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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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Angie L. Konarski's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I teach 5th grade and I have found that all we do is test! Just this year I have found it hard to teach because of all the testing I have had to do. Let see ITBS, State Writing Test, Benchmark Testing, CRCT, and not to mention the other practice tests we do to prepare for all of these tests. I find it ridiculous that we have to subject our students to this not to mention the special needs students who time after time get the disappointment over and over of failure. I teach an Inclusion class and I know that I feel disappointed when I get my test score because everyone around me is so excited that all their students passed. No matter how hard I teach or what I do to pound it in some just get it a little slower. Standardized tests are best for students who learn at a regular pace and can maintain knowledge not for the MI students in my classroom or the severe behavior disorders who can barely maintain control let alone sit quietly for several hours to take a test. What to do?? I do not know. Test more often, not the answer!
NCLB I feel may bring more teachers and students down rather than finding those diamonds in the ruffs. 100% is not a reasonable goal for all students. I would love to be able to say that 100% is a goal that can be reached but looking at students who bring baggage along with other unknowns maybe we should settle for 99%.
I also want to mention a small something about students who are deathly afraid of testing. Test anxiety is a huge problem for many students and what do teachers do but try and bring down the anxiety but also making them feel that they have to pass to continue on to the next grade. Know wonder so many students hate school!

Jessica Ellerbee's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I agree with all of you. Standardized testing is not an accurate way of testing students. I understand that we have to test them to measure growth, but not all students are good test takers. I teach in Georgia, and the third grade is a gate year meaning that all students are required to pass the reading portion of the test to be promoted to the fourth grade. This puts a lot of pressure on these students. By the time the test comes around, the students are completely stressed out. I just don't think that a student is an unsuccessful student if he/she fails the test. There can be a lot of factors that can effect the test, but that is never acknowledged. This test also puts so much pressure on teachers.

Jodi's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I have similar feelings towards standardized testing as most of the other bloggers do-too much emphasis is placed upon it. Teacher's should not have to teach solely to the tests and students should not feel that they are preparing for a test from the first day of class.
I teach 8th grade math in Georgia, and with the new standards that were implemented this year about half of all of the state's 8th graders did not meet expectations on the Criterion Reference Compentency Test (CRCT), and the percentage was about the same for my own students. Students must pass in order to move to high school, so about half of my students will retake the test during the summer after 3 weeks of remediation. Many of my students felt that by not passing the CRCT, they had failed 8th grade. Many have commented that they do not plan on attending our "graduation" because they do not see that it matters because they have not officially completed the grade. It is very frustrating for me as a teacher because I want to tell them that yes, you have done your best and have met my expectations. These students have worked so hard all year long, and this test has taken away their sense of accomplishment.

Kendra's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I agree the article and the reflective comments. Our school had to go through state review because one subgroup in the data did not make AYP. Our entire school has changed and morale is low. The best aspects of our building such as teams/cores were dissolved because of all of the changes. It is sad that we had to adapt to all of the changes required from the state who are strangers to our school. I have to say it is a shame that testing has become more important than meeting the needs of our children.

Vanessa Lynch's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

The testing of our students has gotten out of hand. Our children have no time to be children. With the preparation for testing and the actual testing, the children have no time to play and socialize. This to me causes disruptions in the classrooms. We are building test takers and not prodcutive citizens.

I personally feel that because we test so much, we help with the drop out rates. Our students do not have the luxury that we had of teachers that actually take interest and concern beyond the test scores and the classroom. It is definitely not fair to judge a teacher from his or her test scores. At my school, we have one team of teachers that have the academically gifted students, one team with the advance students, one with the academic and then you have the exceptional students. Although the academic and exceptional kids make a great deal of growth, our school is considered inadequate because they did not meet the standards. The government needs to look at the level the students are at. They cannot expect a child that is on a 3rd grade reading level in the 6th grade to be at a 6th grade reading level in one year. I think any growth is wonderful.

Vanessa Lynch's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I must agree. This is the most stressful time of the year for educators. It is because there is so much pressure put on us and we are judged by our scores. This is so unfair to us. Our students are tested so much and they cannot help but have bad feelings when it comes to testing. They know that no matter what goes on in the class, they are ultimately judged on that final score. This is not good for our students.

Kristen Core's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I was a terrible test taker when I was younger. I knew the material and could tell you what page everything was on but when it came to pencil and paper I had bad test anxiety. My second grade students are the same way. In Kentucky, we take CATs testing to show growth in students and to keep teacher's accountable for their learning. This test is extrememly ridiculous. The students test for two weeks in April and are asked to answer two to three open response questions a day. There needs to be a better way to test students and to keep teachers accountable without the pressure of a standarized test.

Anonymous's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Let me start by saying that I definitely agree with all of you. The emphasis we are placing on standardized tests is ridiculous. I teach at a school where we have high scores. In fact, our fifth graders last year had the highest reading and math scores in the county. We face a different kind of pressure. We don't face the pressure to meet, but to exceed. We recently received our CRCT scores, and although almost every student passed all of the subjects assessed, the administration (and some staff) were not as happy with the percentage of students who exceeded this year. I was so sad to see this. I feel like I spend the whole year drilling students for the test, and it was still not good enough. I work so hard trying to take every free second to actually TEACH students what they need to know in life.

On the other hand - do any of you feel that NCLB has actually helped some schools "shape up" and take responsibility for what they teach and how they teach? How can it be changed in order to keep schools accountable, yet allow teachers to provide students with meaningful learning experiences?

Lacey Unger's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I understand the need for testing students in order to have some sort of a benchmark to go by. I also see the need for teacher accountability. I do not understand, however, how so much emphasis can be placed on one test. Passing or failing should not depend on one test score. The pressures placed on the students as well as the teachers has been linked to cheating not only among students, but teachers as well. I feel that the standardized test scores should be used as a piece of data, but not as a 'be all, end all' used to determine a student's, or a school's, future. As teachers we are taught to teach students based on their culture, background, prior experiences, etc. Standardized tests can only measure a portion of this.

Keri's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I agree. Standardized testing ruins a school's spirit. I think it hurts our students the most because of the great amount of pressure that is placed on them to pass. I am a third grade teacher. This year my students had to pass the reading section of the CRCT to move on to the fourth grade. When the results came back my students only wanted to know if they were moving on to the fourth grade. They did not care about all of the hard work they had done throughout the year, they only wanted to know their score on the reading section. I believe by placing so much emphasis on a particular subject or section of a test (i.e. reading section on the CRCT for third graders)that the students feel that the other subjects are less important and not worthy of their time.

All of the testing that goes on in the schools today also make it difficult for teachers to show their creative side because they are too busy "teaching to the test" and administering tests.

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