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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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Peggy's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

My school had made AYP every year until last year. The spirit and tone of our entire school was different this year. The morale was low and we all felt less like a community. NCLB and the testing focus have managed to take the "humanness" out of education.

Kay's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Yes I agree we should have high expectations of our students but not all children have the same abilities and special educations children already have self confindence problems with out having to pass a test on their grade level in all subject areas.
Standardize testing is a big pain for the teachers as well as the students. Students get discouraged because they have a week out of pocket schedule and the teachers are stressed because of the "sterile" teaching environment.
If a different format could be found to give the test it might be less stressful.

Dawnica's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I agree with all of the comments about testing. I spend so much time testing or preparing for testing that most of the fun hands on teaching is impossible to fit in. For NCLB to actually suggest students be at 100% is absurd. If all children need to be at 100% to show teacher effectiveness then the same 100% should be expected of other professions as well.

Calvin Spencer's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I am also in agreement with many of the people here on standardized testing. I feel that we are taught as educators to have many different teaching styles and to be able to reach our students in many different ways. We are told that all of the students that we teach are different and that each student has a different way a learning. Some are very hands on, while other need to read and re-read the material. Some students are visual learners, while others need to listen a few more times.

Each state puts so much weight on Standardized testing, yet this test is everything that we as educators are taught not to do. These test seem to be made toward to a certain type of student. I beleive that teachers are so caught up in testing that we start to teach to the test and that is not going to help educate the student. These test do not show the students true ability.

Anonymous's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

We are forgetting that some students aren't just taking vocational classes because they don't do well academically, but they just really excell in other areas. So many of my students are budding artists and I would never even know it because I have to teach so they all pass the "big test". My 2nd graders know how many words they have to read in a minute to be a grade level and that's all they focus on. Not learning to love reading, but can I read 90 words.

Janine's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

By this point in the school year, I have developed a bad case of Test Mania. Having to prepare for and proctor over so many different tests has me feeling stressed, confused, and overwhelmed. Imagine what the students must feel like! No wonder they groan whenever they realize that I must give them yet anothet test! I do my best to keep them motivated and not lose focus or faith in their abilities to do well on this multitude of assessments. I am aware that it is important to give tests and to use the data from these tools to drive further instruction, however, there are too many different tests - each for a different purpose. State Tests, District tests, my own classroom tests...and the list goes on. Perhaps someday the testing load can be reduced and my case of "Test Mania" will be cured.

Anonymous's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I agree with the fact that some students perform poorly because they don't see how their scores affect them, but I also feel that many students (especially in elementary school) don't perform as well because of the testing situation and because of the stress placed on them by everyone around them. Our students are human. They react to the "vibes" they get from the other people around them. Our students may not even be aware of this. Like babies that cry because their parents are stressed out. They don't know any better. I wish political leaders had some understanding of what it means to be developmentally appropriate. The tests we are given are not made for our children. First off, it is not developmentally appropriate to ask nine year olds to sit silently for hours answering questions for multiple days. I think the issue is more the government, not the students.

Jaclyn Lackner's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Standarized testing has taken a toll on students and teachers. More and more pressure is coming down on administrators which leads to teachers and then students. I notice with my students that scores continue to decline. They take a practice CMT (connecticut mastery test) in the fall, the actually test in the spring and then another post-test. I do not have their results from the actual test, but their scores declines from October to now. Unfortunately I know my students can do better, but they are burnt out. They don't understand why more testing has to be done after the "real" test. To be quite honest, neither do I. If I had the time to teach more material, rather than administer test all day, my students may do better.
I am also working in a school shutting down this year due to four years of declining test scores. The school will reopen in September, with all new staff and administrators. So the message here is that the adults are the ones failing. I could reapply for my job, but nothing is being changed. The school will have the same students from the same community and the same problems will exist. The government needs to stop looking at only the test scores. They need to focus on the communities that have the low test scores. When our students go to bed listening to gun shots and walk to school the long away to avoid drug dealers we should be celebrating that they even made it instead of how they did on a standarized test.

Anonymous's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Unfortunately, testing has become the main focus for schools. It is sad to see students' spirts crushed when they find out that they have failed a critical portion of the CRCT test. Some of these students have been above average and average students throughout the school year and now they must atttend summer school because they failed one test. It is not fair.

Jessica's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I agree with you. I teach in Georgia and it puts so much pressure on standardized testing. I teach third grade. It is a gate year, so the students are required to pass the Reading portion of the test to move on to the fourth grade. These requirements put so much pressure on the students. I tell my students about the CRCT requirements. By the time the test is here, they are stressed out and exhausted from preparing so hard. We spent eight weeks teaching test taking strategies inside of our Reading lessons. We also took four mock tests. I know that we have to test them in some way to measure progress, but it seems too extreme to put that much pressure on a nine year old child. Because we as teachers put so much emphasis on Reading, I think it is very easy to not give other subjects as much attention as needed. I worry that these standardized test are going to turn students off of Reading.

All students are not test takers. I agree with you about teachers teaching the test. Students are not learning to become life long learners and readers when they are taught the extreme severity of a test.

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