Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Mock MCAS: Author for a Day

Twenty-five fourth graders sit before me taking the mock MCAS today. We give a mock MCAS so we have a day where we can answer questions, encourage, and support student writing.  During the real MCAS students have to work alone without teacher support or input. The mock MCAS also gives teachers a chance to trouble shoot the classroom set-up and other issues that might arise so we're ready for the big day.

The mock MCAS finds me with mixed emotion.  On one hand I'm happy to see so many students utilize the craft, organization and voice we've worked so hard to develop all year.  Also it's a big challenge, and a challenge can be positive for students calling them to stretch beyond their typical work and ability level. Further, Massachusetts' students have been achieving wonderful academic results, and part of this might be due to the standards and testing imposed over the past many years.

On the other hand, I think it's an inauthentic task to ask nine- and ten-year-olds to plan, draft and write a final copy of a thoughtful, lengthy story in one day by hand.  First of all, few to no people today write and publish stories by hand. Writing by hand today is like asking students to tell their story with carvings on a cave wall.  Also, writing an entire story in a day does not take into play the time thoughtful authors use to "rest on their story," reflect, edit and discuss the content with fellow authors and friends.

I've always wished that a major publication like the New York Times or Boston Globe would invite a host of public figures to sit for a day and craft an essay in response to the MCAS prompt for fourth graders.  It would be exciting for fourth graders to see their leaders engaging in a task they have to complete. Also the leaders' stories would serve as exemplars for teachers and students as they prepare for these tests.

As I watch my students, I see those who eagerly write with investment and care.  I see those with "typing privileges" much more at ease than those laboriously handwriting the stories.  And of course, I see those that are squirming, running to the bathroom and sneaking peeks at the books under their desks wishing the task was over.

Next week we'll have the real MCAS.  I have strict rules to follow as I proctor the test. I wish that all the students took the test on a Saturday morning like SAT with an unknown proctor, someone they don't rely on to be a helpful coach each day--that would be much easier for me and would serve to level the playing field even more.  That would also demonstrate to the public at large the reality of the test expectations and effort, and not take precious time and teachers from the learning routines and menu of the typical school day.

As education stands today, standardized tests remain a point of debate.  I continue to find myself on the fence in this debate. I am a fan of developmentally appropriate, streamlined tests that provide some useful data and don't cost lots of money and time.  Where do you sit in the standardized test debate?  How will you encourage your students to do their best in this regard? What supports will you advocate for with regard to the future of these tests?

Related Links
Examples of MCAS Essays from the Past/Scoring Activity