Standardized Testing and the Idealistic Teacher

Scholastic.com

Well, the Michelle Rhee memo scandal (if you haven’t read this bombshell by John Merrow, you should), has added gasoline to the conflagration that is our national debate over standardized testing.  Proponents say that standardized, high stakes testing is critical to holding teachers accountable and making sure students are learning. Opponents argue about the ineffectiveness of standardized tests for these purposes, and the toll they take on the teaching and learning process (as well as the teachers and learners).  I read the John Merrow post right before bed last night (thanks Diane Ravitch for the tweet), and laid in bed thinking about it.  Thinking about my own experience as a teacher. Thinking about my role now as a teacher educator.  Thinking about that question that I get asked every single term by one or more of my preservice teachers; how do I get kids ready for the standardized test and still stay true to my educational principles?  You wouldn’t think, at first glance, that those two goals would be at odds, but tragically, they often are.  I generally reply to this question, not with a direct answer, but with my own experience, and with a question of my own.

Before becoming a professor, I was a bit of an educational jack of all trades.  I’d been a behavior interventionist, a 1:1 aide for a child with severe autism and cerebral palsy, a private educational administrator, a community center preschool teacher, and I’d had experience teaching in both an upper middle class, suburban, predominantly white elementary school and an urban, 100% free and reduced lunch, 100% Latino/a school.  The experiences couldn’t have been more different.

The more privileged school consistently performed at the very top on state tests, earning a rank of “A” in that state, but there was little emphasis on test prep.  Teachers may have spent a few hours over the course of the school year instructing students on how to fill in bubble sheets, or how to decipher a multiple choice question.  However, the vast majority of time was spent on things like creating cave paintings out of brown paper bags, crayons, and black tea; building scale models of the pyramids at Giza; conducting experiments to see how various types of light affected plant growth; and learning to play the recorder.  The kids at this school excelled on these standardized tests because they had opportunities for creative, cross curricular learning, because parents were able to provide extra help, because schools were full of resources, because teachers were highly qualified and supported in their research-supported approaches, and most importantly because the tests were written for exactly the population of this school – upper middle class white kids who spoke English as their first language, and who could get tutoring if they fell even slightly behind.  The biggest conflict in this school was around determining whether the custodians were entitled to part of the merit pay from the standardized test rankings.

The less privileged school was a whole different world.  I went to teach there because I wanted hands on experience working with emergent bilingual students (who many refer to as English Language Learners) and working in a high needs school.  I was idealistic and starry eyed, and wanted to be Jaime Escalante and John Keating rolled into one.  The reality was quite different.  I discovered early on in my first year at this school that, after our mandated minutes of test prep time, English instruction, Math instruction, English Language Development, morning assembly, lunch, recess, 1 hour per week of instruction with the science teacher, and 1 hour per week of instruction with the P.E. teacher, I was left with 120 minutes PER WEEK to teach social studies, science, health, art, music, and physical education.  120 minutes.  That meant 20 minutes of time per week (plus the weekly hour with a supplemental teacher for science and physical education) for each subject.

Our days were full of rushing from topic to topic.  We were given mandated curriculum and texts that were even boring for me, as an adult, to read.  On a daily basis, I had to choose which subjects not to teach, for fear of encroaching on those mandated minutes.  Even with trying to create cross curricular lesson plans, the restriction of pacing plans and mandated texts stifled our creativity and passion as teachers.  And the teachers….oh, the teachers.  What a downtrodden, burned out lot.  Almost every one of them cared deeply about their students, and truly had the best interests of their kids at heart.  You can only function so long in such an environment, however, without losing some of the gleam in your eye. Some of the bounce in your step. Some of the energy for rolling out yet another unresearched, untested set of curricula.

One of the major problems was that, as emergent bilingual students, these kids often showed up to my class (4th grade) with a second grade reading level, which was NOT adequately addressed by the curriculum we were mandated to use.  The combination of Open Court Reading and Into English! didn’t provide adequate language development support.  I would spend all year wrestling with this mandated curriculum, and these ineffective pacing plans, trying to reconcile them with what I knew to be the most effective approaches to learning and language development.  By the time standardized testing rolled around, these students were still not up to grade level in reading, almost across the board.  I brought breakfast for them, to make sure they’d all gotten to eat that morning, and I walked around the classroom and peered over shoulders as they diligently bubbled.  Their little faces were full of anxiety, and some of them were so nervous they could barely sit still; one had to go to the bathroom to throw up.

I watched as the wheels turned, and they tried to figure out what was being asked of them.  One reading comprehension question involved a passage about creating a Word document on the computer (or something along those lines…my memory fails me); almost none of my students had a computer in the home, the three ancient iMacs in our classroom barely worked, and we got computer lab time for an hour every couple of weeks.  Another reading comprehension passage was about ski equipment; my students had never seen snow, much less been skiing.  I cringed as they bubbled the wrong answers on the math portion of the test, knowing that the only reason they were choosing the wrong answer was because they didn’t understand the language that was being used to ask the question; if I’d stood in front of the room and asked the same questions out loud with more linguistically appropriate language, they’d have been bubbling right answer after right answer.  It was heartbreaking to watch, and I had to do a lot of damage control with my students.  “Teacher, why did they give us that test? I didn’t know that stuff.” “Miss, I can’t do this stuff; I’m stupid.”  I could see their love of learning being slowly and methodically crushed by this system that had been put in place to ensure they learned.  It wasn’t helping them learn, and it was actively damaging their desire to learn. As I expected, scores were low (though on par with the rest of the school).

The next year, I made the conscious decision to do what I knew was best for my students, and to try new things that I thought might work, and to nod and smile at the language and math coaches who handed me pacing plans. To accept the mandated texts and curricula, and then take my own path.  I looked at what the state standards actually were, I looked at what prior knowledge and skills my students had, and I looked at what they really needed from me.  I used the mandated stuff when it was useful, and it sat on the shelf when it wasn’t.  We didn’t crack open the test prep books until the day before they test, and even then only so that I could make sure they knew how to bubble inside the lines.  I was determined that I would judge my teaching, and my students’ learning, on my own terms.  I would use constructivist, sociocultural, and social cognitive teaching methods.  I created a system of portfolio assessment, and let students lead their parent conferences by showing their progress through artifacts of learning.  I made sure that, every day, I was doing things to make my students want to be there, to want to keep learning.  Testing came around again, and I told them that the tests were just for me, and that as long as they did their best, they didn’t need to worry. I lowered the stakes, and let them just be.  I wish I could tell you that test scores improved after that.  They didn’t go up or down in any significant way.  However, I could see the difference in how my classroom felt. My students were happy to be there. I was happy to be there.  They were engaging in inquiry based learning (to the extent we were able), and they were learning.

So when my preservice teachers ask me how to get their students ready for standardized testing while still upholding their educational principles, I share this experience with them, and I ask them a question. “Who are you in the classroom to serve?”  Make every educational decision based off of that question, and if it doesn’t serve your students, DON’T DO IT.  I warn them that if they’re going to be agents of change, they have to choose their approaches carefully.  They need to have evidence to back them up.  Their lesson planning needs to be transparent and above reproach. They need to think carefully about the difference between compromise (which is good) and caving in (which is bad).  They need to determine which hills they’re willing to die on, and they need to be prepared to do so in service of their students.  The only way that public education is going to change for the better is if those who are working with students and teachers on a daily basis insist on only doing what we know is in the best interests of our students.

What has your experience been with standardized testing?  How do you think we should solve the problem of ensuring high quality teaching and learning are happening without destroying all of the good things about the teaching and learning experience?

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