So it’s finally the big week: we are administering the FCAT. This is the test: the stakes are high for fourth and fifth graders, and our poor third graders can’t get promoted without a passing score. Our funding, our reputation, and to an extent, our very employment are all resting on how well this group of nine-, ten-, and eleven-year-olds answer a set of 45 comprehension questions. Budget cuts have eliminated the primary alternative assessment, so everything is riding on today’s outcome.
All the kids are in the cafeteria. Some are uncharacteristically quiet, while others fidget nervously in their seats. A few are being purposely disrespectful and antagonistic in hopes of opting out of the test and spending the day enjoying internal suspension. A girl I taught last year is sobbing because her pencil broke. She’s not a crybaby: she’s just on edge because things are already going wrong and she hasn’t even gotten her answer sheet.
I, along with a dozen other teachers and administrators and district officials, are preparing to disseminate the test booklets. The tests seem bit thicker this year, and for some reason, are not sealed shut with that little plastic tab the kids can never seem to rip with their trembling fingers. I flip one open and glance through.
You’ve got to be kidding me.
“There are ads in here! Look at this!” I sputter. Sylvan Learning Systems, the Discovery Channel, and Cheerios have all purchased advertising space inside the FCAT booklets! I squint, not believing that the ads are really there, buried between comprehension questions. Everyone is staring in horror. “It’s just like that teacher who purchased ad space on the top of his classroom tests, I read about it on somebody’s blog! I guess the state figured that was a good way to make money. How could they have neglected to share that information with us?”. Most of the teachers have no idea what I’m talking about (Hello! You need to be following education blogs!) but I’m too angry to explain. “I don’t believe this! The kids can barely read the stupid passages, and now they’ve got advertisements messing up their comprehension! Look, this one runs right into the answer choices for question 17! Unbelievable. They’ve totally sold out the kids in order to make a quick buck.”
There’s really no opportunity to discuss this now, because the test must begin in eight minutes or else we won’t finish on time. A fifth grader starts vomiting from anxiety and a few of us exchange looks. This happens every year, so fortunately, a custodian is standing ready with buckets of that weird sawdust they use to soak up fluids. The children sitting near the puker are screaming, and now kids all over the cafeteria are standing up to get a look at the greenish puddles on the table and floor. The teachers disperse to calm the vomit-induced riot that’s threatening to erupt. I shake my head and turn to put the test booklets back in their protective plastic container.
That’s when I notice there are advertisements on rip-out cards, too–the annoying kind you see in magazines. I start muttering to myself. Oh, come on, this is ridiculous! I’m ripping these out. They’re pointless, and a huge distraction. I start yanking out the cards and piling them up on the cafeteria table.
A small cardboard insert falls out of a booklet. It’s encased in plastic, similar to a Happy Meal toy. I realize it’s a light switch cover, with a slogan on it from Florida Power and Light. Something about turning off the lamps when you leave the room to save energy. I pick up another test booklet and a light switch cover falls out of that one, too.
It dawns on me that this is going to happen every time a kid opens a test booklet. There will be the crinkling of plastic, giggling, whispering, trash making…this is a disaster. At the same time, I can’t prevent the kids from having the light covers: they’re issued by the state, and I can’t use my own judgment to determine what’s best for my students. Fortunately, we have a whole bin of office supplies with us, and I find a glue stick. I start pasting the light switch covers to the inside of the back covers so they won’t fall out.
I’ve completed this process for a large stack of booklets when my principal walks over. She stares at me. “Angela, what are you doing?”
“Look at these dumb product placements in the test booklets! I’m gluing them to the back page of the booklets so the kids don’t notice them until the end.”
She stares at me. “Angela. You cannot alter the test booklets in any way. You certainly cannot take a GLUE STICK and ATTACH a light switch cover to the back!!!”
I blink, not comprehending, and she continues.”Do you realize what you’ve done? You’ve just invalidated 80 test booklets! We are going to be investigated for fraud, we won’t earn an ‘A’ for our school grade, and we’ll lose thousands of dollars! We’ll have to cut teaching positions! The kids won’t have any promotion criteria and will ALL have to be retained! You’re gonna have to answer for this before the school board.” She smacks her hand to her forehead. “This is going to be front page news on every paper in the country! How could you do this?!”
I don’t know what to say, so I just stand there looking at the disappointment on my principal’s face. Other teachers begin gathering around, gasping and clucking and trying to figure out what in the world I was thinking. I hear one of the new teachers whisper, “Didn’t she write that book for teachers? I thought she was National Board Certified. I thought she was GOOD.” I can’t respond. I can’t even move.
I’m devastated that in my quest to help the kids, I violated the sacred rules of testing. In my attempt to give them a fair chance at being accurately assessed, I have destroyed everything. A lump forms in my throat as I realize the way I have let down my beloved principal and hard-working colleagues. Everything we have worked for all year was resting on this one test, and I single-handedly FAILED it for the entire school.
When my alarm goes off, I wake up, but it takes a full hour before I can register the fact that none of this actually happened. I just can’t shake the feeling of nausea. A few years ago, I stopped allowing myself to get stressed and worry about standardized testing, but I am always surprised by an FCAT nightmare of some variation every year. This one was the most vivid, and it threw me off kilter for much longer than I’d like to admit. Even now as I recount the dream sequence, my stomach is twisting itself into tiny, hard knots.
There is something absolutely terrifying about the possibility of screwing up the one test that your entire future rests upon.
I have failed, in one very real sense: I have participated in and perpetuated a culture of fear and anxiety in place of meaningful learning. Maybe that is the real nightmare, and I still haven’t woken up.
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