A Modest Proposal

In which I discuss a sensible, rational plan for making sure that teachers have enough instructional time to cover the standards required while simultaneously insuring that all required testing mandates are observed.

I’ve been thinking a lot about standardized testing over the last few weeks. Part of the impetus of this thinking is that the abundance of standardized testing was a big part of why I decided to leave common (K-12) education (despite the fact that I loved it more than any other job I’ve ever had), and it makes a good “short answer” when people ask why I don’t teach anymore. Of course, that’s far from the only answer, but most people don’t want to listen to an essay when they expected a one- or two-word answer. In a previous post, I discussed the ways in which preparing students to take standardized tests may not be quite as useless as most teachers claim, but I still don’t appreciate how much instructional time they require.

Speaking of instructional time: A long time ago in a school district far, far away, a national consultant came to our school to help us begin the process of curriculum mapping. I wish I could remember her name (because then I could give credit where credit was due), but the one thing I remember the most was what she said to me and my fellow English Language Arts (ELA) teachers: “You Language Arts teachers have the toughest job of any department in this process.” She went on to say that time-and-motion studies with Oklahoma’s Language Arts Priority Academic Student Skills (PASS) standards had shown that teaching all the listed standards to mastery would require 250 clock-hours. This is an impossible goal, considering that most teachers have only 175 50-minute class periods to work with. One of the other teachers sitting near me stage-whispered something about fire drills and pep assemblies, and the rest of us looked sober and nodded in agreement. We all also knew that we would lose whole weeks to End-of-Instruction (EOI) testing in the spring as well.

A few years later, changes in laws mandated that students take several Benchmark tests in addition to the required EOI testing, and the schedule got even tighter and more impossible. I was starting to wonder how I would ever have time to teach my actual material, in the midst of all the disruptions of Benchmarking, Pep-Assemblying, Disaster-Drilling (fire and tornado AND lockdown, and I wouldn’t be surprised if they’ve added earthquake drills, too [I was going to link, but Google gave me too many choices]), and other perfectly reasonable excuses for shortening class periods.

The more I thought about all of this, the more hopeless it seemed. It wasn’t until a colleague at my current (non-teaching) job took a Saturday off to take a certification test that the solution came to me: If certification testing and ACT/SAT testing and all sorts of other kinds of testing can happen outside of instructional time, why can’t Benchmark and EOI tests?

Here, then, is my Modest Proposal for making sure students and teachers get all the instructional time to which they are entitled, while still making sure that every single testing mandate is met: Test outside of instructional time.

“Waitaminute!” I can hear students yell, “I’m not coming to school on the weekend just to take a lousy test!!”

“Waitaminute!” I can hear parents yell, “I’m not bringing my kid to school on Saturday, and you can’t have school on Sunday because of church!” (I’m assuming this yelling is happening in Oklahoma; other states might not be as concerned for religion, but I’m sure they would find something else to yell about.)

That’s the beauty of my plan, you see: Instead of testing on weekends, schools will drop down to a four-day week, and the fifth day will be used for testing, enrichment, tutoring, extra sports/activities practice, and club meetings. The day will be mandatory only for those students required to test that day (on some sort of rotating schedule to be decided by the individual districts) and any club/activity/sport whose sponsors or coaches require them to be present (individual districts will also have the option to require students to attend tutoring/remediation at their own discretion).

There are a couple of different ways to implement a four-day school week, and again, I would prefer districts be allowed to use their best judgement as to how they would like this to work. The first option would be to extend the school day. If we assume a “standard” seven-period day, and if we further assume that there will be some savings through teachers only having to take roll four times instead of five, the simplest answer is to add ten minutes to each class period. In this model, a sample school day might look something like this:

1st Hour: 8:00-9:00

Passing: 9:00-9:05

2nd Hour: 9:05-10:05

Passing: 10:05-10:10

3rd Hour: 10:10-11:10

Passing: 11:10-11:15

4th Hour: 11:15-12:15

Passing: 12:15-12:20

Lunch: 12:20-12:50

Passing: 12:50-12:55

5th Hour: 12:55-1:55

Passing: 1:55-2:00

6th Hour: 2:00-3:00

Passing: 3:00-3:05

7th Hour: 3:05-4:05

The school day is longer by about an hour and a half, but students and teachers are still finished in 175 days, including those pesky testing days.

The other alternative would be to keep the 50-minute class periods and extend the school year to account for the shift from a five-day to a four-day week. Math isn’t my strong suit, but I think I can figure this out: 175 days divided by five days per week is thirty-five weeks. Divide that by four quarters, and we get the nine-week quarters we’re all accustomed to (this part is to make sure my math is correct). If, instead, we divide 175 days by four days per week, we end up with 44 weeks. Divide that by four quarters, and quarters are now eleven weeks instead of nine (the astute math student will see that I have done some rounding to arrive at these numbers, but the more-astute math student will see that rounding was required for the current schedule as well).

“But why,” I can hear almost everyone asking, “does testing need that much time? Why do you need one day every single week to do nothing but administer tests? Surely there aren’t that many.”

My dear reader, I’m sorry to have to tell you this, but surely there are. To use the example with which I am most familiar: high-school students in Oklahoma are tested in seven subjects: English II (Sophomores), English III (Juniors), Algebra I (usually Freshmen), Geometry (usually Sophomores), Algebra II (usually Juniors), Biology I (usually Freshmen), and American History (usually Juniors). Students in these courses are required to take an EOI test and three benchmarks (one per quarter). Since tests are taken by computer, some allowances must be made for the fact that most schools do not have enough computers available to test more than one subject at a time, and some larger districts may require two sessions to get all of their students through (which would require a morning and an afternoon session). With seven subjects, the nine-week schedule leaves only two weeks in which no student is testing (which would be a great opportunity for make-up tests). The eleven-week schedule offers more flexibility with scheduling, but districts may wish to offer a few five-day weeks of instructional time instead, to shorten the school year as much as possible (since it is assumed that a 44-week school year will lead to endless complaints about the loss of summer vacation, despite the fact that research has shown time after time that the summer vacation is harmful to some students, especially those who are “economically disadvantaged”).

Of course, to make all of this work, teachers will also have to work longer hours, since all of these plans assume that teachers will be available on that “fifth day” to administer and proctor tests, as well as remediate and enrich. It would also be a great opportunity for teachers to work on grading while “on the clock” as well, if they were not busy with other responsibilities. Certainly, no teacher should be expected to give his or her time away for free (the fact that almost all teachers already do this is beside the point – if teachers are required to be in a certain place at a certain time, they should be paid for that time – grading papers at home in your PJs is a separate issue). For example, let’s use a hypothetical teacher based loosely on myself. This teacher has five years of experience and a Master’s degree. The Oklahoma Minimum Salary Schedule claims that this teacher should make at least $34,700 per year for 180 days of contracted work (175 instructional days plus five mandatory professional-development days). That works out to $192.78 per day for the standard seven-period day that is most often used currently. Since instructional time remains the same in both the “extended day” and the “extended year” models, they can be treated equally to a point (which is helpful; my math is not up to calculating salary figures by hours or minutes). At this point, the math becomes more difficult for the “extended day” model, so I will stick to the “extended year” model for now. If we assume that teachers will be required to report on “testing days” only seven times per quarter (since there would be seven tests per quarter), then that adds 28 additional days to their contracts. $192.78 times 28 additional days will result in a salary increase of $5,397.84, which will bring this teacher’s overall salary to $40,097.84. Similar increases would be necessary for teachers in the “extended day” model, and additional increases would be necessary if teachers were required to report for testing days more often.

So there you have it! A simple, workable solution to the pesky problem of lost instructional time in the face of testing mandates.

Okay, let’s be realistic for a minute here: neither one of these plans will ever, ever, ever be implemented. If either of them were even proposed, the protesting from all corners would begin even before the person proposing it had closed his or her mouth – possibly before he or she ever got through explaining the entire proposal. Parents and students would hate them (because summer vacation and after-school jobs are far more important than getting a good education), and funding for the necessary salary increases would never be found (and without those increases, teachers would not — and should not — accept them). The purpose of this exercise, therefore, was to highlight the absurd amount of instructional time lost to “accountability,” as well as offering an equally absurd plan for resolving the situation. It’s been quite a few years since I read Jonathan Swift’s “A Modest Proposal,” but I hope his spirit of satire and absurdity carry through in my assessment of this situation.

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