"A child's learning is the function more of the characteristics of his classmates than those of the teacher." James Coleman, 1972

Sunday, March 16, 2008

"countless dollars and hours. . . for these pathetic tests"

Very nice essay, Fear-based education as the testing season starts, by Claudia Ayers in Santa Cruz Sentinel:
Next September, teachers like me will face hours of meetings considering mountains of data, derived from rounds of testing that our students -- and we -- must now endure. In the fall, we will no longer have the students whose scores we will analyze, but what else are you going to do with the data, besides publish it in the local papers and wonder why the mathematically challenged gloat with the up-ticks, and feel shamed by the downturns?

The confused and erratic sophomores we now attempt to teach have had scripted education since first grade, when whole language reading programs and "fuzzy math" were rejected and all too often replaced with worksheets that were guided by scripts that teachers simply read. Additionally, since the 2001 No Child Left Behind Act, these students have had endless practice rounds for standardized tests. They know how to bubble in answers, but have limited ability to ask questions, and seem so much less interested in understanding their world than the students who preceded them.

All school children and youth now carry many burdens: content standards, measurable objectives, rigor, accountability, school-wide pacing, subject breadth [mile wide, inch deep], proficiencies in bunches-of-facts, homework in the primary grades, skills drills and practice tests, fewer high school electives but more math support classes, heavy backpacks and exit exams. These are the fruits of fear.

Gone are the days of true engagement and authenticity, when emerging goals included such things as integrated- and systems-learning, concept development and global citizenship. Other things being left behind: field trips, democracy in action, age-appropriate curriculum [everything is hurried], project choices, recess, problem solving, team building, discussion, teachable moments, student-taught lessons, inquiry, discovery, inductive thought, art, music, teachers teaching to their strengths, freedom, or even ... joy.

No wonder kids are dropping out in record numbers. The kinds of things that lead to wisdom and ideals are steadily being eradicated, and if the people who should know better don't start standing up, valued public education will, simply, be irrevocably lost. Private school enrollments steadily increase.

Kids were prompted to think in the "fuzzy math" days; the math skills were embedded in rich problems [not on drills and work sheets]. Whole language sought to offer children the rewards of rich literature -- public confusion about imaginary battles between phonics and sight-word advocates aside. There is a difference between authentic reform efforts and the so-called reforms that NCLB has wrought [or is it rot?].

Should every high school student really be required to take three years of college preparatory high-school courses in order to graduate [as is required in many local schools]? Or is this just another way to force kids with lower testing abilities to drop out so those who remain will produce higher Academic Performance Indices?

When your school administrators and board members keep telling you their main goal is "improving student achievement," that is the first clue they have uncritically accepted fear-based education. The joy of learning and creativity are not measurable.

Granted, true graduation rates and satisfaction surveys could give some useful data. But basing "achievement" almost exclusively on standardized test scores is astonishingly nearsighted.

Honestly, I have seen hundreds of standardized test questions, and educated people would be appalled by their quality. That the testing companies regularly rack up errors in scoring is also a little known facet of the industry that is taking hundreds of millions of dollars away from U.S. classrooms.

The High School Exit Exam [HSEE] has just been given to all of California's 10th-graders [March 11 and 12]. Most of our students will "pass." The ones who do not pass are likely to have a different first language, have testing anxiety, or have a learning disability. Sure, they have more chances to pass, but anxiety cranks up with each "try." Each year there will still be thousands of great kids in California who will not receive a diploma and will not walk at graduation. Sadly, these are the students who will be most devastated by the missed opportunity.

Then in April, all students from second through 11th grades take another enormous battery of California Standards Tests [CSTs]. The dollars and hours thrown at this enterprise is insane, especially given that 20 percent of the school year remains, yet students are evaluated on how they did for yearlong course standards.

My college-age daughters were not subject to the HSEE and I opted them out of the CSTs. They tell me that were they still in high school they would not take the HSEE as a form of civil disobedience, even if it meant they could not walk at graduation. They say they wouldn't want to shake the hands of adults with hardened hearts who did nothing to prevent this test from devastating the lives of our most vulnerable students.

While I love the idea that students would seek justice by protesting the HSEE, it is the appropriate role of adults to protect children from poor policy decisions by standing up and unconditionally loving children, not only their own, but all children. Tax dollars are precious; they should not be used to make profits for test companies. Nor can we afford the countless hours and dollars devoted to prepare for and administer these pathetic tests.

Claudia Ayers is a teacher at Aptos High School.


  1. The one thing I have learned while compiling a list of Teachers Web Sites is the frustration that these tests have created if it is any consolation ( I am sure it is not ) it is a worldwide problem for teachers from England , America , Australia and everywhere in between .

    I wonder how many more actual teachers could be afforded if the hundreds of pen pushers needed to collate this information were all sacked


  2. Anonymous4:53 PM

    “All school children and youth now carry many burdens: content standards, measurable objectives, rigor,…Gone are the days of true engagement and authenticity, when emerging goals included such things as integrated- and systems-learning, concept development and global citizenship"

    Although this is sadly true in many classrooms, I’ve also been in classrooms where teachers have created a truly rigorous classroom environment—one in which students are authentically engaged in work that is open-ended and complex. This can be as simple as beginning lessons with problem-solving (rather than ending a lesson that way) or writing Fibonacci Sequence poems instead of copying definitions for new vocabulary. Each of these examples occurred despite standardized testing, when the teachers made the choice to use testing as the floor for their instruction, not the ceiling.