Thursday, March 20th, 2014...9:21 pm

Five Hours

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I was at an all-day meeting today for an hour and a half before we got a break. We sat and had a discussion first – a discussion about a controversial topic, a topic that takes focus and processing to understand. After our discussion and an activity to process what we had learned, we got a break.

On my break I checked my email. I called my husband to see how my son had done at the Dr. that morning. I glanced at instagram to see what other people were doing on this first lovely day of spring.

And then, after 10 minutes of conversation, after 10 minutes of turning my brain off, I sat back at my table ready for the next discussion and task.

In less than two weeks from now my students – 9th graders – will also arrive at school for a difficult task. They will sit at a desk, break the seal on a test booklet, sharpen their number two pencils and dive into a standardized test that they must pass in order to graduate.

They will sit through 63 multiple choice questions that ask them to analyze, synthesize, revise and edit. They will write three paragraphs of literary analysis, pulling text evidence and weaving it into their sentences; one of these will ask them to synthesize two texts. Then, as if that weren’t enough, they will write two expository essays.

They have five hours.

They will not have a break where they turn their brains off, where they talk to friends about the mundane for just five minutes. They won’t check in on their beloved electronic devices. They may not even get a break to eat lunch (just a snack and water). They will sit in a desk, be escorted to the bathroom if nature should call, and read and write an amount that no adult ever is asked to do at one time.

Why? Because it’s “rigorous”?

True rigor is not making the test longer. True rigor is making the learning matter. True rigor is born of a teacher’s passion and creativity and a student’s will to learn for learning’s sake.

Beyond my usual complaint about standardized tests creating a culture of testing and not a culture of learning – the exact opposite of what I value in an education – this is just plain inhumane to me. Every time I explain these tasks to my students, every time I attempt to help them understand the magnitude of what they are about to be asked to do, they look at me like I’m joking.

I tell them that I wish I was.

All the documentation on the official state website, all the “blueprints” of the test my students will take do not show the whole story. One essay, it lists. Two open-ended questions. Only 50 multiple choice. And while this is the truth of what will get scored for my students, it isn’t the truth of what they will complete. The hidden field test only ups the burden on these already over-tested students.

Students who breeze through tests, who could have perhaps passed this exam even before stepping into an English I classroom will not suffer for 5 hours. They will finish in two or three and be done. Be free to eat. Maybe free to talk outside the testing room.

But students who need the whole five hours, students who have worked hard all year to develop skills they didn’t walk into my classroom with, they will suffer. They will suffer fatigue and burnout and lapses of confidence.

I always tell my students that I assume whoever made this test, whoever gave the final go-ahead to force 14 and 15 year olds to sit in a desk for five hours of focused, difficult work clearly does not have a child, clearly is not the parent of a 14 year old, clearly has a skewed idea of what exactly it means to hold teachers and students accountable for learning.  I just can’t imagine anyone thinking this through and really thinking it is a great idea.

What are we as a culture aiming to get out of our students? Are we aiming to train them to sit still, fill in bubbles, write essays that are too short to really count as any kind of real deep thinking? Do we want students to burn out? Get bored? See an exam as a definition of success?

I’m pretty sure that isn’t what we value in education. I’m pretty sure we value creativity, critical thinking, research, innovation, discipline and drive. We want to hold our students to a high standard, to push them to be their best.

But somewhere along the line, someone decided it’s better to torture students than to teach them.

Five Hours

UPDATE: The state told us that the average student would take 3.5 hours on the test. Today I found that to be completely untrue. When I wrote this a few weeks back, I had hoped that the five hour time limit was just that – a limit. Instead, it turned out to be the actual amount of time it took many students. It took well over half of my students 4.5 hours, with many finishing in the last moments. They were in a room for 6 hours – 20 minutes of directions, 5 hours of testing, a 30 minute lunch break. And the students who finished in the first 3 hours? They stared into space for the rest of the time. These tests harm our educational culture and treat students as if they are machines, not humans. Let’s rally to stop it.

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  • Yes! You know I understand and agree! It’s four hours for 4th graders — 4th graders!!!! No recess, no walk around the track, nothing. I simply do not fathom the intent.
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  • Norfolk Teacher
    April 24th, 2014 at 5:15 am

    Agreed!! I teach 6th grade in VA, and I recently found two errors on the new, rigorous tests (sample questions.) I brought it to my principal and he agreed that at the very least, they were bad questions. He was stunned by the level of difficulty in the questions that my 11 and 12 year-olds are expected to analyze. We have such stems as “If the author were to add additional sentences to paragraph ___, what should it be about?” or “If the story was told from Mary’s point of view instead of Tom’s, the reader would better understand why….” I am spending precious class time just practicing stupid tests and showing them how an adult would find the answers. It’s a giant “gotcha” test now. I’m so beyond frustrated.

  • Thank you for this. I am an ex-Montessori teacher and ex-homeschooler (all of my boys graduated with honors from college; one is finishing his Masters work at Yale this spring; one has been accepted at Santa Barbara for his PhD work) who is now tutoring a 4th-grade boy in math. I have discovered that his math instruction follows no logical progression. They jump from one topic to another so quickly that the children who have little natural understanding of math are lost. His homework often has nothing to do with what he learned in class. They use no textbooks (not generally my favorite teaching tools, but chapters delineating method with sample problems would help); they give the children photocopied workbook sheets with sparse instructions and no indication of method. He is confused. I am perplexed at why anyone would teach math this way, but I suspect they are teaching to the standardized test. The tasks he is given are above his grade level, and as far as I can see are not useful in the longterm study or understanding of mathematics. I am about fed up with the school system.

    Sorry for the rant, but I’m frustrated that my student has progressed so much this school year, only to be blindsided by a pedantic lack of reason and vision. Teaching math at this level is not difficult unless you make it so. Those who make curriculum choices have certainly made it so, for both teachers and students.

    What can be done?

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