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An Unfair Game: Standardized Testing Ruins a School's Spirit

| Anthony Cody

This is my third blog post here at Edutopia.org, so maybe it is time to introduce myself in the actual style of a blog and explain a bit about what my goals are in doing this.

If you have read my earlier posts, you will have noted that my main theme is the limitations and dangers of the high-stakes-testing mania that is consuming our schools. I realize this theme is a limited one, and I hope to venture into other areas in future posts, but for this week, I am going to go meta and try to explain why I return to this topic time after time.

I taught middle school science in Oakland for eighteen years, and I have worked for the past three years as a teacher coach. When I started my career in the late 1980s, students took standardized tests in math and English in the spring each year, and we were concerned about our test scores even then. We participated in something called the Mid-City Writing Project, associated with the University of California at Berkeley's Bay Area Writing Project, which had us integrating different forms of writing across the curriculum.

We were gratified when student scores rose in the years that followed. But we were not obsessed with those scores. Our school was not under the sword of closure if our scores did not rise. We were committed to the students we worked with, and that was more than enough motivation to be creative and to work hard to get them excited and engaged in learning.

In the subsequent decade, we had a good principal who hired strong teachers, and we worked together well as a team. We saw our test scores continue to rise, although as an urban school with a large population of students from poor households, we had challenges. In the years between 1999 and 2002, our students were coming to us as sixth graders scoring in the low 30th percentile range, but when they took their tests as eight graders after three years with us, they had moved up to nearly the 50th percentile compared with other students in the state.

But the laws we were facing changed. A decade earlier, others would have recognized our students' rising scores as a sign of success. But in 2001, No Child Left Behind passed. It decreed that every subgroup in a school had to improve, or the government would consider the school a failure. Of course, we wanted to help all our students, but we were among the most diverse schools in the city: We had whites, African Americans, Latinos, and Asian Americans -- no group was a majority. According to NCLB, if just one of these subgroups did not improve, the whole school failed.

The first year of this regime, our scores went up overall, and our African American students improved the most. But our Latino students dropped by a few points. We had received a large number of immigrants who spoke little English, but they had to take the test along with everyone else -- no excuses! The next year, our overall scores improved again, but the scores of our Asian American students, who were already performing at a very high level, stayed the same. They didn't decline, but they didn't improve, either, so the government once again panned our school. We began to see that this was a game with rules that would never allow us to win.

I wish I could say that we teachers knew we were doing good work, and so we were able to ignore the depressing news that we were "failing" year after year. I wish I could say we were able to ignore the messages that told us the most important thing we could do was raise those test scores, because we knew it wasn't true. But the negativity took a heavy toll on the staff.

There are still wonderful, dedicated teachers at my former school. But the science department I helped build is almost gone -- just one teacher remains from the time when I worked there. And many of the other experienced teachers who helped make it a strong school are gone as well. The school is now in its fourth "unsuccessful" year of Program Improvement under the Adequate Yearly Progress mandate, and the government could dismantle it in a year or two if scores do not improve.

The reasons for the school's troubles are more complex than the description I have given above, but I think the test mania and the impossible mandates of No Child Left Behind have been a very destructive force against the spirit of schools like mine.

I left the school almost three years ago, but I still carry the spirit of its staff with me. I try to create community wherever I work, and I remember the spirit of community we had there. I use my writing to try to help people understand what really matters in our educational institutions and what does not really matter in the hopes that we can rebuild some of the schools that NCLB is perverting and destroying. Welcome to my blog.

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Comments (110)

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Lisa (not verified)

Standardized testing

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It is sad because good teachers will begin leaving a school becuase of job security; all this does is bring in new, inexperienced teachers resulting in the school failing instead of passing.

Lisa (not verified)

When you don't make AYP scores

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We have always made AYP and in fact we have always been in the top 5 high schools in the state of Michigan. However lately with Michigan's changing curriculum and new graduation requirements we may no longer make AYP!! This has all occured within the last year. I feel your frustration!

Stephanie (not verified)

Standardized testing ruins a school's spirit

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My school has also fallen victim to testing mania. The overwhelming pressure has pushed our district to over-emphasize testing. We had our first testing pep rally this year. Although, in the spirit of being a teamplayer, I have wholeheartedly participated in our testing mania overkill, in my heart I know that what we are participating in is wrong and not what is best for our students. I reason that I am not the one who has made the situation, I am just dealing with it- I didn't make the game, I'm just playing it. Don't hate the player, hate the game, right?

Reven (not verified)

An Unfair Game: Standardized Testing Ruins a School's Spirit

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no offence to anyone who supports the guy but if a kid fails this test it should be his fault not the schools,or the governments for ishuing it out, and if the school is discouraged by this they should use it to do better and not complane like a bunch of babys.

Hood Cracka (not verified)

An Unfair Game: Standardized Testing Ruins a School's Spirit

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why is the place were i live not exsesible to high speed internet??LSU STINKS

Melissa (not verified)

Testing mania is hitting Australia, too!

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Thanks for raising this issue. unfortunantly we are going the same way here in Australia. We are starting National Testing of all grade 3,5,7,&9 students this year (next week infact). While this is the brainchild of the former (very) conservative government of Aust... it would seems as though the incumbent is all for it as well.
At least he is not continuing the previous governments talks about performance based pay - your students don't make the grades one year, your pay goes down the next...

Crikey Mate - what happened to being able to celebrate that kid who has finally reached the numeracy goals for a grade 6 kid (in grade 9)?
Individucal learning is being pushed by all the educators who are in the know, but the government is still pushing for this mass produced National Testing robot-like teaching.

Sigh

Chris S (not verified)

Applause...

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Well said...more focus needs to be on the development of student "soft skills". This should not be at the expense of content knowledge or technical skill, but as an important component of student development. Far from emphasizing one assessment for students, I think assessment should be on-going, that students should track themselves and that educators should look for improvement in individual students as opposed to lumping them together in demographic groups. In that way students compete against themselves and will make progress - sometimes in short bursts, sometimes in longer curves. Whatever the case, the current testing culture is a complete failure. Teachers are leaving in droves, students hate school and the only folks who are happy come from the political elite who have basically created this abomination.

Becky Malone (not verified)

NCLB- " The test disease"

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Anthony,
I am sadden by society's blindness when it comes to the rewards that a good public education can offer a citizen of this country. NCLB has lead the way with identifying what schools do wrong instead of what they do right. Thank goodness for the many dedicated teachers that are trying to find the cure for this disease.

Anthony (not verified)

Standardized testing ruins a school's spirit

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Thank you Renee. You have a very important voice. These stories are as common as the schools that struggle to serve the most needy students in our society. We never objected to the work of educating them. But it is hard to take the systematic disrespect that has lately been made part of that territory.

Renee Moore (not verified)

NCLB-- a shell game

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Anthony,
You are so right. The implementation of NCLB, no matter how well-intentioned, has created a cruel game in which the rules and the targets keep moving in a calculated attempt to limit the "winners." Yes, we want all children to be taught well and receive a high quality education. But is the best way to do that by disparaging the good work that teachers do by only pointing to failures? Or, by making "failures" out of what may actually be advances? In my former high school, we routinely helped students move from reading at a 3rd or 4th grade level (these were 9th graders who had been socially promoted to us) up to 6th-8th grade level in one school year. However, because they were still below grade level, they and our school were labeled as failures. The net result is to frustrate people who are working as hard as they can, to embarras students who have done everything that was asked of them, and to create a false image of our school.
Glad you're blogging on these important issues.

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Anthony Cody Science Coach and mentor, Oakland, California

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