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).

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