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Voices: For this teacher, TCAP spells ANGST

Melissa Verdeal, a veteran Denver teacher, describes the anxiety of waiting for the annual state test results that will label her school – and her students.

I always have mixed feelings this time of year. I have to admit that I have the end-of-summer blues, and I will miss having a leisurely cup of coffee on the patio every morning. At the same time, I love the beginning of a new school year. I can’t wait to go back-to-school shopping, set up my classroom and fill my new planner with fun and engaging lessons. And, I really look forward to seeing the faces of my new students in their back-to-school outfits sitting in my class. It is a fresh start for all of us. Sort of. The end of the summer is also fraught with anxiety because it is the time when I get the results of the TCAP that my students took last March.

The results will determine what color my school is. Trust me, in Denver, your TCAP color means everything these days. Being Blue or Green is good. Being Yellow, Orange, or (God forbid) Red is bad. There is a lot riding on the color designation determined by TCAP.

I teach language arts at an Orange school according to the 2010-2011 DPS Performance Framework. It is not easy being Orange. Being Orange means that there is tremendous pressure on teachers to get the scores up. It is the most important priority. All year we worry. We study and dissect the data. We provide interventions for students who score Unsatisfactory or Partially Proficient. We plan professional development to help us drill down on the skills that didn’t score well. Every decision is made through the Orange TCAP lens. And then, in March, two months before the end of the school year, we administer the test and pray to the assessment gods that we have prepared our students to kick some TCAP butt.

Now, in the middle of August, five months after the test, I await the results. If the students did well, after the scores are disaggregated in multiple ways, maybe we will become Yellow. If the students didn’t do well, we might maintain our Orange. Or worse, we will become Red. While I believe our faculty worked to the Blue standard, I have a better chance of winning the lottery than seeing Blue. It would be statistically impossible.

I feel the weight of the world on my shoulders as I await the release of the scores. Since I teach a tested subject (reading and writing), I feel responsible for the fate of my school. If our scores don’t go up, we may be subject to all sorts of bad things. We may be the next school to be turned around, closed or privatized. Our staff may be replaced with “better” teachers. However, if we did well, we can start the school year with our heads held high. We can walk tall into the first staff meeting without shame or self-blame. We can sleep easy knowing that we are safe for at least another year.

I am also anxious to learn how my students did. After all, it is the indicator of my effectiveness. If they did well on that one battery of tests in March, then I can breathe a sigh of relief knowing that I am an effective teacher. If they exceeded the expectation, I will get a bonus. I can’t even imagine the stress I will feel when Senate Bill 191 is in full effect, and my students’ performance will be a determining factor in my employment status.

Lastly, and most importantly, I am anxious for my students as they get their scores in the mail. They will open an envelope and they will be labeled. For some, it will be good news. I worry for the others who will open the envelope to learn that they are Partially Proficient or Unsatisfactory. I have seen the negative impact these labels can have on a student. It makes them believe that the only thing that matters in school is how they perform on this one test. Sadly, they start believing that they are only as good as their TCAP rating. It begins to define their sense of who they are as learners and as members of the community. Yep, I have lots of anxiety about that. I don’t think it is fair or right to do that to kids.

Now, I know that there are readers who will interpret my TCAP angst as proof that teachers don’t want accountability. Let me dispel that notion. Of course teachers need to be accountable for the learning of their students. We cannot hope to improve the quality of education for all students without it. However, accountability must be meaningful, reliable and shared by all stakeholders. I am not at all sure that one test in March is a true measure of the quality of a school, or a teacher, or a child.

Nevertheless, it is the current reality of the test-crazy world of education. So, as summer vacation comes to a close, I will drink coffee on the patio, plan for the first days of school, say a few more prayers to those assessment gods, and try to keep my TCAP anxiety under control.

About our First Person series:

First Person is where Chalkbeat features personal essays by educators, students, parents, and others trying to improve public education. Read our submission guidelines here.

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