Thursday, January 11, 2007

The one where I rant about standardized tests

I can remember a day when I was having a....discussion? debate? argument? with some people. They were saying that schools should be treated as businesses. Teachers don't do well? Get rid of them. Kids not performing? Shift them around to teachers that would get them to perform. Whole schools not making the grade? Shut them down and bus those kids to a school where they would do better. But how will you judge all of this I asked? The response was simple: standardized tests.

The argument ended then and there. I was flabbergasted. Speechless in the face of this argument that made such absolute sense in their mind but completely blew mine. I contend that anyone who could make an argument like that has never stood in front of a class of eight year olds and administered a standardized test.

Today we finished day two of assessments that are designed to test intelligence but seem instead to cause panic, stress and anxiety. They are eight. Remember what you wanted when you were eight? I'll remind you: you wanted your mom to pack you a good lunch or you wanted pizza to be served at school. You wanted recess to last forever and math to end as quickly as possible. You wanted your best friend to like you best always. You wanted your teacher to know every detail of your life: what your dog's name was, how your aunt and uncle were getting divorced, what happened to your little brother at his karate tournament, how you had to leave school early for your swim meet. You wanted less homework and more television.

Instead I have to stand before them, with a big sign on my door that declares for all to see: Testing Do Not Disturb, and read from an official looking manual while they stare at a page covered with more bubbles than they can understand. I try to explain problems to them they've never seen but they are about to be given ten minutes to complete as many of them as they can. I have to tell them that no, they can't go to the bathroom/ sharpen their pencil/get a drink of water/ throw something in the garbage/get a tissue/read a book or do anything other than take the test. When they get stuck I have to ignore everything that made me want to be a teacher and not help them, watching their faces crumple and their shoulders sag just a little bit as I say the words "do the best you can". I have to answer ten thousand questions: some outlandish (why do we have to use #2 pencils?) and some serious (what happens if I don't do well, can I still go to college?). And I have to look at a sea of little faces that have a look of panic and anxiety on them and try to reassure them that the world will not end if they don't finish or if they don't do well, all the while praying, hoping, that no one will cry this time. Let me tell you: there is nothing, nothing fun about standardized tests.

And these aren't even the state mastery tests where if someone sneezes a state of emergency is declared and everything shuts down so that a team of experts can be called in to determine if the testing situation has been compromised and we have to (gasp!) call the state to determine if the test should continue or if it should be declared void.

You want to argue a case for standardized tests being used to determine my future and the future of the eight year olds I teach? Come visit my classroom......I'll show you what standardized testing does to children.

6 comments:

Kelli said...

1st, I noticed that you are reading The Glass Castle. I have heard nothing but great things about that book. You'll have to tell me how you liked it once you are done.

2nd, this was such a well-written post. Reading it brought me back to 2nd grade class with Ms. Lacey when we were forced to take the CAT tests (do they still have those? California Achievement Tests, I think that stood for?) Anyway, I remember like yesterday watching Ms. Lacey read instructions to us, worrying that my pencil point would break or that I wouldn't fill in the circle correctly and why, if I was living in NJ, was I taking a test that had to deal with CA?
I also remember running home to my Mom one day after school and asking her if I was going to fail 2nd grade because I didn't do well on that test. So I utterly appreciate the stress you speak of and it's nice to think that maybe, Ms. Lacey felt the pain all of her students were feeling just as you do yours.

You're a talented writer my friend.

OddMix said...

I find myself very much torn by this argument.

I can understand your position very well. I homeschool. and in VA we have to test annually with a "nationally recognized standardized test" in order to ensure that we are not skimping on our kids "reedin', ritin', and rithmatick." In two weeks I will begin administering the ITBS to my ten and seven year old kids. Not looking forward to this.

On the other hand I have seen - first, second, and third hand - the disastrous impact of poor teachers. I personally had a horrible teacher in first grade and it took a dedicated teacher both my fifth and sixth grades to get me out of the horrible pattern of behavior that began there. My sister had a similar experience in another school system entirely. And I am still cleaning up the awful mess that Gabriella's year in public school created.

How else to recognize and weed out teachers like these who cause - directly and indirectly - years of problems than by standardized tests? One might say that the oversight of a good administrator would do the trick. But if it takes months or years to document the issue - much less do something about it - what of the damage done to the children in the mean time? And who makes sure the administrator is doing their job? And how? What if the administrator AND the teacher are both poor (or pathetically overworked)?

I don't know that a standardized testing system is the best, or even a good, answer. But I don't have any better answer, and so I am going to administer the ITBS to my kids. And I hope that the teachers that cripple learning skills (like mine did), or crush the self esteem and teach no reading skills (like my sister's and my wife's), or sit in an apathetic stupor while a student flounders on basic skills and is cruelly teased by her peers (like Gabriella's) are somehow discovered in the poor scores of their victims and removed from the positions they hold in trust.

I am sorry this is so long, and if I sound angry. I know that most teachers are really doing their best in a system of few rewards and many trials. I know - first hand - that there are some amazing examples of dedication and skill and love in the teaching community (I imagine you fall in this category). But so much pain falls in the wake of a poor teacher that it distresses me how apparently difficult it is to spot and remove the bad from the good.

Anonymous said...

It seems as though you’re very stressed out over administering such test. I am currently a preserves teacher at Illinois state university. I can recall back on the days when I had to take those wonderful tests. The anxiety certainly played a roll in my lack of success on standardized test. So my question for you is as educators how can we prepare our students to understand the material for the test when they can’t even understand the instruction of the test or how to fill out the answers form?

Paul W. said...

It seems as though you’re very stressed out over administering such test. I am currently a preserves teacher at Illinois state university. I can recall back on the days when I had to take those wonderful tests. The anxiety certainly played a roll in my lack of success on standardized test. So my question for you is as educators how can we prepare our students to understand the material for the test when they can’t even understand the instruction of the test or how to fill out the answers form?

Tara W. said...

I agree wholeheartedly that standardized tests are not the answer to the education problems in the United States. There are many problems with standardized tests, including, but not limited to, test administration, student anxiety, question wording, student stress, etc. As I read this blog entry, I was taken back to being 8 and having to take a standardized test. I remember the anxiety for weeks before the tests. We were prepped and groomed for these tests so that our school would "look good" to the state. Each day we would spend most of the day going over the test procedures and material. Often our only breaks were for lunch and recess. The pressure to perform well on these tests was incredibly intense. These standardized tests are not a good measure of student and teacher ability. Maybe, as a society, we should spend less time focusing on and grooming the students for these tests and more time teaching them and preparing them for real life.

trsebes said...

First of all, I agree with a previous poster who said that you were a very talented writer and enjoyed reading this post especially. As a soon to be educator, hopefully at the high school level, I appreciated the value and sincerity of this post. With elementary school, junior high school, and high school not feeling like it was that long ago for me, it seems like I can relate to this topic more than the average teacher. Also, with the experience of molding young minds not that far in the future I feel like I will be able to carry over these experiences to my teaching career and use them successfully. As far as your view on this topic, I agree for the most part. I don't believe that standardized testing for an eight year old is going to do a whole lot of good, nor will it tell a teacher much more than they already know or will find out in a year of having them in class. Although, I can see how these types of tests could be useful for higher education, I don't quite see them as necessary for students at lower age levels. Thank you and again it was great reading your post.