More Than a Score is a group of teachers, students, parents, and community members who are adamantly outspoken about the emergence of a “culture of testing” in Chicago’s public schools. They hosted a community forum on Thursday in the Haas Park Community Center in Logan Square. The focus of the forum was to educate parents, students, and community members of their collective power when it comes to shaping educational policy in the City of Chicago and the nation as a whole. The forum was lively and many interesting points were raised throughout. My thoughts, comments, and reflections are below.
Right from the beginning, I found it very telling that veteran teachers were speaking out against the culture of testing. It is one thing for novice teachers, still barely keeping their heads above water, to feel overwhelmed and stressed by these tests. After all, nearly a third of your performance rating is directly linked to your students’ testing data. However, it is extremely alarming to hear veteran teachers speak about their nerves and anxieties in the same way. In the eyes of the novice teacher and the school community as a whole, veteran teachers are the individuals who contribute the most to the school’s atmosphere and culture.
As a novice teacher myself, I know I rely on the veteran teachers in the building for guidance. This is why novice teachers go through a student teaching experience, to learn the ropes from a veteran teacher. We spend an entire semester in their classroom so we can see how a professional operates. Personally, I find it completely disheartening to see teachers in my building, who come from wonderful teacher prep programs, sit on their hands and teach content for these tests. Can anyone honestly say that the world revolved around math and reading? Are we not immersed in a global and complex culture? What happened to the other content areas? Can we honestly say that a snapshot test can capture the diverse skill set of every student? In my opinion, I say absolutely not.
Taking the discussion further and analyzing the amount of instructional time spent on “preparing” students for test, it is no surprise that the results differ across districts. A recent Education Week article found that some districts spend more than five times the amount of instructional time “teaching to the test,” than others. Additionally, the study found that urban districts spend more time focusing on test prep than suburban districts. How can educators and policy makers honestly argue that a standardized test is an unbiased and pure image of student achievement when the instructional significance placed on test prep varies so drastically? Let alone the fact that test data merely represents a snapshot of one student, on one day, in one moment of time. Do all students wake up every morning at the same time? Do they all eat the same breakfast? Do they travel the same distance to school? There are far too many variables in play for testing to stand as the all-encompassing determination of student proficiency.
One enormous point that is often brought up in educational forums and discussions that was not included in the agenda is the educational experiences of students in other countries. One of the underlying reasons behind the emergence of the culture of testing in the United States was the enormous discrepancy between American students and their international counterparts. The use of standardized tests, under NCLB and now Race to the Top, is to determine those districts, schools, and teachers that are not positively contributing to our international educational dominance. However, take a look at the data. Advocates of standardized testing are adamant about using data to drive the decision-making process. What does the PISA data tell us? How are American students performing in comparison to their international peers? The 2012 data is as follows: 31st in math, 24th in science, and 21st in reading. Overall, the United States ranks 36th out of 65 countries that participated. Shouldn’t this data, when analyzed in the same way as ISAT and PARCC data, mandate a complete overhaul? Over the course of the past decade, the United States has continued to drop in the rankings. Yet, our culture of testing has been bolstered. Is there not a strong correlation between the two?
Instead of continuing down the wrong side of the road, why don’t we stop and reimagine our schools. Why not look at model our educational systems off of those that are performing the best on these international assessments? The sad irony of the situation is, those countries at the top of the list are those that value testing the least. Finland for example, ranked 12th in the world overall, takes a completely different approach when it comes to educating their students: no class exceeds 40 minutes, mental breaks are mandated for both teachers and students, and students are immersed in intensive language study. There is no “teaching to the test.” Two weeks are not carved out of the calendar year to test students. Finnish society trusts and values its educators. There are countless lessons to be learned from countries like Finland, and it is about time we started to listen. To learn more about teaching in Finland, read Tim Walker’s blog Taught By Finland.
Beyond the disagreements that occur amongst educators and policy makers, a point of view that often gets lost in the testing dialogue but that is arguably the most important of all, is that of the students. While the More Than a Score forum did allow high school students to speak out in favor of “opting-out” of taking high stakes tests, their messages just skimmed the surface of this necessary dialogue. If, as educators, we dedicate our lives to our students, why do we not listen to their voices when it comes to testing? I find it shocking that some completely disregard student voices during this debate. My 3rd graders are not sheltered from the enormous weight that these tests carry. They are extremely sharp and well aware of the realities of their educational experience. In fact, every time Ms. Nelson or myself passes out a packet of test review, three or four students freak out because, “Nobody told me the ISATS started today.” Students are well aware of the pressure placed on them to perform during these tests.
Digging deeper, beyond students’ mental awareness of testing, their physical development clashes with the demands of the testing environment. Discussions with educators often begin and end with the importance of wrapping up new content sooner rather than later. Presenting information is short 40-45 minute bursts is the key to success. However, if we take this successful educational model and apply it to a testing environment, it is obvious the pieces do not mesh. Forcing students to sit at a computer for close to two hours, assuming the technological infrastructure does not crash, is insanity. As one of the members of the audience pointed out, these requirements are borderline child abuse. I completely agree. And, in my opinion, that is where we must draw the line.
As the forum concluded, More Than a Score did present their desired alternatives to NWEA and MAP test scores used to determine promotion: student report cards and teacher-developed portfolios. As classroom teachers, we spend more time with them than anybody else. We make every attempt to know our students inside and out over the course of the year, and that should be more than enough to allow our word to trump anything else. Placing too much faith in test results is the same as doubting and discrediting the classroom teacher’s day-to-day experiences.
While the debate surrounding testing will continue for years to come, I hope that those who make the decisions, the policy makers across the country, take the time to gather as much authentic information as possible. I hope they get to walk through the hallways of our nation’s schools. I hope they get to meet the professional educators tasked with guiding the nation’s youth down a path towards success. I hope they get to see the beautiful work that goes on inside classrooms every single day. After spending time in our nation’s schools, there will be no doubting teacher dedication to their craft. Their will be no doubting we are creative artists at work, crafting lessons and modifying content to meet the specific needs of our students.
American society must truly value its teachers. We choose to spend our lives in the classroom. We want to see our students’ grow up to shape the world around them. We play the major role in shaping the future of our country, both socially and economically. It is about time we were acknowledged for that.