Math = Love: Tales from the Battlefront (EOI Testing Day 1)

Friday, April 18, 2014

Tales from the Battlefront (EOI Testing Day 1)


Last week, I finally took down the snowflakes that have been decorating my bulletin board for months.  After all, it was post-Spring Break.  It was April.  Leaving them up would be just asking for it to snow.

Apparently, Mother Nature didn't get the memo.  I guess she didn't realize that I took down my snowflakes.  Last weekend, it was 80 degrees.  This Monday, it snowed.  And, I'm not just talking a flurry or two.  It snowed for two-three solid hours!  It melted on contact, but still - snow in mid-April?!?  Craziness!

Just last weekend, I was taking pictures of all the beautiful spring flowers at my parents' house.

Spring Flowers

How did I know it was snowing?  Because I got to watch it snow for hours.  When you're administering a state test from 8:30-11:30 or so, there are only so many things to look at.  I took students by bus to test at our middle school's library, and the back of our lab looked outside.  The snow flurries were a beautiful sight, but I'm ready for the warmer weather to return!  

Can you tell what these are?  

Origami Letters to Students

They are origami, Easter egg colored, letters.  Every January, I have my students celebrate Universal Letter Writing Week.  I've blogged about it before, and it's one of my favorite projects.  I truly believe there is power to a written note.

Since my Algebra 1 students were testing, I decided to write a note to each one of them - all 41 of them.  To make life slightly easier on me, I wrote each letter on a half-sheet of paper.  This made it easier to write a note to fill up the paper, but it made it a tad trickier to fold the note.

Bundles of encouraging letters to hand out right before state testing

I didn't time the project exactly, but it took me between 4-5 hours to write and fold and address and pick out stickers to place on each letter.  I watched live tornado coverage, a special on the Boston Marathon Bombing, The Amazing Race, The Good Wife, and an episode of M*A*S*H in the time it took me to write a note to each student.  By the end of my marathon writing session, my hand was about to fall off!  I had to alternate between writing letters and folding letters since they used different muscles.  (I also shouldn't have waited to write these Sunday night for Monday morning's test!)

Since I would only be administering the test to one group of students, I wanted to be able to give a pep talk to all of my students right before they tested.  I've yet to master the art of cloning myself to be in three places at once, so I decided to write letters that could be handed out by the test administrator right before they tested.  This allowed me to be there and encourage them without physically being there.

After all, who doesn't like to receive a letter?  I know I love getting letters and mail.  I got the sweetest letter from a student earlier this month.  It's now hanging on my wall as a daily reminder.  I doubt my students realize this, but I keep all the letters they write me.  When I'm having a bad day, it's an awesome thing to be able to be reminded of the positive difference you have made in the lives of your students.  So many of them wrote me letters in January.  It was time for me to write letters in return.    

Letter From A Student
(I love that she's a freshman, and she's already thinking about coming to visit me after she graduates!)
My students LOVED the letters!  Earlier this semester, I posted about how I felt convicted to write more notes to my students.  I had the best of intentions, but life soon got busy.  And, my never-ending to-do list became my priority.  Most students were shocked to see that I had written them a letter.  You mean, you wrote this?  Of course, they wanted to know if all the letters said the same thing.  No, I wrote you each a personal letter.  Though, some were a lot more personalized than others.  To the student who had to reschedule getting their driving pemit to take their EOI, I ended the letter with "Good luck on your test today!  I know you'd rather be taking your driving test, but I'm confident that you are going to rock your EOI today!"  To the student who thought it would be funny to throw a cricket at me back at the beginning of the year, I wrote, "I've enjoyed having you in class this year.  But, I'm still not sure if I've entirely forgiven you for the cricket incident!  :)"

Note to self: when a student tells you that they ate cricket pizza at the state fair, don't mention that you hate crickets.  Two of your freshman boys will fill an empty water bottle with bugs.  You will get an e-mail from the science teacher warning you about said water bottle.  You will think to yourself, it's okay.  I know the bugs are coming.  They're in a water bottle.  These boys think they are going to scare me.  But, it's going to be okay.  The bugs are in plastic.  They can't hurt me in plastic.  (Can you tell I HATE bugs?!?)  When they come in your room at lunch, you will remain calm.  And, you'll stay calm until the lid comes off the water bottle.  One minute, you're sitting at your computer, minding your own business.  The next minute, there is a cricket in your face.  Then, it's in your lap.  Then, you're standing up.  You're screaming and hysterical.  The students eating lunch in your classroom find this whole thing hilarious.  You are being videotaped as you threaten the student that he better remove the crickets from your room if he wants to remain living.  He eventually acquiesces.  The bugs are rebottled.  The bottle and the freshman boys leave your room.  The video is dubbed as hilarious and shown by this one student to every other student in the school who will take the time to watch their math teacher scream and go into a tizzy over a cricket.  You hope that the video doesn't get posted on the Internet.  After all, you did threaten the student.  But, then again, he did shove a cricket in your face and drop it on your lap.  Later in the year, you will laugh at this incident.  But, it will take a while.    

As I wrote the letters, it became clear to me that there were a number of students that I never formed that personal connection with this year.  And, that's sad.  Their letters were kinda generic, and they could tell.  To all my students, their letters contained a variant of the following: "Good luck on your Algebra 1 EOI today!  You've worked hard this year, and I am positive that you are going to rock this test!  Take your time on the test.  Answer every single question!  Pay special attention to your positives and negatives!  Check and double check your work!  I've enjoyed having you in class this year.  Now, go and show this test who's boss!"  For some students, I would add reminders of things they often struggled with.  For example, I have a few students who have a terrible time remembering the formula for point-slope form.  So, I added a reminder of that in their letter.

The students in my testing session thanked me for the letters right away.  I could really tell that my gesture meant a lot to them.  Others who had other testing sessions hunted me down later in the day to tell me how much they appreciated the note.  One student stopped by my room and said, "I didn't think I was going to be able to pass my EOI, then I read the letter you wrote me.  And, I knew that I could pass the test after reading it.  Thanks for the letter!"  Then, the same student thanked me again when his class period came around.  My kiddos deserve to know how proud I am of them!  And, I need to make an effort to tell them that more often!  Letters truly do make a difference!

I also treated my kiddos to peppermints and a last minute pep-talk before the test.

Pre-Test Peppermints
Maybe pep-talk isn't the best description for what went down before we started testing.  I explained that a standardized test means standardized instructions.  Once I start reading out of the green book, I can't deviate from the script.  So, anything they want to know or discuss has to happen well before the book is opened and anything is passed out.  Take your time.  This is not a timed test.  Do not leave any questions blank.  If you leave a question blank, I will kill you.  Yes, I threatened my students, but I did it out of love.  Apparently, I threaten my students quite frequently.  Deal with it.  A few students asked last minute math questions.  What's point-slope form again?  How do I know if I should use an open circle or a closed circle?

I could tell that they were stressed.  Algebra 1 is their first high-stakes standardized test.  The state of Oklahoma says that they must pass the Algebra 1 test to graduate.  They've been taking standardized tests since third grade, but this is the first one that really and truly counts.  Though, if they can't get a driver's license without passing their 8th grade reading test.  So, that's a pretty important test for them, too.  I was stressed, too, but I tried to hide it.  I'm not sure how great of a job I did of that.  

Since I was administering a test all morning, my morning classes had to report to the gym.  They were excited for this, but after a week of testing, hanging out in the gym has lots its appeal.  

Earlier this week, I wrote that pass rates don't tell the whole story.  So, I'm going to share my Algebra 1 pass rate this year, and then I'm going to try to share the amazing stories that the pass rate doesn't communicate.

I have 26 regular education and 15 special education students in 3 sections of Algebra 1.  All of my regular education students tested on Monday.  Some of my special education students have tested, and others won't test until next week.  What I'm about to write applies only to my regular education students.  I have yet to get scores for my special education students.  I teach in a school district that does not have the manpower or resources to offer remediation classes.  Every 9th grader is automatically enrolled in Algebra 1.  There is no Remedial Algebra 1.  There is no Honors Algebra 1.  We have no Pre-AP classes.  There is no Pre-Algebra.  There is no Algebra Concepts.  There is no extra Math Lab.  We simply have Algebra 1.  If a student failed 8th grade math, they take Algebra 1.  If they made a 100% in 8th grade math, they still take Algebra 1.  If a student isn't prepared for Algebra 1, there's no class to send them to.  They get to stay.  If I could change things at my school, this would be among the first of my changes.    

22 out of 26 passed.  Of course the math teacher in me has to convert that to a percent.  85% of my students passed.  Last year, 90% of my regular education students passed.  So. that hurts.  One student missed passing by one question.  One more question right would have changed his label from "Limited Knowledge" to "Proficient."  That hurts.  Another student who didn't pass missed 9 weeks of school.  Still, I feel like I could have and should have done more to help her.

One of my students who didn't pass was the one I was hoping more than anybody else would pass.  She moved into the district part-way through the year last year.  She was in my Algebra 1 class.  She tried to follow along with what we were doing, but she was so far behind that she never could quite catch up.  She scored "unsatisfactory" on the EOI, answering only a fourth of the questions correctly.  This year, she retook Algebra 1.  She had our other math teacher for the first semester, but she ended up transferring into my class second semester.  She still struggled greatly, but I could see glimpses of understanding.  She worked hard. She asked a ton of questions.  And, she decided, I think, to take charge of her own learning.  When we were reviewing point-slope form, she would ask for more and more practice questions.  The expression on her face when she got the equation correct was PRICELESS!  I can remember thinking, "This is why I teach.  These moments are the reason why I put up with all the not-so-nice things that come with teaching."

She worked hard during the EOI.  She took her time.  She did everything I asked her to do.  When her score came up on the screen at the end of the test, she covered it with her hands because she was too afraid to look.  I pulled her hands back to take a peek; I was ready to congratulate her on passing.  The number on the screen made my heart sink.  She had gotten just under half the questions right.  The screen said "Limited Knowledge." She was oh so close to passing.  Yes, I share in her disappointment.  But, more than that, I am incredibly proud of her.  Our instinct is to look at the score and say she failed.  We should be looking at the fact that her score almost doubled in one year.  Doubled!  That's something we should be jumping up and down about.  That deserves to be celebrated!  

Instead of looking at my pass rate, I will picture the face of my student who went from Unsatisfactory to Limited Knowledge in one year.  I think about another student who scored Unsatisfactory on her 8th grade math test.  This week, she surprised herself by scoring Advanced on her Algebra 1 EOI.  That calls for a happy dance!  Her hard work paid off big time!  This student and I started out the year as enemies.  It was a hassle to get her to do anything.  She would much rather talk to her friends and play on her phone than do algebra.  And, we battled over this daily.  She made it clear that she didn't think she was good at math, and apparently I wasn't a very good teacher because she still didn't understand.  I bit my tongue and held back words so many times.  Then, something happened, and she started participating.  She started asking questions.  She changed seats to get away from people who distracted her.  She started pairing up with the students who excelled in class.  Instead of copying their work, she would pick their brains and ask for help.  Our relationship took a complete 180.  When I would unsuccessfully try to quiet the class (something I'm working on!), she would yell at the class to be quiet so we could learn.  Somehow, they would always listen to her.  I can't tell you how many times I've heard her say, "Guys!  We're trying to learn!"  And, learn she did!  (She also had my back when other students would say not so nice things about me.  "Ms. Hagan, someone said you were a snob, but I stood up for you and told them that you were not a snob!"  I kinda doubt that my students even really know what it means to be a snob...)  Though, she still makes it clear that my jokes are NOT funny.  That itself is funny because I have her sister in Algebra 2, and her sister thinks my jokes are hilarious!  I also can't help but picture the three students who scored Limited Knowledge on their 8th grade math test and pulled off a Proficient this year in Algebra 1.  They worked hard this year, and they passed.  I'm so happy for them!  And, I can't forget the six students who scored Proficient in 8th grade math and scored Advanced in Algebra 1.  Growth happens when you push students beyond what they think is possible.

It's been a year with a lot of success stories.  My freshman have matured so much over the course of this year.  I was worried earlier this year that I hadn't made the type of connections with them that I made with my freshman last year.  But, the connections and relationships came.

I'm already looking forward to next year.  I'm thinking about things to change.  Things to keep.  Things to do differently.  Things to stop doing altogether.  As the rest of the year winds to a close (less than a month left!), I'll be sure to blog about my reflections and ideas for next year.

Thanks for reading this!  And, thanks for giving me an opportunity to share the stories behind the testing.  It means a lot to me.  My students are more than the label given to them by the test, and, as a teacher, I am more than my pass rate.


  1. wow, I am still kind of shocked that you know your scores immediately.

    I also love how you are focusing on the growth! I wish the "state" did that!

    Hodges Herald

    1. The immediate scores are either awesome or heart-wrenching. There are high fives and excitement when students find out that they passed. And, there are tears and discouragement when they don't pass.

  2. oh, and btw... I am in AWE of you writing personal notes to your students. Very impressive!

    Hodges Herald

    1. Thanks! It was time-consuming but oh so worth it! I didn't write them to my Algebra 2 students before their testing because I was able to give them an in-person pep talk. But, I think I will write them all an end-of-year letter.

  3. You write an amazing blog - keep up the great work and passion.

  4. Congrats to your students and to you for such a high pass rate on the EOI!

    I just wrapped up computer-based standardized testing with my students as well and love-hate the immediate score reporting. We give the students Goal cards with their previous test score and the goal score they are trying to earn in this round. If they don't meet their goal, we can always point to the improvement from the previous year.

    1. Thanks, Matt!

      I absolutely love the idea of giving students the goal cads with previous scores. I'm going to have to talk to our counselor about doing this next year!

  5. Awesome! I am writing notes to my Algebra 1 students today!

    1. That's great! I'm sure your students loved them!

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