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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)

Standardized-testing is an unfair way to test students on the knowledge they received. At my high school, sophomores take the math CRT. Sophomore students range from Basic math, Math literacy, Algebra prep, Algebra I, Honors Algebra I, Geometry, Algebra II, and Honors Algebra II. That is quite a range of abilities to be taking the same test. It is an unfair advantage to those students in the lower level math classes. Is the point to test whether the student is a good guesser or actually knows the material they are learning currently?
In addition, I feel that I worry so much about test scores that I am missing out on teaching the "whys" of math. I teach a lot of "how" because that is what they need to know to get by on the CRT. I feel like I am cheating myself and my students.

Anonymous's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I agree that if 40% of the students in the state fail a test, we need to look at the validity of that test. The CRCT used to be a good measure of how well a child learned the curriculum, not anymore. What is all of this pressure doing to the children of Georgia? It can't be helping them to become better students.

Sandy's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I agree with each of you that believes too much emphasis is placed on the standardized test we take. It seems like all we do is teach to the test. This isn't fair to the students, the parents, or the teachers. I do not believe we can get a true picture of our student's progress through one test. Some students just do not take test well Aren't we taught to teach the child on his strength or his learning style. In Georgia students have to pass the reading test in 3rd grade to be promoted. It doesn't matter if they have passed all year long. If they fail the test, they fail third grade. That is alot of pressure on a young child. Surely, some other way can measure their accomplishments and growth.

Sara's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I certainly agree with your last comment. The government needs to realize that any kind of growth should be recognized. As you said, it is unreasonable to expect a child to advance three levels in one year. While we should have high expectations for all of our students, individual students learn at different paces. That needs to be taken into consideration.

Ashley's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Standardized testing is an unfair way of identifying the intelligences of our students. A test cannot define a student's ability as well as intelligence. Standardized testing is a one-deminensional way of defining what the students are learning in the classroom. Curriculum is essential of knowing what needs to be addressed and expressed throughout the year however many items are being left out due to the importance of receiving high-test scores. Teachers fear their jobs instead of inspiring students to love learning. Administrators do not have the time to get to know their faculty/staff and students within their school because all the pressure and success is emphasized on being the best in the county/state/country so forth. We took testing to a whole new level by defining how well we are received and can educate our students when in reality it is how well we can TEACH TO THE TEST.

TP's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Standardized tests continue to be an up hill battle that teachers continue to face year after year. The amount of stress that a teacher places on one self when it comes to test scores makes one wonder how much longer many educators will stay in the profession. A positive attitude can only take you so far when unpleasant test scores are always being displayed in front of your eyes. Yes, I do believe we need to be held accountable in some way, but what NCLB fails to recognize is that students are different. They learn in different ways, at different paces, and through different testing factors. Test scores make my head spin and I think through testing, testing and more testing, it is forgotten that these are kids and kids need to be kids, not robots.

Jen's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I agree that we need to start coming up with so more creative and efffective ways for monitoring our students' progress. There are so many people who have test anxiety and do not test well. Is it fair to judge their whole school year on one test? As educators we know that there are various learning styles and we are always readhing out to all types and creating lesson plans that can touch on each style so that all of our students have a chance to learn to the best of their ability. Since not all students test well we should be using portfolios and other means of asessing our children.

Heather's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Frustrations with NCLB spread far and wide. It is obvious to those of us in the trenches that this legislation is ineffective and is, in effect, having the opposite effect it was designed to have. Our children are not learning more as a result of this legislation, they instead are learning how to pass a test and that tests are the most important things in relation to their school careers, not their own unique thoughts and ambitions. I see teachers everyday who abandon proven methods to take on the "cram" approach because they are afraid their children won't know all the information on the tests! At what point have we, as a country, lost faith in leaving it up to the teachers to do what they know how to do: teach? This spring when our test results came in I felt relieved that my students had improved. Being a first year teacher, the stress of performance already exists and consumes my thoughts and fears. This is not how I want to spend my teaching career! I hope this November that teachers will unite around the candidate who will perform a major overhaul on NCLB or abolish it all together. We need someone who will listen to us, the experts, before making policies that will have adverse affects on our children for years to come.

ACM's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Standardized Testing in and of itself is daunting for students. On top of those kinds of tests my district also has its own tests that in combination with typical assessments of teachers, are creating student burn out. I am so worried about burn out in students because I am noting a 3 year pattern in my area. If material and standards aren't taught by the end of March, students will not have the ability to absorb too much more information. Some teachers are cramming in as many standards as possible which instead of providing the education we desire for our students, students are overwhelmed and shut down. Now during this part of the school year, behavior is out of control schoolwide, and students have zero desire to learn. I am solving this kind of difficulty in my classroom with high energy project based learning, but "School is out" is a happy cry for kids.

Anonymous's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

This year was my first experience dealing with the NYS Stamdardized tests. And I can honestlt say that my nerves were pretty much shot by the time the first one was over with. I feel that it puts far too much pressure on the students, and also makes teachers teach to a test. I think that the weight thatthese tests put on districts omly limits what is taught and in part hinders the students learning.

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