spock: live long and prosper bitch

December Meme Day 4

azewewish asked me what I think about standardized testing... I assume she knew that posing that question to a teacher would lead to an essay-length rant answer.

Standardized testing can serve a valuable role when used correctly. Specifically, it can be used to generate objective data to compare schools and districts to one another, and to identify achievement gaps and performance trends within subgroups of a student body. However, standardized testing can never be the sole metric -- or even the most important metric -- of student, teacher, school, or district achievement.

When I began teaching in the US eight years ago, my students took one end of instruction exam. I spent perhaps a week going over the format of the test and showing them sample questions. They pretty much all passed, my results were noted in some mysterious folder in the office, and presumably if all my students failed, I might have gotten a performance improvement plan. The district then collected school-wide results and used them to pick out which schools or students might need extra help. This was fairly rational. Unfortunately, this measured and thoughtful approach to standardized testing no longer exists in the United States.

Although standardized tests are often touted as a way to identify and ameliorate the achievement gap, I believe they are counterproductive: because the tests are culturally biased, they actually discriminate against low-income students and students of color, making the achievement gap look wider than it actually is. First, most tests are now computer-based, but not every student has access to a computer at home. For elementary-level students who are getting their first-ever exposure to computers at school, this is a problem. Even though taking the tests doesn't require any special technological skills, little kids click the wrong answers just because they don't have experience using a mouse. (It also means that school computers are tied up for testing for several weeks, which really hurts students who rely on the school library for computer access.) Second, the subject matter is biased. A few years ago, the writing prompt on our state test asked students to describe their ideal day at an amusement park. That sounds like an easy task unless you realize that our whole state contains only one amusement park, and many of our students are too poor to visit it. The literature test is often written by people who lack familiarity with African American literature, and the selections are skewed heavily toward anachronistic texts about British high society. That culture is completely alien to many of my students, and I'm not surprised they struggle to understand the passages. Nor am I surprised that many of my Hispanic students fare poorly on the tests; at my school, most of them are first-generation Americans. Most of their parents do not speak English and did not complete high school. Standardized testing is a completely unfamiliar task for them. Not surprisingly, students of color and students from disadvantaged backgrounds will disproportionately fail a test designed by and for middle class white people. What makes me sad is the way my students react to a remedial English class filled with people of color: it cements in their minds that something in their race prevents them from excelling academically.

A second issue with standardized testing is that tests beget more tests. In order to ensure that my students are prepared for the End of Instruction Exam, I am now expected to administer benchmark tests. Once, these tests were given once a semester. Then they were administered once a quarter. Now they're supposed to be given at the end of every unit. (I refuse to do that; they can fire me if they want to.) In addition to that, we have literacy tests which started once a year and are now administered once a quarter -- even to students in advanced English classes, even to students who have consistently scored above grade level. What's frustrating about this isn't just the lost class time; it's the lost money. We are relentlessly told that our district has no money for extra teachers or higher salaries, but when it comes to standardized testing, our pockets are infinitely deep. It frustrates me to slave away at my barely middle class salary when I know I could be getting rich working for some testing or consulting company. We spend so much time and money on tests that will theoretically tell us what's wrong with our schools and students, but we have zero dollars for actually fixing the problems we identify.

And of course, all of that assumes that tests do identify performance problems, which they don't -- at least, not to the extent they claim. But you've probably heard that rant before, so I'll skip ahead to my final complaint: test results are applied punitively. I have a student whose IQ is low enough that he's considered moderately disabled. He shouldn't really be in a regular classroom at all, but he is, and when he fails the End of Instruction tests, I'll be dinged on my evaluation. No one will ask me what help I need supporting a student with an intellectual disability. Nobody will offer me training. This is a small example of what happens across the country. Low academic performance is a symptom, not a disease. If you gave an oncologist pain pills but no chemotherapy drugs and no radiation treatments, you wouldn't blame him when his patients died. But we put teachers in crowded classrooms in dangerous neighborhoods, ask them to be the whole family support system for their students, and ask them to buy the supplies they need out of their minuscule paychecks. If anyone ever said, "we've seen your test results, and now we want to partner with you to create a better learning environment for our students," I promise the objections to standardized testing would vanish overnight. Nobody does that though - it's all about politicians passing the buck so they can evade responsibility for solving problems.
You pretty much said every single thing my Denver teacher friend said about both testing and how it unfairly targets minority and under-privileged kids and how it wastes valuable time that could be spent on actual teaching. She also had the exact same complaint about the miniscule resources she has and how everything she spends for the kids is out of pocket.

In fact, she's actually leaving the profession after over 30 years of teaching because she can't take the politics of it all anymore. Which is really sad, because she's been nationally recognized as an amazing literacy teacher and she's still pretty young.

I wish you better luck and hope that things will get better for you and all teachers out there. You guys deserve to have a lot more support.
Thank you for explaining. Man, our country is going to the dogs. Greed has overtaken common humanity and we're all worse off.
Thank you for explaining things so well in this post. I knew thngs were bad but not how bad.