Closing the Teach For America Blogging Gap
Aug 21 2013

just a friendly reminder that standardized testing is ruining education.

Standardized testing is screwing everything up.

This is a statement, I think, that is not entirely unpopular. Hundreds of thousands of students, teachers, and parents* who feel crippled by the inaccurate, narrow, confining implications of these “measures of learning” agree with me.

I promised myself I wouldn’t cuss, rant or appear generally unprofessional in this post and the ones that will follow. But it’s going to take a lot of willpower. This is a subject about which, I’m afraid, I have to really force myself to keep an open mind. Further, I feel the need to remind you that I’m not an education historian, data analyst, principal, political figure, or veteran teacher. I am simply a frustrated TFA alum, six days out from my grad school orientation, trying really hard to understand both sides of a hotbed issue. Here is the first of several truths (as I see them, of course).

The Truth as I see it #1: Testing inhibits actual teaching. 

Let’s throw it way back to February of my first year of teaching (surprise! this was approximately 1.5 years ago). Allow me to set the scene. I was teaching a remedial ninth-grade English class, and my SPED co-teacher had recently left to fill a vacancy across the hall. The previous October, I had literally broken out into hives at a TFA conference because I realized I didn’t have a summative assessment for my kids.

The big thing in TFA is having a summative assessment. This is a test you administer at the end of the year (and usually at the beginning as a diagnostic) so that you can gauge your students’ growth, wrap it up into a pretty little percentage, graph it, and prove that all kids, regardless of zip code, can achieve at high levels. In theory, this sounds fantastic (and I’m not being sarcastic). If your summative assessment is deemed “rigorous,” you are golden. If it is aligned to New York or Massachusetts state standards, well shut my mouth, you are a superstar. You are told that to give your kids a rigorous end-of-year summative, beyond the lowly state benchmarks (in Oklahoma, these are approximately two years behind grade level), is to give your kids access to high-quality material. It is to give them an opportunity where no opportunity existed before.

Well, I wanted to give my kids an opportunity where no opportunity was before. So when I realized I didn’t actually have a summative assessment, in October of my first year, I burst into tears, left the TFA meeting room and cried by myself in the bathroom for about five minutes, all while developing disgusting stress-induced hives. This physical breakdown was totally uncharacteristic, seeing as I had cried/thrown up zero times at institute (I brought the average for my institute down slightly, I know). But I was totally convinced that without a summative assessment, there was no way I could actually teach. I couldn’t possibly know what my kids needed to know to move on to the tenth grade, I couldn’t plan my lessons around standards, and I couldn’t deliver a quality education to my students. Hence the hives.

I decided then, in October, to change things. I bought some poster board and big stick-on letters and developed a new big goal right there in my living room. Forget the lame ninth-grade English summative. We were going BIG. We were going to obtain an 80% or higher on the tenth-grade English summative. Never mind that my kids were in ninth grade, on average four years behind in reading, and struggling with multitudes of learning and social disabilities that were on their IEPs which I was not allowed to see. HIGH EXPECTATIONS OR BUST.

It was relatively easy to sell our new big goal to my students, seeing that it was all theoretical anyway. They enjoyed the fact that we were allegedly working on tenth-grade material while the other grade-level ninth-grade classes were merely doing ninth-grade work. After ten years in the system, they had grown accustomed to being asked to show their “knowledge” by circling a letter, so they were game with proving themselves by obtaining a specific score on a test.

In December, I sat on my couch with the tenth-grade summative in one hand and a calendar in the other. I mapped out each standard, typed up the knowledge and skills the kids would need in order to master these standards (I dare you to count the number of buzzwords in that last sentence), and (and this is incredibly shameful to admit) came up with a list of vocabulary I wanted to teach them. These vocabulary words didn’t come from literature and were not even content-based. They were simply words that were on the test that I presumed my kids would have trouble understanding. The better they understood these words, I reasoned, the more likely they were to understand the test question, thus the more likely they were to circle the correct letter, thus the most likely they were to LEARN. Duh.

I broke the standards down into 20 specific skills and numbered them, and suddenly I felt like I could TEACH. Skill 1a: I can find the main idea of a non-fiction paragraph. Easy enough. All I had to do was give them a narrow definition of “main idea,” model how to find it, and let them practice on their own. But this skill was merely one out of 20, and it was suddenly January, and I felt pressure, you know? So I did something incredibly horrifying. I knew the question on the summative that was aligned to this standard asked the kids to find the main idea of an editorial. Editorials are opinions, I reasoned, so all I had to do was teach them that the main idea of an editorial was also an opinion, and then teach them how to differentiate fact from opinion, and then tell them to just…choose the answer that was an opinion. I literally said this. I also gave them a bunch of editorials to practice with, and made three answer choices facts and one answer choice an opinion, and basically drilled them over and over again until most of them could feebly pick out the opinion.

And finally! My kids knew how to find the main idea! And I patted myself on the back. And when my kids got this answer right on the summative, I would feel like the superstar teacher that I was.

If you haven’t yet left your computer to throw up because of the horrific immorality of all of this, I commend you, because I am about to.

I’m back. Let’s continue.

This horrible skill-drill-kill mindset lasted approximately two months, into February. It is no secret that January and February of my first year were probably the worst two months of my life. Just browse through this old blog if you are so inclined. I took solace in tanning beds (which, I reasoned, provided a high level of vitamin D and could maybe cure my depression) and punching bags, neither of which tempered the frustration I felt when my kids just couldn’t…get…the answer…right.

One day in late February, I split the kids up into groups and asked them to each tackle a question from the summative. They then had to make a fun little poster explaining why the correct answer was right, and why the other three answers were wrong. This was a tactic that I was repeatedly assured was “high-level” because my kids had to deeply understand the conceptual knowledge behind each question, or something. (Note: This is a good activity to do in math classrooms, or so I’ve seen. Having the kids write out why the other answers are wrong actually does help them engage in high-level math concepts. But it flopped tremendously in my ELA class, for a myriad of reasons that are probably obvious by now.)

Halfway through the lesson, as each of my precious students sat flailing, unable to even find the correct answer, much less explain why he chose it, I felt an enormous weight in my chest which I unfortunately recognized. This is what  I generally feel right before I burst into tears. Luckily, the hives didn’t make an appearance this time, but I did shed a few fat tears and consider running headfirst into a concrete wall. I was just so miserable, and it was obvious that they were too. This wasn’t teaching, and it certainly wasn’t learning. This was…and allow me to be dramatic for a second…hell.

For dramatic effect, I threw my “skills” binder (full of well-intentioned lesson plans and at least three color-coded copies of the summative) across the room (I might be making this up, but I wish I had), produced a blank piece of chart paper and a pink highlighter and asked everyone to share one thing they wanted to do for the rest of the year. This was me literally deferring to my students. At least half of them asked if we could read more.

Seriously. They were asking their English teacher if they could read more.

This was because, of course, we hadn’t actually been reading anything of substance. I mainly gave them little articles I stole from a teacher at a charter school down the road. I was terrified to give them anything that couldn’t align to the standards I thought needed to teach, because then how could they possibly LEARN?

Okay, I’m rambling. Long story short, I put out a call for some donations, and some incredible friends and family members were able to buy my kids a set of novels. We spent the last eight weeks of school reading, journaling about various topics, learning about the Holocaust, researching independent project topics and generally having a grand old time. Was I suddenly the best educator in the land? Had I found the secret to eternal learning? Um, no. I still fought little, daily battles with my kids, became frustrated by their often mindless misbehavior and (albeit infrequently) wanted to pull my hair out. But I did find them generally more engaged, willing to read other books on their own, and  with better attitudes toward what I was trying to do.

All you “reformers” out there are probably thinking one of several things. Here, let me break down potential arguments against this:

Reformer Thought #1: If you were a better teacher, you wouldn’t need to “drill” your kids on these standards. You could effortlessly incorporate them into rigorous lesson plans and authentic literature.

You sure?

I think this ideal is what TFA is trying to go for, and I commend them for thinking that this is possible (not to mention what is best for our kids, which is a different story). I was actually very fortunate to have a content specialist (i.e. a TFA staff member who was responsible for ELA pedagogy) who stressed discussion-based, big-picture, conceptual reading and writing instruction. I learned invaluable lessons about engagement, comprehension strategies, and writing from her.

The issue comes in the clash between standards-based craziness and actual teaching/inspiring. To flawlessly marry forty skill-specific standards with high-rigor, deep, discussion-, writing-, and literature-based ELA instruction is a skill marketed as a “best practice” by TFA cronies and yet one that simultaneously seems damn near impossible. I would really love to be wrong about this, but I’m not sure I am. Can anyone comment on this? Has anyone successfully implemented a test-aligned, high-rigor, inspiring curriculum in a “high-need” school? 

The bottom line is that this argument is flawed because it  claims that the best teachers are those who merge standards with high rigor and holistic instruction, and then evaluates “teacher quality” on only these skill-specific standards. This forces teachers to confine their instruction, dulling their passion for joining the profession in the first place, killing inspiration, and (if anyone is like me) making them want to jump off the nearest cliff. This is an affront to the profession.**

Reformer Thought #2: You obviously aren’t using tests in the way they should be used. They should merely be used as a tool, not a be-all end-all. 

Again, when this “tool” stops evaluating teachers, manipulating kids, funneling money into private sectors, and being the number one concern for everyone in education today, I’ll do whatever you say.

Further, I’m all about using authentic assessment to drive instruction. I would prefer to be privy to, for example, the reading levels of my students early on in the year, so that I can choose challenging but engaging literature for them. I would love to see Don’shea’s progress in developing the structure of a five-paragraph essay, and I want to know Kevin’s thoughts on power plays in the Holocaust and whether morality is innate or situational. These assessments are part of a valuable feedback loop that then shapes how, and oftentimes what, I teach.

The problem starts when these assessments are no longer authentic, and we think they are telling us something they are not. The problem continues when we use these inauthentic assessments to make illogical connections between teacher and school “quality.” And the problem gets really, really bad when we decide to do something disgusting like use these inauthentic assessments to drive competition between teachers and schools. But that’s a whole other blog post.

Reformer Thought #3: According to our careful calculations***, your kids obviously aren’t ready for tenth grade, because you didn’t teach them what they needed to know, and basically you suck.

Slow down, crazy. First of all, my kids wouldn’t be ready for tenth grade unless I spent at least three more years with them, given their reading levels upon entering my classroom. Second of all, I would love to know who died and suddenly made everyone experts on tenth-grade readiness. Or eleventh-grade readiness. Or twelfth-grade readiness. Because whoever’s in charge here seems to be barking up the wrong tree, seeing that approximately 60% of college freshmen need to be remediated upon entering college, which doesn’t exactly bode well for “readiness.” Third of all, I’d like to think that my students left my classroom more inspired to read, write, discuss and think than when they entered. Teaching is about inspiring, after all, which is why I joined the profession in the first place.

Reformer Thoughts 4-100 will be acknowledged and simultaneously dismantled in following blog posts.

If I want you to take one thing away from my story, it’s this ominous statement: testing is..wait for it…ruining everything. Never have I seen so much misguided quantitative focus on something so, let’s face it, unquantifiable (that would be actual, raw learning). Never I seen such a willingness to cram minds, and schools, into color-coded graphs, pie charts and various other nonsense “measurements.”

When will we realize that “testing” as we know it needs to be dismantled, redefined and reshaped?

*Many reformers will try to claim that parents actually like standardized testing. When you see these claims, tread carefully. The concept of “standardized testing” is packaged and sold to these parents in a way that makes them seem integral for their child’s success. This is untrue and unfounded.

**Careful calculations = the fact that not a single one of your kids can score above an 80% (arbitrary number that TFA claims denotes “mastery”) on a narrow, low-level, inauthentic test.

***Based on prior research (conversations with my former high school history teacher + me Googling in my living room) I’m all about portfolio-based teacher evaluation. I would love to hear more from anyone who has strong feelings about it, one way or the other.


4 Responses

  1. Meghank

    Thank you for this post!

  2. Meghank

    Portfolio based teacher evaluation is being done in Memphis right now for the art teachers. It’s terrible and ridiculous. How can someone be expected to keep up with that much paperwork and teach at the same time? And seemingly excellent portfolios that someone clearly put a lot of time into are getting a score of 3 on a scale from 1 to 5.

    • Jess Yarmosky

      Ugh, why do theoretically good ideas always die slow deaths at the hands of beaurecracy? (That was dramatic, but you get the point.) I’m wondering if the problem might be the rubric, which basically goes against the idea of a portfolio because it continues to narrow the focus and prevents any sort of deep conversation or analysis about the work. Do you know what the 1-5 scale indicates? I’ll definately look into this, thanks for bringing it up!

  3. Emily Olds

    Jess, you bring up more good questions in this article! By the way, i just finished reading “Part-Time Indian” and I loved it!!! I hope you will spend more time working with kids after grad school because I think you can, after many years, find that blend of rigor and passion that you crave. Standardized tests are a messy topic, but after 15 years in the classroom, I don’t find them nearly as daunting as I did when I first started teaching. Yes, they are a narrow measure, but they don’t have to ruin your teaching experience. Keep up the good work!

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