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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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Cary's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

This post does not sound like a post coming from someone who has a deep knowledge of the standards, the administration of these tests, how they are used, or how the schools and/or teachers can be treated. To use your own analogy, no one is coming after Wal-Mart or McDonalds and threatening to take money or control from the managers if the employee doesn't pass the test - or even worse to fire them. Instead, if a worker doesn't pass, he doesn't get the job. In schools, if the students pass, the "managers" are held responsible. That is a big difference.

The other problem is that very few people in the adult world are really working at jobs that revolve around multiple choice testing. We complain that our schools are lagging behind, but we spend so much time and money on things that work in the opposite direction of what we say we want. Of course these decisions are being made by people who don't actually work in the system they are creating, and don't really understand what they are doing...they are simply trying to manage a huge system with efficiency - rather than with fidelity.

Angie Carchedi's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I am a third grade teacher in Austintown, Ohio. I am going into my second year. When I started teaching I realized real fast what was important in our district's eyes, passing the achievement tests. After a month into the school year, our principal sat us down and stressed the importance of these tests. She wanted us to make sure that the students practice the tests like it was the real one. We had them take several practice tests in the real setting. The 3rd grade teachers and I graded the tests together. With the results we took the areas that the students struggled with and provided intervention. Our students worked real hard all year and we as teachers felt we tried everything that we could do. Even with everything that we did our school still did not have high enough scores. I wonder what would could have done differently. Did we put too much into these tests? I hope that this year we can change for the better.Anyone have any suggestions?

Angie Carchedi

Diane Darrow's picture
Diane Darrow
Artist and Educator
Blogger

Angie it's not the teaching but the measurement used and how the questions are asked. You need to ask yourself, did they learn what was taught? Did they grow and learn since the beginning of the year? An important measurement is the actual growth each and every child made based on their own learning goals. Use other forms of assessment and switch to a growth model approach. I have always wondered, could it be that the government actually wants schools to fail? What do the gain by having schools fail...vouchers? What is the real political objective? This is about much more than just teaching and learning. Politicians should be shamed by what they have done to children, teachers and school communities. Rise above it and set personal goals with your students and see if they can reach and even excel beyond them. High expectations from the the teacher and student can cause magic to happen. Hang in there.

Randi's picture
Randi
1st grade teacher

I think something that is really stressful is that we can get our student's test scores increased but when the expectations are continuing to be increased the students can't ever catch up. The students work so hard and then get stressed if they can't measure up.

Randi's picture
Randi
1st grade teacher

How do your school districts use your state testing scores? Do the parents and student's become aware of the results? Do you find it difficult to look at state tests results when it takes so long to get the results back?

kristan's picture
kristan
Concerned parent

I read through your blog and it seemed to me [and you too apparently in the 2nd paragraph from the end] that the actual test helped to show the success of the students and the crazy unfair requirements of NCLB is what ruined school spirit. I have read a lot of studies and find that is often the case. However, please keep in mind the test itself [in this case] obviously was not the culprit indicated in your catchy [inflammatory?] title.

Alizabeth's picture

I agree that we have become obsessed with test scores. This obsession has damaged the love and enthusiasms in some of our school. I have seen this fist hand in the school I taught in for six years. It did not make AYP for three consecutive years and was in danger of being closed. The students, teachers, and community felt the pressure of constantly being bashed in the papers and being reviewed by district and states specialists. The topic consumed every teacher meeting and brought fear into the school especially during the spring

Kathleen's picture
Kathleen
Seventh Grade Math, Las Vegas, NV

I am going on my 5th year in a low achieving school. I feel that this blog is very similar to my school. We are constantly being told how low achieving we are but no one sees the hard work and dedication that our staff and students put forth. I always feel like we are working a lot harder than other schools in the area and we have to since we are second from the bottom when it comes to test scores and achievement ratings. I think the area and community has a lot to do with this. I understand the reasoning behind high-stakes testing but it is not fair when all students are held to the same standard such as special education students and ELL students.

Kathleen's picture
Kathleen
Seventh Grade Math, Las Vegas, NV

I am going on my 5th year in a low achieving school. I feel that this blog is very similar to my school. We are constantly being told how low achieving we are but no one sees the hard work and dedication that our staff and students put forth. I always feel like we are working a lot harder than other schools in the area and we have to since we are second from the bottom when it comes to test scores and achievement ratings. I think the area and community has a lot to do with this. I understand the reasoning behind high-stakes testing but it is not fair when all students are held to the same standard such as special education students and ELL students.

Eric's picture
Eric
EBD Teacher

I find a lot of similarities between your school and my classroom. I have students who seem to make improvements on their test scores every year. The problem is that although, my students tend to make progress yearly, they do not seem to make enough progress.
An Unfair Game: Standardized Testing Ruins a School's Spirit
NCLB demands that they are proficient. The rules set forth by NCLB make it hard for many of my students to see that they are making progress. All my students see is that they did not pass. It is like when your school was increasing overall, but still had groups who were not getting the passing score they needed. The rules set forth in NCLB do not allow for continued improvement. Eventually students, groups, and whole grades will plateau. It is hard as a teacher to feel like you are doing your job correctly, when all you see is not passing.

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