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

Anthony Cody

Science Coach and mentor, Oakland, California

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.

Anthony Cody

Science Coach and mentor, Oakland, California

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Anonymous's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I also am a teacher and a parent. I remember being concerned about my children's test scores until I actually had to give a standardized test to my class of first graders. After the first day of testing, walking around the classroom and reading the answers selected by my students, I quickly relaxed about my own children's test scores. I saw well grounded and smart students make errors that I know they know the answers to. I also saw some students who were very good guessers. Some of these students I also knew did not know the material that was tested. I did see some consistency though. I feel that now, the whole school year is focused on passing the test. We have practice questions, tests that are taken before the "test" just to see where they may score on the real "test". The kids at school hear so much about the test that I think they really do develop a closed attitude to learning. It's also true that we are not teaching to the many modalities of learners. By testing, we are actually only meeting the way some students learn and show how they learn. By the time my children reached high school, they were very frustrated at the whole testing scenerio. They were bored with school, because of the very restricted focus on what was taught. I hope that soon the testing as the only way to measure a child's learning is soon gone by the way side, becaused of not, I also agree that we may see more kids lose interest in learning as being taught by the schools.

Tiffany's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I completely agree with many of the comments. This is a major problem as it takes away teaching time which students really do need to learn and grow intellectually. It worries the students too much and in my opinion, hurts their chances for a high score. I came from a school where we only took standardized testing to let the parents know where their child ranked nationally.The teachers taught year round and only prepared us for the test a few days before (which were only for reviewing). The students were never really affected by the tests and were never stressed.

Michael's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I agree with a lot of things that you talked about. Here in Florida we have a test called the FCAT, where students are being tested in all age levels elementary, middle, and high school. If the students do not pass the FCAT he or she will not pass their grade. If the high school student does not pass the FCAT he or she will not graduate until they pass. My first two years of high school were filled with nothing but FCAT material. Luckily I passed the FCAT my first time because any student that did not, automatically got put in a FCAT course until they passed the test. It's ashamed that teacher's are so stressed about these test that they have to turn their whole lesson plan into FCAT practice work. Hopefully in the future they will be able to come up with something that is less stressful on students and teachers.

Kamicia's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I agree with the comments on standardized testing. As teacher we spend to much time teaching test stratrgies and not enough time teaching the content. There are students in my class that did pass their standardized test, but I feel these students are not ready for the next grade. I feel one test should not decided whether a student pass or fail.

Jenny's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I agree with everything you said. I teach at a school where things are a little opposite from you. We have extremely high test scores year after year. (I teach in a middle to upper class area.) Anyway, we almost always show good results. However, since our scores are always good, we do not show any gains. In other words, when we are at an "A", there is no where else to go so we don't tend to show gains. This can look bad for the school's report cards. I think testing is a good idea. However, schools and the states put way too much emphasis on them. Some children can be very intellegent and be horrible test takers. Plus, like you mentioned, you can have students who do not speak English who are required to take the test.

Monica's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I agree with the comments on state testing. I dont agree with schools being graded of how well the students test on certain subjets. Not all students excel in every subject, however those same students may be smarter than others in when it comes to doing things hands on. I think that if students are going to be graded on how intelligent they are that the test should be well rounded.

Belkis's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Let the teacher teach!!! I completely agree that standardized testing are ruin our school's spirit. There are many reasons why standardized tests are not working. First of all, high-stakes-testing placed at-risk students at greater risk. It is unfair to give the same tests for all students since students do not receive the same educations. According to state data, African American and Hispanics, females, poor students and those with disabilities are disproportionately failing high-stakes tests. Standardized testing also shrink the curriculum. The school system should put more emphasis on what is worth knowing and on what is really important to teach. They should let the teachers teach!

Lyn Sellati's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I don't disagree with standardized testing. I disagree with how they are used. Instead of an all-or-nothing ultimate test, they should be used as a sorting tool. Students who achieve high scores should be placed in advanced college preparatory schools. Those who achieve average scores should go to a different college prep school. Those who achieve low scores should consider tech. school or vocational training. It shouldn't be hard and fast--if a child wants to go to college, he or she should be placed in the school they want under conditions. But we simply can't expect everyone to learn the same as other students or expect everyone to want to acheive the same goals. I've always said, there's nothing wrong with ditch diggers. We need them. I respect them. They do a difficult job. But I don't believe a ditch digger needs the same background in math and science as a brain surgeon.

Christina's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I think all teachers in the United States are feeling the rediculous amount of pressure realted to NCLB. I feel like the idea of this law is fabulous, but this is reality, not eutopia. Our children cannot be expected to perform as robots. Each child has a different capacity of learning along with a different learning style. I'm glad that the law made school districts step up to the challenge of hiring qualified teachers, but that doesn't fix the problem. The root of the problem with education doesn't just come from inside our schools. It is much more than that. In order to come to school to learn, children have to be in the mind set to do so. If they witnessed their dad hitting their mom before getting on the school bus, someone doing a drive by in their neighborhood the night before, or even get bullied on the way to school; it's not hard to come to the conclusion that it is going to be difficult to get in that mind frame. There are a lot of other things in this country that need to be fixed in order for our students to be successful. The concentration shouldn't just be on how well a student performs on a test. There needs to be some other type of data that can be used to show progress. The testing that is going on now doesn't seem to be helping students enjoy school more or learn more. It seems to be doing just the opposite, making them hate school.

Crystal's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I just began working at a low income school last year and I have already come to know the effects of this high-stakes testing. In Washington it is the WASL. Although our test scores have not come out yet we are almost positive that we didn't make Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP). I am not sure how AYP is calculated, but I do know that every time I have seen a chart that shows AYP. The state is expecting that in X number of years we will have 100% of our students passing the WASL. I don't care who you are or where you teach, you are NEVER going to get 100% of the students to pass the WASL.

I know that by not making AYP the school recieves extra resources from the district and help with an intensive school improvement plan. I believe this is a 3 year process. What happens after those 3 years?

I believe there are good aspects to NCLB, but for the most part it has made us take a turn in the wrong direction.

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