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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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Eva's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Lissa, I have been teaching kindergarten for nine years. I also have seen kindergarten transform into first grade. Our students are being pushed beyond their developmental capabilities. Many of my students feel frustrated and already a failure in our educational system because the curriculum is moving too fast for them. I try to incorporate arts and crafts as much as I can. I know ALL of my students are going to feel successful doing this.

Mary's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I completely understand how you feel. I feel like covering all my state standards is being given priority so that students will pass the state test. There is so much material I have to cover that I don't feel as though I have time to provide my students with hands-on, real-world, inquiry-based activities. I only have so much time. Why do I feel like state and federal education requirements hurt students, not help them? Something is wrong with that.

Carol Gaskill's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I agree that as teacher we push testing to hard on our students. Students need to be able to do more than just perform well on a test. On the other hand I think that the testing pushes educators to do their very best in the classroom. Most teachers would teach all the curriculum required if there were a test or not, but lets be honest some would not. Holding the teachers and the schools accountable for what they are teaching is a good thing. The problem arises when the testing becomes our reason for teaching. I think we need testing but in moderation.

Nieves Kounouklos's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

What a shame that the educational outlook of our children's intelligence is based on the results of these standerdized test. I just administered the NJ PASS to my first graders the other day. I had to read them a three page story and they did not have the story to follow along to in their booklet. So let me get this straight,all first graders are expected to have unbelievable comprehension and outstanding memories.I found myself going back to the story to find the answers! What a joke.

Dawne's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

This whole NCLB and spending so much time on test preparation finally took its toll on me. I decided several years ago that I was going to teach my diverse learners grade level material with high expectations and put "what could possibly be on the test" out of my mind. Since I begain in my school many years ago, prior to NCLB, this is what I did. After NCLB our subgroup of Special Education students made improvements for the first 5 years, but for the last couple of years we have not made our AYP and I am tired of taking the heat for it. My principal, bless his heart, has flat out said that his philosophy is not resting of these scores, although he knows they are mandated by the state and hopes to see improvement every year.

I just wish someone with a clue would realize that,with most of our special education population, having them test at such outlandish levels is highly improbable. I would love nothing more than to perform nothing short of a miracle, but I am not GOD.

Amber Galvin, Atlanta, GA's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I could not have said it better myself. I am so sick of this test and that test. Just let me teach! The constant emphasis that is put on test scores takes its toll on the students and the teachers. I am all for assessing progress along the way. For me, these are usually quick one-on-one assessments or 20-25 questions on a quarterly test. Nothing like out state tests; not even close. The stress of equiping students with test taking strategies, preparing them for an extended testing period, and getting mentally ready is exhausting. It takes away from the time I could be teaching new things, and helping my students to learn all they can. Why do I need a test to show what I can find out in 1 hour? Why am I judged based on my students' performance from one test? Why isn't some progress good enough? These questions surround teachers everyday. Without so much attention paid to standardized testing scores, teachers can focus on what really matters...our kids; and get back to making a difference in a caring classroom environment. It is our job to teach and everyone involved could use a little less pressure. Test if you must, but let's look at that as one piece to a puzzle.

Erin's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I agree with everyones comment about teaching to the test. I teach kindergarten and order to prepare my young students for testing later, than I have to give them grade level tests based on what has been taught. When do teachers have to leave to fun learning behind until after the test.

JAMIE's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I agree that the emphasis on testing is too much. Teachers are so focused on teaching to the test that our students are being forced to memorize information. How much "meaningful learning" is actually happening in schools? I just read a chapter that talk about the differences between "schooling" and "genuine learning." The authors defined schooling as an experience students have in the classroom that requires them to learn and memorize the skills and facts about the curriculum to pass the test. Is that what we are doing when we are teaching to the test? Learning is defined as students being independent thinkers. Learning occurs when student's make it their personal quest to discover new information, new meanings, new challenges, and experiences. As a result of teaching to the test, are we simply just schooling our students or guiding them to be successful learners to be able to face the challenges in the real word?

Cathy921's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Sometimes I feel that the testing requirements are leaving the special needs students behind because they do not consider they learning disabilities, and the modifications are not enough in many cases. If you have a child who is reading at a third grade level and has to read a sixth grade text, how is that helping them? Many of my special needs students have shown strengths in many areas that may not be reflected on a standardized test. I had one child take the Alternate Proficiency Test for the NJASK this year, and I really felt this reflected her learning. There are many guidelines to this procedure, and I hope her portfolio was acceptable. At least two of my students will have a scribe next year for the written portion of the test because they can verbally compose but they struggle in remembering how the letters are formed and which order the letters go in a word. I am not totally against standardized testing because it gives some information about students who can perform adequately on a such as test, but we need to have the standardized test only one piece of the whole picture. That is why portfolio assessments should be completed as well.

Sylvia's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I agree with your thoughts! Where has "teaching" gone to? The intentions of NCLB were to hold teachers accountable in the classroom and be sure are students are learning but the testing mania has gone too far! Many educators are feeling the pressure by administrators to perform based on test scores which is harming our children. No wonder we see reports that show a decline in performance in our higher education institutions as well as an influx of foreign students out performing our own students. Sadly to say,I think the government should just let us do our jobs and yes set a rubric for us to follow but basing performance solely with testing is not the solution for a better education for our childeren!

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