream party.

Don’t you wish you got to take high-stakes tests at my school?


stay-at-home mommy said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
stay-at-home mommy said...

Never mind!! I figured it out. :)

JRH said...

We're doing the MCAS thing too. Yee HAW! Neat ideas for creating a balance between your culture and the mandates. We're a very relaxed place for a public school, but we take our MCAS pretty seriously. My biggest hurdle this week is keeping my mostly non-10th grade classes moving while not leaving the 10th graders I do have in the dust.

Wayfarer said...

JRH: I have tried to set up my courses in the spring to allow for me NOT to have to teach new material during MCAS. As you say, it's a real challenge, and the organizational headache is simply not worth it to me. This week is a project research and "catch up" week, in advance of midterm reports in a week and a half. If they're ahead of the curve, we get to play language games and go for impromptu walks outside.

In May, when we have two weeks devoted to MCAS testing, my students are finishing up their papers and prepping for their presentations (which take place right after Memorial Day). The seniors get to use this time to finish their routine work, as well, because they're done the first week of June.

I like not having to compete with high-stakes testing. It means my students are much less stressed and more able to focus on what little bit of work they really are doing. It also means *I* get to catch up! I can do grading, touch base with students who are falling behind, work with my Honors candidates--all the stuff that a regular day simply doesn't allow for.