“The AIMS results are in!” This one simple sentence can strike fear at the heart of an Arizona teacher. At this very moment, it doesn’t matter how hard we work at perfecting our craft of teaching through professional developments and team-planning or the dedicated hours of rigorous instruction. It doesn’t matter that we know that our success should not be defined by numbers. Because—right at that moment, an Arizona teacher’s heart stops, blood pressure rises, and the nervous trembling begins. These numbers are THE definition of good teaching for those policy-makers who haven’t stepped into a general education classroom since high school. They can make us or break us!
Before you write me off as a whiny teacher whose purpose is to complain about standardized testing, please pause and read my next statement: I have learned to take on the challenge of standardized assessment and defy the obstacles encountered on the way.
I have taught 3rd grade in Arizona for four years, and I am proud to say that 80-90% of my students consistently scored Meets or Exceeds on the AIMS assessment. (It is important to note that my students’ achievement exceeds our state's average of Meets/Exceeds scores for 3rd grade.) Now that I’ve hung up my 3rd grade hat to pursue a new position in a primary classroom, I have taken time to reflect on how or why my students achieved success on their AIMS. That is always the burning question that administrators ask when they see my scores: “What is the secret to your success?” So, get ready to take notes because I am ready to spill the beans.
If you’ve ever seen a small child run around in the 115* heat of the Sonoran Desert, you know that kids are tough, resilient, and can handle the extremes. So when the heat is turned up in the classroom, kids will succeed if you apply the same survival strategies used in the desert:
- Build up their tolerance to the heat. Start providing classroom assessments in a standardized assessment format the very first week of school.
- Drink lots of water. Hydrate their brains with meaningful units of instruction that they can connect on a deeper level. Yes, let’s be honest, we have to teach to the test, but we can embed purposeful lessons into the Yearlong Map of Testing Instruction.
- Take cover when a haboob comes your way. Students appreciate academic vocabulary much more than simplified words. When you clearly and consistently communicate your expectation of higher learning standards, they will rise to the challenge. Third graders appreciate knowing that they can compute “Euler paths.” Don’t dummy it down!
- Always watch out for rattlesnakes. Teach the students that the standardized assessment is NOT to be taken at face value, to dissect each problem and analyze the possible answers. Practice your test-taking strategies throughout the entire school year. Make it a logic game!
- Remember that the smallest critters pack the deadliest venom. Yes, 21st Century 9-year-old students encounter more academic pressure than I did in high school. But they can handle this stress if they make a goal to succeed and show endurance while proving to the world how smart they are.
I do need to conclude with the fact that I abhor the concept of standardized assessments, but I have learned through this phase in education to take a bad situation and make the best out of it. If you believe that students can succeed and take the steps in advance to prepare them for success, it can and will happen! Don't despair if you have students with behavior, language, or cognitive limitations! Just get to know them well as valued learners and find their strengths and weaknesses to build upon. With that information, you can beat the dreaded "FFB" (Falls Far Below) label. Take a deep breath, make the most of each day, and remember your Desert Survival Strategies when you have your school-wide assessment meetings. I wish all of my teaching colleagues a successful school year with stress-free assessment experiences.