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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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Lisa's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I agree!! Those making the rules have only spent time in classroom as a student not a teacher!

Lissa's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I agree! I am less than 5 years into my teaching career. I teach kindergarten, but beginning this year my students had to begin with a first grade program rather than a kindergarten program. I am happy for the students who are at the level to learn this way, but what about those kids who should be on grade level but cannot attain this when the curriculum is for children a year older than where my students are. I know this leap in curriculum is due to testing and scores.

Jean's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I absolutely agree with you. I work in an elementary school and even though we attempt to say that the scores do not affect us, they do. We try to raise the scores each year so that we are not in danger of the state coming in and taking control. However, I believe that with all the pressure these tests put on us, as teachers, our students are truly the ones who are suffering. Even if they pass, they are still pushed to the limit the following year. I totally agree that students should be challenged, but they should be allowed to enjoy school and get everything that they can from it, not be terrified of a yearly test. In my district, we have set an unrealistic goal for these tests. We are supposed to reach 100% of students passing these standardized tests by the year 2010. We are being set up for failure and the school year has not even started! I agree that there should be highly qualified teachers in the classrooms, but these tests that are meant to predict if we are qualified or not, are not accurate. I would rather a state official come into my classroom on any given day and see what my students are doing, rather than test them with these bias tests!

Colleen's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I couldn't aggree with you more. I am teaching for a Charter School. We have yet to make AYP. The tests were shoved down our students' throats daily. Itoo was forced to participate and promote excitment for these tests. It was quite difficult to do this day after day. All teachers and students were frustrated. We weren't even allowed to start an after school book club unless it included eligible content. I agree that student's whould enjoy school. There is enough stress in their future. It is sad to see a 5th grader losing sleep because they may not pass the state test.

Annie's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Our students too are subjected to countless tests and hours of test-taking classes. I think it is reprehensible that students are taught the skills it takes to pass a test as opposed to being taught how to think for themselves or how to apply their knowledge to make the right decisions.

Anonymous's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I completely agree. I know that there must be some form of assesment but all through college I was told that alternate assesments are best; all students do not learn the same therefore they should not be tested the same. Then when I enter into the teaching field I am told to teach to the test because that is what matters. Well, what about my special ed. kids that are smart on their own level but you can not see their success on a 60 question multiple choice test. Most of these kids have to show you what they know. What happended to "no child left behind". Well with a standardized test being the "do all and say all" how many kids are being left behind because they have test anxiety or just simply do not perform well on tests. I believe that there must be a better, more reliable way to assess our students!

Anonymous's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I agree with you! I feel like all we are doing these days is teaching to the tests. We are not covering what needs to be covered for the students to make it in the real world.

I also want to point out that not everyone is a genius. What happened to vocational classes like metal shop, wood shop, or home economics. Some students do not do well academically and need to take these classes to learn the skills that will help THEM. NCLB has taken this opportunity away from these poor children.

Anonymous's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I completly agree with you! I think our kids are testing so much during the year (by the state) that when they make it to the spring to take the "big" test they don't even care anymore. They feel like it is just another test.
I also feel that we as teachers take the responsibility when the student fails. Others want to say- "what went wrong?, what could you have done differently?" How about making the student responsible for their actions as well. They don't see how thier score effects them therefore they dont try.
I see this problem only getting worse. Will there be an end?

Anonymous's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I agree with you on the topic of standardized tests. I can't help but wonder what we are teaching our students that will prepare them for life beyond school. At least in my district, we teach to the test.
I also feel like we are doing an injustuce to the students who are not great academically and who will never be doctors or lawyers. What happened to the vocational classes? Some students will need wood shop or home ec. These students are not being prepared for the real world.

Anonymous's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Educators need to have high expectations of their students. NCLB restricts us of the time we need to challenge the students. We could be doing so much more with them if it weren't for the test preparation we are doing.

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