There’s a lot of chatter in the lunchroom lately about test scores and pay, and how teachers will want to change positions if their pay is tied to test scores. “No one will want to teach third, fourth, or fifth.” “I’ll want to switch to second grade.”
Then I hear, “At least you won’t have to worry, Jan. You teach gifted kids. All your kids pass all the tests every year.”
It’s true, most of my highly capable students have the ability to pass most of the tests that are thrown at them. Having the ability to do well doesn’t necessarily mean that they will perform at that level.
Last week I asked my students, “How many of you want to go into computer programming when you grow up?” Hands shot up around the room. I said, “You need to be good at writing.” One boy jerked his hand back down as fast as he had originally thrust it up.
Honestly, what conceivable motivation can I offer that boy? He’s dreamed of working in the computer industry; I’m sure he’s pictured himself spending his adult life designing video games and having a job that’s more play than work. But he is willing to give up his dream—in a heartbeat—in order to avoid the dread task of writing.
Over the years I’ve had several students who are stubbornly resistant to writing. They may start out strong on a writing piece with a great initial idea but then peter out fast and dribble down to nothing.
Here are the kinds of help I can give my reluctant writers in class:
I can give them the structure and encouragement they need throughout the writing process. “You need to develop those ideas.” “Don’t stop there, I want to hear more.” “Wow, that’s great. What happens next?”
But, oh, how they balk at doing more than a single draft. Writing anything once is painful enough. Making changes and writing it again? Pure torture! “You need to read it aloud now. Does it make sense?” “Can you use stronger verbs, more precise words, or some great figurative language?”
Finally, finally, they are supposed to edit for conventions. They are long past tired of the piece by now. They just want to be done, so every single time we get to the editing stage in class projects, I give a pep talk to the class about how important editing is. “I know it’s hard. Conventions weren’t invented to make it easier for the writer—they were all invented to make life easier for the reader.”
All the help works in the classroom where I can ride herd on all my little mavericks. Even my reluctant writers can produce excellent, quality work when they get the support they need.
Here are the kinds of help I can give those writers during testing:
On the day of the ELA performance task, all my students will go in knowing what they need to do and how to do it. They will walk in knowing they need to be meticulous and thorough. It’s nothing new. We’ve practiced those skills all year.
I can guarantee my reluctant writers will be the first ones done with the test. I can picture the student a couple of years ago who popped up an hour or more before anybody else. “I’m finished!”
I asked him (through gritted teeth), “Are you sure you’re done?”
Big grin. “Yes!”
“Did you answer every question?”
Short of cheating, I can’t do anything more. I can’t say, “It’s not a race. You need to go back and read your piece and see if you can develop your ideas more thoroughly. Are your ideas organized well? Can you express your ideas better? Now go back, sit down, and do a proper job.”
For most of my students, that speech would be enough to get a significant improvement out of them. And if I could give them a couple of pep talks along the way—without looking at their writing at all—they would produce the kind of writing they are fully capable of creating.
I’m not allowed to do that.
Yet some people want my pay to be based on how well my students test.
My point? A test is a measure not just of academics but of motivation. If it turns out my pay is going to be based on how well my students do on the SBA, then I want to be able to properly motivate my students during the test.