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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation
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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 am a parent of a 5 year old who is ready to enter kindergarten, and I am really struggling with the public/private school decision. I have heard from other parents in our area that upwards of 30% of the time kids spend in public school is spent learning to take the state's standardized tests, with an even higher percentage in the key testing grades. I sympathize with the teachers who want to do what they love - teach for life - but who are forced to do what they are measured on - teach for the test. From what I have read here, it appears that NCLB has had a huge impact on the focus given to test scores. As a parent and a voter, what can I do to help??? How can we make policy-makers aware that their best intentions are really undermining the joy of learning?

Ben Fowler's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

You might be pleased to know that South Carolina is already in the process of using an alternate method of measuring student progress. We have done away with PACT testing and are going to MAP testing (Measures of Academic Progress): more info can be found here: http://www.nwea.org/assessments/
The test is taken 3 times a year and seems to be a less stressful, computerized version of assessment. All material that the students should know by the end of the year is on each test, so theoretically you should notice progression from each student. The test is adaptive: it gives questions on increasing levels of difficulty and levels out when it finds questions the student can answer. After testing, it provides specific information on weak and strong areas for each student and gives suggestions for skills to focus on so the teacher can most effectively meet the needs of each individual student.
I don't know that this is the answer, but it seems to be a step in the right direction.

Amber Henning's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I wish there was another way they could measure our students knowledge...

but i have found that making it "fun" does help in my classroom. Three weeks before the CRCT ... I turn everything into a game... sometimes I put the kids into different teams.. sometimes girls against boys. This way they are having fun practicing for it; which makes it a bit more bearable. Then when the day for the actual test arives the children are well prepared, there is less test anxiety, and the children do a better job. I hope this helps!

Cate's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I see your point about the stress it causes. We have 9 year olds freaking out because of a test. It seems crazy to put so much emphasis, and yet, if we don't, they may not realize how importnat it is in this system for them to pass. Maybe the problem is how much we talk about the tests all through the year. I can just hear myself saying, you'll need to know this for the SOLs, all through the year. I am guity of giving my students the impression that they need to know it "for the test" instead of because it is an important thing to know. So I totally agree on the too much emphasis part. I do see why the SOLs are based on a good idea. It is the skeleton for the year. We can be creative on how we present the information. There is nothing stopping us from making creative and unique lessons, we just have to include certain information. I think as well, we put too much emphasis on scores. My fiancee did not do well on tests, but he is an excellent self-taught mechanic. Children need to know there is more in the world. They need school to work towards what they want, but scores are not the end all be all.

Margie's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I definitely agree that high-stakes-testing is consuming our schools! What happened to the theory that the human brain learns best through experience? I have observed our school teachers throwing out a bunch of information and leaving out the experience. Dr. Pat Wolfe said it best, "repetition, however, generally is not an efficient way to learn to retain declarative information" (Wolfe, 2003, pg. 4). We are doing a disservice to our children!

Jackson's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I come from a county where we have state and county standardized tests. In total we have standardized testing 23 days a year not to count the countless days of review and other tests we have in our classes. This is a major problem as it takes away teaching time that is crucial for students development. Like many people have said already these tests do not take into account cultural biases and situations.

Concerned Parent and Teacher's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I believe that students should be tested to see if they have acquired the desired outcome for the concepts taught in the classrooms. The problem is no two classrooms are exactly the same, no two students are exactly the same, and no two interpretations of the "standards" are exactly the same. So then, why do we use the same "standardized" assessment for all students - even the Special Education students?
They preach "differentiation in the classroom," yet there is no differentiation in the testing. All students deserve an opportunity to succeed, but for some the mere thought of a test puts them into a frenzy. This does nothing less than set these students up for failure.
I realize NCLB is the driving force behind this, but who actually supports it? I have heard so many people disagreeing with the testing that I don't see how the legislature could have allowed it. Do they actually see it as "fair"? If they do, they really need glasses!!!!

Leah's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I think that there is too much pressure put on children with the high stakes testing. There are so many consequences if the children do not do well on the exams that teachers spend a lot of the class time on test prep. The results do not give an accurate picture of most of my students. This year most of my class passed their state English Language Arts exam but I know that they can not comprehend what they read. What does the test really show? What good is passing the exam if they are not able to read and understand their textbooks, children's magazines or grade appropriate chapter books?

JEM's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I agree that standardized testing takes actual learning and turns it into a memorization type of process. As a student, I still remember the pressure of taking the test, and the huge amount of emphasis placed on practicing and preparing for the exam. I took my test when I was in the 10th grade and passed all areas and did not have to worry about learning to test junior and senior year, but I do remember the pressure and worry it caused my younger siblings who had to take the standardized test when extra subjects were added. I would definitely like to see what would happen if teachers(departments) were allowed to create its own comprehensive testing.

Joanie B.'s picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I feel the pressures of state standardized testing along with the other teachers in my school district here in Washington state. All year, teachers panic about how they are going to get their lowest learners to pass the test. I work in a district where 98% of the students are ELLs. This makes it kind of hard, especially for the newcomers who have no idea what the test is about. My school is in Step 6 or 7 now, it's hard to remember because we are always on it for school improvement. We have a plan, we follow the plan, we have seen definite results from the plan. We look at many different data points when we analyze student progress and we look at different sources of data. It's just disappointing that they get one try on their state test and it's the only measure that's looked at to determine what the students know.

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