Susan Notes: Carl Chew is saying "No!" to high stakes testing and a resounding "Yes!" to student needs and to teacher professionalism.
Standing tall for us all.
by Carl Chew
I teach 6th grade science at Eckstein Middle School in Seattle. I have let my administration know that I will no longer give the WASL to my students. I have done this because of the personal moral and ethical conviction that the WASL is harmful to students, teachers, schools, and families. I will not delve further into my reasons because so many others have already done that clearly and thoroughly for me. I will keep you posted as to what happens.
Before the Big Test
The Friday before the week of the Big Test my school district sends a flyer home with each child. The message: eat right, get plenty of sleep, and do your best.
The Big Test is designed to be definitive. It signals the students, teachers, schools, parents, districts, states, and the federal government how everyone is doing. To be so definitive it follows that the Big Test is perfectly conceived, administered fairly, and that the students have eaten right, had plenty of sleep, and done their best.
Notice that the flyer did not say, the Big Test has been shown to accurately assess children whether or not they eat right, get enough sleep, or do their best. In fact, the message clearly is, children who do not eat right, who do not get enough sleep, and who do not try their hardest may not do as well.
Students who pass the Big Test are rightly proud of themselves, and become more confident. They know how important and definitive the Big Test is.
If enough students pass, the teachers, school, parents, district, state, and federal government don’t have too many bones to pick. Everyone gets a passing grade. Everyone feels just like the upbeat students—proud and confident. I've talked with some teachers and parents who even feel that they are a little bit better than students, teachers, and families at another school that didn’t fare so well on the Big Test, though in reality maybe their kids were just able to eat right, get more sleep, and try harder.
What about the students who do not pass? The test is just as definitive for them, maybe more so. Are they going to feel proud? Become more confident? Imagine what they have to look forward to—parents and bureaucrats, some of them angry, all wondering what went wrong, who to blame, how to make it right. It’s a lot weight to carry around, especially if it was because you didn't or couldn't eat right, get enough sleep, or try your hardest.
They don’t call the Big Test “high stakes testing” for nothing. When not enough students pass, there are consequences, lots of them, more than enough to go around.
It's teachers who feel the brunt of just about everyone’s pain. How would you feel if your school lost money because your students didn’t do well enough on the Big Test? How would you feel about being sent out of your classroom for retraining? How would you respond when a parent angrily accuses you of being the reason their child didn’t pass? And, how will you survive when our federal No Child Left Behind law mandates that other schools take your students if they want to leave, or replaces you, or gives your school to a private company to run? It might feel like you are just about everyone’s whipping boy.
I don’t know if it ever was that principals and teachers felt a special bond. It seems like that would be good for education. It doesn't feel that way now though. Principals of failing schools are under the gun to produce big results. They are cajoled and threatened by their districts, made to balance budgets for their schools with impossibly meager funding, and worked to their bony fingers. It’s clear that principals who are threatened and cajoled will out of survival threaten and cajole those who they control. They might try to cook the books, or fake the scores—you’ve read the headlines. You can only feel sorry for them. They are between a rock, their problem schools, and a hard place, the district and the government. The pressure and frustration can easily overwhelm a principal, unless they have a good therapist.
Parents of children who have failed the Big Test have few options. They can feel guilty— are they just bad parents? They can be scared—is there something wrong with their children? They can get angry—it's the teacher’s fault! What about becoming frustrated—is there anything that can actually be done to correct the situation? The Big Test is so definitive that it's difficult for a parent to imagine their child's "failure" might simply have been due to poor eating, not enough sleep, or lack of trying.
I know by now you see the flaw I am aiming at—if all it takes for a child to mess up on the Big Test is their eating habits, sleep schedule, or will to give it their all, the Big Test may not be as definitive as advertised.
In fact, I think if we look closely we may discover that the Big Test fosters other, serious social consequences.
For instance, if a group of children has a healthier diet than another group of children, and because of that do better on the Big Test, and their community begins to think they are somehow better than other communities that didn't fare so well, doesn’t that start to feel like prejudice?
If one group of children can’t get to bed at a reasonable hour because they are taking care of their brothers and sisters while their parent works a second job, and because they are tired they don’t do as well on the Big Test, and because of doing poorly they loose confidence in themselves, doesn’t failing the Big Test do them a disservice which could result in a lifetime of struggle?
If we lose a generation of perfectly good students, teachers, and principals because the stress of educating under the gun of the Big Test has become too overwhelming and negative, aren’t we taking some pretty big steps backwards?
To read this essay properly you also need to eat right, get plenty of sleep, and above all else, try your hardest. How many of us adults can say we do that? I frankly have a struggle sleeping before a Big Test, and when I wake up I am usually not inclined to eat a very good breakfast, and if I think the test is unfair my negative attitude will definitely affect the outcome. I have a difficult time understanding how we can hold children to a standard higher than we are willing or able to hold ourselves to.
And of course, matters can be more complex than they appear. Here are a few more tips our school flyer might alert students and parents to:
• Make sure you speak the same language or dialect that the test is written in.
• Make sure you have no diagnosed or undiagnosed physical or mental problems.
• Make sure your parents are speaking to each other, not abusive, not alcoholics or drug addicted, and not getting a divorce.
• Make sure you don't have a cold or the flu.
• Make sure no one bullies you on the playground.
• Make sure your parents, siblings, peers, and teacher do all they can to heighten your sense of self esteem and self worth.
• Make sure your parent or school cafeteria knows that a good breakfast includes all the food groups, not just a highly sugared cereal.
• Make sure you have enough role models who have achieved success through education.
• Make sure that other students won’t be disruptive during the Big Test.
• Make sure the test assesses things your parents and community find culturally valuable and relevant.
• Make sure your teacher doesn’t belittle or demean the test.
• Make sure the test readers and scorers eat right, get plenty of sleep, try their hardest, are being treated well by their employers, and value students with poor handwriting skills, creative grammatical syntax, or unusual ideas.
• Make sure reporting errors aren’t made by the testing companies or their computers.
I bet you can think of a few more tips too.
I am a teacher who loves working with children. I love helping them learn, comforting them, buying them supplies when they have none, playing with them when there’s time, and making school a safe place where they feel valued. But, I refuse to be complicit in supporting the Big Test and the ill wind it spawns in the lives of our students, schools, and communities.
— Carl Chew
Teacher Who Says No More