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

Anthony Cody

Science Coach and mentor, Oakland, California
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This is my third blog post here at, 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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Mary Ann's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I have read blog after blog on standardized testing and could find no real support or good reasons for so much emphasis to be put on it. The stakes are high since NCLB, the pressure on children, teachers and administrators is enormous and the fun has been sucked out of school. Where have all those great thematic lessons on the rainforest or simple machines gone? What about all the hands-on activities, music, art and drama? The standardized tests have no way of measuring these so out the window they go!This is 2008 and we should be basing our assessments on portfolios, teacher observation and anecdotal records. Obviously no politician has ever asked a teacher his opinion on standardized testing! Maybe they should read these blogs!

Cathy921's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Jessica, What unneccessary stress for third graders! I find that guided reading assessments give a clearer picture of how they are reading then a standarized test. The stress alone can cause them to do poorly. Our state tests are not used for decisions concerning retention. They are used solely for how well the school is doing more than the individual child. At least that is my opinion. In portfolio assessments, the standardized test is just one entry. Does your district use other measures before retaining a child?

Ashleigh's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

This is my third year teaching 8th grade science. Our students are required to take the OAT (Ohio Achievement Test). I feel that there is so much pressure to prep for the test that I have no time for engaging activities that allow my students to be creative. We are constantly giving practice test after practice test that the students don't even care anymore. There were a number of students who did not even try because there is no penalty for not passing or incentive for passing.

Anonymous's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I agree with your comments. It seems that we are not teaching students to be free thinkers anymore, we are just teaching to the tests. Our students have been tested so much this year that they are in tears, and so am I, every time I tell them they have to take another test. One student asked me why the Principal was so mean by giving them all these tests. Standardized testing is not a true measure of the students' knowledge. I, like so many of my students, do not test well. In an informal setting they know everything that was taught during the school year, but on paper they look like a very low performing student. I say, take all of the testing out and let teachers TEACH again!

Michelle's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I feel your pain. We are set up for failure at the state level with NCLB expectations, as well as at the district level. At the beginning of this school year we were going over our previous test scores and projecting where we will be in years to come. We were informed that our goal for the year 2014 is for 100% of our students to score proficient or above on our district assessments. All we could do was laugh because we all knew this was a completely unrealistic, unobtainable goal. I find it ironic that as educators, we would never set this type of unrealistic goal for our students because it just sets them up to fail.

gina's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I am an elementary school teacher, but I am also a mother to a 1st grader. In Georgia, the 1st graders take the CRCT. My son began to have moments of panic regarding this "unknown test". He would ask me over and over, "What happens if I don't pass?", as if he would be tarred and feathered or something. The unnecessary pressure we are placing on the primary grades is unbelieveable. I tutored five 2nd graders who were struggling and they were just "burnt out" on the whole idea. They had been drilled and preached to and taught a test all year. I truly believe we had it right 20 years ago. I wish we could go back to teaching a curriculum and not a test. Measure student's knowledge based on grades and portfolios, not one test score. I truly believe that data will one day show an increase in drop out rates due to the stress we placed on children at such an early age.

Anonymous's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I agree with you. There has to be some kind of accountability for some teachers and schools, but there also needs to be some pressures taken off of students and teachers. School is not fun anymore for some students. It seems as though they make the curriculum harder every year and the skills more advanced. I teach first grade and some of the skills that we teach I would have never imagined would be taught in this grade. Someone had mentioned that the lawmakers should read these blogs, I don't think they would care one way or another. If they truely cared, they would ask for teachers imputs and not come up with solutions on their own. I feel that if these pressures were taken off of the children they would succeed in more ways than one.

Anonymous's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I completely agree that the standardized testing frenzy pulls a school's spirit down, particularly when the results come back and show poor scores. So much pressure is put on students to perform well on tests that they seem to block out anything not necessarily assessed on the standardized tests. Is this really learning? Or just memory dumping at that point? It's crazy. I teach first grade, and my six and seven year olds were freaking out about the standardized tests they were having to take (both in October and April). The pressure most definitely did not come from me, but it came from the top: our principal and other administrators. It appears more and more that schools are concerned only with numbers and not the true purpose of education. It is very frustrating!

Anonymous's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I do not like standardized testing. It makes teachers teach to the test, students have anxiety attacks, and then the tests are so broad. The lower students struggle with the vocabulary used on the test, they actually know the information but the vocabulary intiminates them.

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.

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