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An Unfair Game: Standardized Testing Ruins a School's Spirit

Anthony Cody

Science Coach and mentor, Oakland, California
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This is my third blog post here at, 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.

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Anthony Cody

Science Coach and mentor, Oakland, California

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Melissa's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Standardized testing has ruined my school's spirit. My school has been struggling to getting our AYP scores up. If we don't show growth this next year I believe the state will get involved. Our spirit is gone, we work so hard all year to push our student and get them ready to test. Then we are told it still wasn't good enough. It doesn't just ruin spirit, it crushes it. Not only are our scores supposed to get better they keep raising what the scores need to be. I also work in a low income school where about half the students in each class are hispanic. How are they supposed to do well when they can't even speak english. I am a first grade teacher and my student do not test until they get in third grade but we are told to make sure they know how to fill in bubbles. We have to align our lessons with testing standards even though they are not writen for first grade. In my district we are also being told exactly what to teach and at times we are even told what day to teach it on. There is no room for creativity or fun anymore. I truly believe that students would learn a lot more if it was fun for them and didn't always revolve around this test that is taken at the end of the year.

Michael Taylor's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

With the mandate of NCLB, I think that the government wants our students to act like robots so that they can have more control over them. I work in a district that is 99% economically disadvantage. It is also 99% hispanic. I have a great bunch of students. We have a hard time meeting AYP because of our subgroups in this case hispanics are never at the level as middle class america. I know that these students for the most part do not have the advantages as my own children as it comes to experiencing other things in life that are good. I have student that also see domistic violence, drug deals going down, or where ther next meal is coming from. The government expects us to have everyone at grade level by 2013-14. They do not see where we have work to get some of these kids where they ned to be by then. They pass laws, but they never seem to fund what we need to help get these kids up to par. I also agree those schols that are already there will never get the recognition because they do have the best students. Why does the government compare apples to oranges when comparing the US to the rest of the developed world? With all the testing and money spent on testing, we could spend more time teaching in our field instead of teaching towards a test. We do need more ways to chart the progress of our students than a single test.

Cynthia Arko's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I can empathize with you on the laws of NCLB. Our school implemented a two hour literacy block which included guided reading, phonetics, writing, and reading in the content area. We saw tremendous results with our own assessments. Through these many assessments we were able to help students in need of interventions quickly. Did it help? That remains to be seen. Our staff put in a great deal of effort but may not get the credit for it just more bad news.

Cynthia Arko
Euclid, Ohio

Jeannette's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

In the state of Wisconsin, our students from 3rd grade up take the WKCE. In 4th grade, the grade I teach, students take reading, math, language arts, science, social studies, and a written test. With NCLB, our district has requires that students are proficient or advanced in the areas of math and reading. If they are not, they are required to attend summer school. If they don't attend summer school, they will be retained. What is even more frustrating is that the testing is given in October. This gives us very little time to prepare our students and hope that what they have learned in 3rd grade will show in their test scores. What a terrible way to test students. I also agree with a comment made that there is no way we will have 100% of our students passing the WKCE. We have to consider students with disabilities, ELL students, ADHD students, and even children who don't test well. These tests are a lot of pressure for teachers not to mention our students.
Jeannette Simpson
Kenosha, WI

Brooke's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I strongly agree with you. Standardized testing has become a horrible buzz word, when in itself, it really isn't a bad thing. In order to better help our students prepare for their future, whatever it may be, we need to know what "tools" to equip them with. A standardized test can't adequately tell me, however, if my student had an empty belly or a poor night's rest. A single test can't be a tell all. Our students aren't made from cookie cutters, either should our tests.

Susanna's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I share your pain on testing. I teach first graders. Even though we felt very good about our testing last spring, our principal has informed us that yet again our scores were 'not good enough'. It seems like a vicious cycle in which everyone, especially the children who are being judged based on one test, lose! I agree that there must be some form of accountability, but I don't think standardized testing is the correct answer. It seems unfair to teacher children one way, test them another way, and never take a look at all of the growth they have made - only the score that they made on one test. My school uses the test score to determine summer school, after school tutoring, and intervention! It is very frustrating!

Jennifer's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Teaching in Canada we do not have NCLB, however I live and teach in Ontario where we have four standardized tests, three of them mandatory for promotion and/or graduation. We test students in grade 3 and 6 as well as a grade 9 mathematics exam and a grade 10 literacy exam. In order to graduate high school a student *must* successfully pass the literacy test or, having failed the literacy test, pass the literacy course. I have found in teaching at the high school level that when I taught grade 9 mathematics I was teaching to the test and spending the two weeks prior to the test ensuring that all the students had as many skills as I could possibly cram into them. I strongly dislike the idea that a credit *or* the ability to pass high school revolves around a test!

Standardized testing is an interesting term to me. Some days I treat it like an oxymoron ... to be a standardized test it must be given under the same conditions to each person. The moment you begin to accommodate students (which I'm all for, being a Special Education teacher) the test loses its standardization. I firmly believe that a test is a great diagnostic tool for students who are capable of writing tests, but there are so many *other* ways of determining students abilities that we should be using a more 'holistic' approach to ensuring student success.

Just my two cents worth.

Susan's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

As I read this blog on testing. I got mad. No Child Left Behind is supposed to be for the students but it seems like more emphasis is placed on the schools - either you pass or fail as school with adequate yearly progress. If this is about the child, then the government needs to look at individual children instead of the school as a whole. My school has an increasing number of Hispanic students each year. We were told to look at the child to see if their knowledge increased by a years growth. The way I see it, no one is brought up the same with the same experiences. What one child needs is different from what another child needs. If we have to give these tests, let's look at the individual students score from beginning to end. Did the one child make adequate yearly progress, if not, why? Who should be held accountable then - the school, the teacher or the parent? I have had students that missed 30 or 40 school days. Is my fault that their parents didn't want to wake up to bring the child to school?
As for students who do not speak English, is it really fair to make them take a test in English and they can't read it. Of course that is going to make test scores go down. I gave a test a few years ago to one Hispanic student. I first gave the test in English. Then, I had a translator give the test. (The test was the Peabody Picture Vocabulary Test.) Guess what the results were. The student scored years below on the English version, however on the translated version he was on grade-level. It has to mean something.

Ann's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I am so surprised on one hand that so many people are against high stakes testing, but then on the otherhand-- in most of the research that is out there it is the attitude of the administration that administers the test that pays a huge quality affect on the results. So much blame is put on high stakes testing that is not reason for such failure in schools, it is teachers who frustrate children and put the blame on students and money and parents-- when the true factor is within the teacher and the pressure for those who think "Oh my next week is testing and I need to crame all this information into the child NOW!" When in fact that each state has benchmarks and standards that are EXPECTED to be taught on a daily basis. If taught correctly one would not have to worry about cramming all the information in at one time! If in fact, that teachers were doing the job that they are supposed to do, and teaching quality benchmark material-- more schools would not have to worry about meeting the mark or grade. Yes, we should be improving yearly-- with the fast approach of technology and the changing world all of our expectations change and so does the quality of testing and the results.
With today's society it is best that we prepare our children for the real world and stop making excusses for things that we can control. No one is complaining of the test that WalMart workers have to pass in order to stock the shelves, or McDonald's to flip a burger, or the mechanic to change the tires and inspect our cars, or the electrician to re-wire our houses............ they are all high stake testing and the child's future is dependant on that, too!

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.

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