Saturday, April 4, 2009

Spring Testing Part 1: Welcome to Hell

(Note:  This post and the two that follow are about what it is like to be a teacher or student in the classroom during the spring testing frenzy.  It is not about testing politics, a subject worthy of a book of posts.   For info on testing, see or For information on how teachers, students and parents can opt out of the tests, see  Finally, for a musical commentary, listen to Tom Chapin sing "Not on the Test.")

Forget April's Fool's.  Forget the Final Four.  Forget Tax Day and Earth Day.  Forget Shakespeare's Birthday and Armenian Independence Day (April 23 & 24!).  If you're a public school teacher where I live, April is testing month, and believe me, that's nothing to celebrate.  
By the end of the first week, teachers know the politics and procedures of testing so well we hardly talk about it anymore among ourselves.  With a simple nod of the head or facial grimace we can acknowledge how meaningless, wasteful and demeaning the tests are to all those involved.  In fact, after that first week, most of us are focused on simply limping across the finish line three weeks hence so we can get back to genuine, quality instruction; ironically, the very thing standardized testing preempts.  
But what is so obvious and routine to teachers is not necessarily so to everyone else.  Within the last week I have had conversations about testing with a professor, a contractor, a lawyer, a meteorologist, a doctor, a nurse and a journalist.  All are parents of children who attend the local public schools.  However, none of them has a real clue as to what they are sending their kids off to every day during testing month.  And though I haven't spoken recently to any politicians or other educational policy makers—the only people who have the power to stop the tyranny that is standardized testing—unless they are also teachers in our public schools, they are equally clueless as to what they are subjecting our students to.
Therefore, in the interest of educating the public of the realities of standardized testing, I submit to you a three part description of what teachers and students might aptly refer to as Testing Hell.
It starts with a basic understanding of what the test results are used for in the first place: punishing schools who don't progress beyond an invisible and arbitrarily set achievement bar known as AYP (annual yearly progress), a bar that gets raised every year until, by 2014, it will rest at 100%.  That is, by 2014, all students attending U.S. public schools—rich and poor, black and white, regular and special education—must be deemed proficient according to annual off the shelf standardized tests, and these tests alone.  
We know this is statistically impossible and grossly unfair, but it is consistent with the idiocy of the Bush Administration from whence the policy emerged.  In the meantime, punishments of all kinds (too numerous and varied to be mentioned here) will be meted out to schools for not making AYP, no matter how much academic progress their students have made towards the bar, and no rewards will be issued to schools other than the vicarious and fleeting satisfaction that the school has escaped punishment for one more year.  
Incidentally, this strategy of punishment, combined with no rewards for success, creates a situation where teachers and students, and to a lesser degree parents, become the unwitting and unwilling instruments of their own punishment. The punishments are based on test results.  As long as we administer the tests, and as long as students take them and supply us with results, those results will be used to punish us.  Period.  I can think of no better definition of insanity than that of the punished supplying the punishers with the instruments of punishment. 
What's more, each school's test results aren't delivered to the schools until November of the following school year.  This renders them statistically invalid because the results don't take into account the academic growth that has inevitably occurred since the students took the tests in April.  Receiving test results seven months after the test was administered renders the results worthless to the students' current teacher since it was last year's teacher who taught the material on which their students were theoretically tested.  Teachers need fresh data generated by their current students in order to accurately assess areas of need and to adjust their instruction accordingly.  
Finally, it is worth noting that teachers administer classroom-based assessments all the time, assessments that can actually help teachers improve instruction and, consequently, student achievement.  Most teachers consider them far more accurate than any government mandated off-the-shelf standardized test.  However, they are completely ignored by No Child Left Behind.  One step forward, two steps back.  (End of Part 1).

Friday, April 3, 2009

Spring Testing Part 2: The Ten Commandments

Here are this author's Ten Commandments of Testing Protocol, complete with editorial comments at no extra charge!  (All of the "commandments" below were true as of the date of this post.)
  1. Teachers shall not talk about any test item with other teachers or with students.  If they do, they risk losing their teaching license.  (Ironically, this might actually be a good rule, since there are far more worthy causes over which to lose one's license!)
  2. Teachers shall not leave the room for any reason unless there is a certified teacher available to replace them.  If a teacher does leave the room and leaves a non certified but competent adult in charge, every test in the room could be invalidated.  (Now there's an idea!)
  3. Students shall not, under any circumstances, leave the room and return to continue on the same subtest.  If they do leave the room and resume testing, their test could be invalidated.  (This is likely based on the paranoid assumption that the student's motive for leaving the room is to reach a secure location where he or she can send a text message to a student in another room in order to give them the answer to test question #6!)
  4. Students shall not go to the bathroom until after they finish a subtest, only one at a time, and only with an adult escort.  Violating this commandment could lead to test invalidation.  Get out the kitty litter!  (Perhaps this commandment was written in order to make sure students are not secretly meeting in the bathrooms to discuss test questions. Imagine that!  What could be a more titillating bathroom discussion topic to a third grader?!)
  5. Students shall believe with all their hearts that the tests actually matter; that doing well will bring reward and that doing poorly will invoke disagreeable consequences.  (In reality, those who do well and those who don't are punished equally when the school inevitably fails to make Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP), a fate that awaits all but approximately 10% of America's schools by 2014.)
  6. Students shall not have any breaks whatsoever during the administration of a subtest, even if the test lasts two or three hours due to a few slower or more meticulous test takers.  (Is this a test that measures academic achievement, or one that measures physical and mental endurance under stress?)
  7. Students shall waste enormous amounts of time waiting for the last classmate to finish the test.  The tests are untimed.  Therefore, the testing session is over when the last student in the room has finished. Those who finish long before the last student is finished are in a sense held hostage by the last finisher since they must do nothing but read for possibly the next 1 to 2 hours.  (While this is in some sense an improvement over the timed tests of the past—when teachers were instructed to literally rip an unfinished test out of a student's hands when time expired—it also has negative repercussions.)  
  8. Students shall read and read and read again.  If a student finishes early, his or her only option is to read. Never mind the fact that all they've been doing prior to finishing the subtest is read, even in math.  You must read a book!  (If a student finishes early and, God forbid, begins drawing a picture or designing a plan to halt global warming instead of reading a book, this could result in the invalidation of every test in the room!) 
  9. Students shall not arrive late to school on testing days.  This will result in the student spending the entire morning in the office with nothing else to do but keep an eye on the office staff and the principal to make sure they do their jobs! The student must make up the test later that day in an isolated room while the other kids are in their classroom, once again engaged in meaningful learning activities.
  10. Nobody shall criticize the tests without running the risk of being labeled non compliant, uncooperative, disobedient, obstructive, old fashioned, selfish, subversive, or a bad sport.
(End of Part 2)