Standardized Second Graders

Legs swung and kicked intermittently above linoleum tiled floor as Mrs. D’s class of 2nd graders sat before glowing computer screens hunched in blue plastic chairs. The scratch paper before the students was blank, turned sideways, and smudged–a snapshot depiction of the standardized testing state of mind. One little girl’s paper was completely clean. A graphite grid of numbers and scrawls and diagrams, a boy named Tom’s was packed to the brim. Violet took breaks after each math question to add a toenail, snout or paw print to the careful canine portrait that took shape across an hour-long timed test.

Whispering to themselves and raising unsteady hands to ask for the reading (but not hints!) of a question, the 7 and 8 year-old students were in their own worlds. They were  each sequestered in lists of questions adapted to strengths and weaknesses–rearranged in real time. Gone are the days of pencils and bubbles and underlined paragraphs. Instead of physically scratching circles into the white space of thick test booklets, these kids have learned to drag bright and lifelike images across virtual drawing pads for word problem visualization.

As the students fidgeted, clicked, and typed away at the computerized and tri-annual Math Measure of Academic Progress (MAP,) I made the most of my birds-eye view into their meandering minds.

I watched as one 2nd grader twisted her long black hair around nervous fingers, while another (a girl named Emily who I’ve come to know well) swiveled 180 degrees on her knees. Eyes locked on hers, I released the reminder: “focus…” She stuck out her tongue, then tried. I remembered her crawling across the floor of the green-carpeted library during so many of our “just right” book quests–making those “meep” noises that always seemed to lead her to a good shelf or author. Her own internal library detector. I wished she had more time to take the test. I wanted to let her get up and count out tile squares as if they were numbers on a number line–literally “walking” her through each problem.

After three questions in a row read to her by a teacher, Juanita escaped to the bathroom. She sat with her legs dangling and her cheeks relaxed into a grin. She didn’t feel the weight of the test. She didn’t understand the terrifying gravity that accompanies the fact that she still can’t recognize the word “and” on some days. Juanita can read fairy tales fluently in Spanish, but her English reading level will barely meet 1st grade expectations by the time she enters her third grade classroom.

Across the aisle, a boy’s brow furrowed as he ticked off the fingers on his hand (fingernails and knuckles transforming into the ice cream cones referenced on the screen.)

Meanwhile, a digital clock popped up on another child’s computer. We read the question together. It went something like this: Which choice correctly describes the time: Quarter-to 12, Half-past 11,  or 20 minutes to 1? Leaving him to click one of the perfect round bubbles, I wondered if my own children would ever learn to read an analog clock. To be surrounded by the technology of the digital age and then asked to translate it to the terminology of previous generations is more difficult than it sounds. I imagined equipping those future kids with “old fashioned” watches and make a giant clock face to lay on the living room floor. We would make hours and minutes out of arms and legs….

2 seats over, a girl called Judy is convinced the correct answer to her graph question isn’t listed. She’s failed to read the key and units carefully, (forgetting to multiply the lbs of beef called for in the question’s recipe by 2 because of the serving size and number of people who will be eating the meal.) I am not allowed to explain the mistake. Instead, I tell her to read the question again, answer with her best educated guess, and keep moving forward.

Peering over the bobbing heads of sandy blonde, raven black, and stick-straight brown, my gaze landed on Mrs. D. I can only imagine her pent-up frustration–the countless lesson plans whirring in her mind. In every student’s silent struggle on a question that takes a tad too long, I see her working out the details of how she would explain the problem to the student. I too am making mental notes–inventing a kinesthetic game of sight words for Jane and a review of unit multiplication for Judy.

In Minnesota, the MAP test is  “state aligned computerized adaptive reading and math tests that reflect the instructional level of each student and measure growth over time” ( For data collection purposes, each student receives a “score, percentile rank, goal performance [indicating areas of strength and weakness,] and…growth score.” These reports are especially useful for teachers as they work to involve parents in elementary education as much as possible. As with everything in education, the adaptive and digital testing model has both benefits and pitfalls–offering more individualized test scores and the potential for greater communication with parents, but also the frustration of a different (and sometimes confusing) format from what is learned in day-to-day class sessions.

Two days after her students completed their test and filed out of a windowless computer room and back to their desks, Mrs. D will tell me that the results are much better than last time. And then, shaking her head, she’ll say they’re still not good enough. She’ll point to the columns of names handwritten in alphabetical order. Next to a handful of rows is a neat blue highlighter dot. “Each of them has improved… see what their scores were at the beginning of the year? But they still won’t make grade-level by the end of the year if you trust the projections made by the test.” She points to the trajectory–moving across the impressive arcs of data compiled for each student at the end of the digitized testing experience. For each student we can see how long he or she took to complete the test, scores for each type of question (from “number sense” to “problem solving” and “algebra,”) and predictions for future scores.

This is the world of “adaptive” testing– questions that bounce around based on how well you’re doing. Students begin with questions from the numbered level achieved during their last test. For example, if Tom achieved the highest level possible in his last math test (scoring 250 or above,) he will be prompted with an advanced 250-level (5th grade) question. This might look something like: The diameter of sphere A is twice the size of sphere B. What is the ratio of the volume of sphere A to that of sphere B? To accurately solve this problem, Tom would have to know the formula for the volume of a sphere (4/3 Pi*r^3,) and how to apply it to the word problem. When the typical student at Greenvale enters 2nd grade, he or she should fall into the 170 category. By the end of the year, performing at “grade-level” means hitting the 190 mark.

Should he get the answer right in our hypothetically advanced problem (8:1,) Tom will continue to receive math questions from the “above 250” question bank. However, should he get the problem wrong, he will be bumped down to an easier level–working his way back up to 250, or falling down into the 231-240, 221-230, or 211-220 categories. In many cases, students are discouraged when they start where they “left off.”It takes more than a few questions to get into the groove, and by then they’ve been bumped down or up several times. In this sense, it’s hard to tell how you’re doing. I’ve experienced the same frustration on the new and “improved” adaptive version of the GRE practice test.

Sample Math Problems from the MAP Test for grades 2-5. To be considered at "grade level," 2nd grade students should reach 190 by Spring.

Sample Math Problems from the MAP Test for grades 2-5. To be considered at “grade level,” 2nd grade students should reach 190 by Spring.

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Taking note of the diverse set of glowing problems on the students’ screens, levels ranged from around 150-220. The complexity of teaching the same lesson on any given day to this range of ability levels in one classroom is daunting. Small group workshops, one-on-one attention, and individualized worksheets are key. This is a Brave New World of times tables, number sentences, and teaching.

Pacing a room of 2nd graders with necks craned toward computer screens, I was filled with a strange sort of nostalgia for pages that flipped. Taking the Wisconsin standardized tests and ACT in my own educational experience, there was a camaraderie that came in the organized breaks between math and reading and science sections. Because we all took the same test, we were reassured that others had the same difficulty with that weird wording in number 9 and confusing graph somewhere around number 35. When reading a passage in preparation for a string of comprehension questions, I was careful to underline key phrases–no scrolling necessary.

As a teacher entering the elementary classroom in roughly 6 months, I wonder how much testing will change throughout my first year. Without the use of computers for every class period, will I be able to teach in a format that translates to a digital test? How will I make sure that though we highlight with markers and write notes in margins during class, students must understand the nuances of multi-tasking on screen?  How will we learn the art of answering reading questions that call for highlighting relevant passages with a mouse and master “skim reading” with a scroll bar?

I am a product of the technology age (complete with iPhone, Facebook, New York Times online, and Twitter feed,) yet I am unashamed to say I harbor concerns about teaching digitally. I’m 22 years old and ancient.

Plastered on the walls of the computer lab are posters filled with digital literacy themes. Plan: What am I supposed to know? What am I supposed to do our make?

Do: What can I do to get good information? What can I do to show what I know?

Review: Did I do what I was supposed to do? Did I do my best work?

Digital Literacy Projects: Internet Safety, Author Project, Online Research, Holidays, and Snow Poems.

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Image from

As the children finish their tests one by one and settle into scribbling houses, Harry Potter wands, and maps of their neighborhoods onto loose leaf “scratch paper,” I am lost in thoughts of Khan Academy and flipped classrooms. Will I work in an iPad classroom or one with outdated textbooks shared by groups of two and three? Will I have the time and freedom to assign my students multiple “books in a bag” fit to their personal reading level, (as Mrs. D does,) or will I be pushed to assign only those stories aligned perfectly with the standards of the increasingly popular Common Core–exchanging the imagination of fairy tales for a strong emphasis on non-fiction texts?

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Making the 25 minute walk back to College, I remembered the blog post I wrote 2 years ago–just beginning my exploration of the education in an independent study with a professor I’ve grown to call a friend and admire deeply. In my exploratory post titled “Do Our Tests Live Up to the Test?” I grappled with definitions of “success,”the notion of hidden curriculums, and who gets to teach history. I took a stand on learning for the sake of learning and questioned “to test or not to test?” I wondered how students develop a sense of self or identity when they are constantly told by standardized who they are and at what levels they will achieve. I asked where there was room for field trips, hands-on learning, and community.

2 years and hundreds of hours in the same 2nd grade classroom later, I still have many of the same questions and concerns. As a new Teach for America Corps member (Indianapolis 2013) preparing for the challenges ahead, I grasp the weight of the responsibility that comes with standing at the front of a classroom. In the coming weeks, I will spend full days in Greenvale Classrooms, visit innovative charter school models with our SFER St. Olaf student organization, explore MN public policy, and carry out more than 50 hours of reading in preparation for a summer of teaching and TFA Institute. Still, it will not be nearly enough.

When I circle the computer lab and the library and the classroom filled with the students I’ve grown to love, I envision the students I’ve yet to meet in coming years. I hope desperately that I will not fail them, and I dream up ways to strike the balance between a moral and fulfilling classroom ecology and “teaching to the test.”

Each time I meet with Mrs. D to learn more about the intricate art and civic duty of teaching, I sit on the edge of my chair. I want to soak it all in–gaining insight in a field that no amount of advice or observation or reading can prepare you for completely.

*names have been changed to protect student privacy.

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