I TEACH in a school where 39 percent of students qualify for free and reduced lunch. I serve students in special education and remedial reading who have had a history of failure on the state test.
In September, I spoke to a circle of eighth-graders in special education with chairs around mine: “Now you know that you are as capable, as successful as any other student in this school … You’ve passed the MSP.”
I wish that everyone who has fought for, worked for and believed in these kids’ success could have been in the room with us. They would have seen the faces of disbelief, of amazement and, ultimately, joy when they heard they had passed the Measures of Student Progress, Washington state’s standardized test for eighth-graders.
My students were filled with the wonder of themselves. In the noisy world of middle school there was a moment of silence.
I was also filled with surprise.
You see: I teach in a school that has embraced the new state evaluation system for teachers. But — I’m going to add a radical thought here — maybe that’s part of our success.
To be accurate, the success of this particular class belongs to my special-education teaching partner, Liliana Day. She created these results because the students took the test when they were in her seventh-grade class last year.
But to my surprise, most of my own students from last year also passed, with better results than I’ve ever seen before. I’ll let them know by letter. Unfortunately, I won’t be able to see their faces when they learn this news.
This is definitely our most successful year, not only for them but also for me.
It also comes at an unusual time in my 26-year teaching career. Never before have my feet been so close to the fire given our new system of teacher evaluations.
Interestingly, students come to my classroom more ready to learn than they have ever been before. The new evaluation system refers to this readiness as “student engagement.”
While we support students participating in their own learning, in the process we, teachers, are schooled in über methods of teaching instruction to support our kids.
It delights my students when I tell them that I am being tested too. Is it making me a better teacher? Well, l reluctantly admit, probably yes. I’d like to keep my job.
Is the MSP a be-all and end-all to student achievement, or even a definitive measure of student engagement or my effectiveness as a teacher? Of course not. But to a future where you will be taking tests to advance — to earn a driver’s license, get into college or make rank in the military — it’s part of my job to teach them how to pass tests.
As I looked at the faces around me that morning, I recognized this as a teachable moment. In the quiet, I continued: “Now you know you passed the MSP. So that is the end of any questions you should have about how capable you are. There is no lack of ability. There is nothing holding you back. So let’s start to plan your future here and now. Let’s get on with your success.”
With that we began the next steps, including talking about careers and how to work toward them.
For myself, I have eight more years of teaching. I know that administrators consider me an “old dog.”
But just maybe, with the instruction I’m receiving, I will learn the new tricks that can help my students better look to their future with a greater set of tools for success. Preparing our students for a changing future is our responsibility. Maybe those new tricks will make a better future for us all.
Janice Maxson is a learning-support teacher at College Place Middle School in Lynnwood. She has a doctorate in communications.