Wednesday, May 2, 2012

High Stakes Tests: Stressed Students/ Demoralized Teachers

      Those of us who are not in the classrooms (grades 3-8) for the NYS mandated tests should pay attention to what is going on. High stakes testing, ostensibly aimed at measuring teacher effectiveness and student learning, has gone awry. Teachers know they cannot lead the charge in altering the course of events because they will be accused of badmouthing tests in order to avoid accountability for the quality of their teaching. 
      I have been listening to three particular teachers about what is going on – all teach in different school districts. I have known them for several decades and know them to be very intelligent, dedicated, hard-working, and compassionate educators – the kind we all want our children to have. It has been disturbing to see these teachers become so demoralized and angry with the 3-8 mandated tests.

These are some of the concerns they’ve shared with me:
  1. The tests take 90 minutes per day – over 3 days. Students get a 5-minute break where they can  stand next to their desks, cannot speak, and cannot go to the bathroom “unless it is an emergency.” (The script of what to say is provided by the test maker - Pearson.) 
  1. Students are highly stressed, some are getting sick, some are coming to school sick because feel they cannot miss the test, other feign sickness out of anxiety. This I have heard from many teachers.
  1. The tests regularly contain questions and reading passages that are poor choices and sometimes adults cannot answer them.  
      Read below. It is what a 3rd grade teacher wrote about the testing for the NYS English Language Arts (ELA) test.

Day 1 was pretty fair, I felt. There were seven decent stories and most of the answers were pretty answerable. I felt that two or three required a lot of thought, even on the part of the teachers, but most of them were fair. 

Day 2 was toast. We were given a small, simple, three paragraph story to read to the kids. It was a cute story, but very simple. From that story, the kids were asked to answer seven multiple -choice questions, three short answer questions, and write an essay. As I sat at my desk staring at the questions, I thought, "I don't think I can come up with enough details to answer these questions." There weren't enough details in the story to rationalize all of those questions. 

Day 3 just made me mad. The kids had 3 stories and short answer and essay questions to answer. The first story was about a boy who moved from Alaska to New Hampshire and his trip across country. The essay questions asked kids to tell about two states the boy had been through and what he did there. Problem? Kids don't learn about the states of the union until the 5th grade social studies curriculum. The story talked about all kinds of places in Canada and the U.S., but if kids didn't respond with a state, they did not receive credit for the answer. So, our poor little poverty stricken kids, who think it's really fabulous to go to McDonald's in Ogdensburg, were asked to answer a question regarding a topic about which they know nothing. Probably kids from a higher socioeconomic background would have more life experience to answer the questions, but poor kids-no way. We were absolutely incensed. If it's a reading comprehension test, then don't pull in 5th grade social studies into the 3rd grade test. And don't punish poor kids by "assuming" they have the same prior knowledge and experiential base that wealthy kids have. This, of course, doesn't even touch on the absurd idea of having 8-year-olds sit for 90 minutes, three days in a row. 

      A special education teacher told me students were required to stay for over 2-hours per day. They were not allowed to have a book with them so they could read when they were done. Special education teachers are in a precarious situation as they are expected to show growth in student learning that only individuals with no experience in special ed. would think is fair and reasonable. A special ed. teacher told me that on her first day back to school this year, the principal met with the department and told them that they better figure out a way to improve those special ed. test scores.

      All teachers are nervous about having their school named as a School in Need of Improvement (SINI) and administrators are under significant pressure to avoid the SINI designation. According to the website: 

Districts, public schools, and charter schools are held accountable for the performance of their students according to federal No Child Left Behind (NCLB) and state regulations. Districts and school are assigned a "status" based on their performance and are subject to certain consequences if their performance is not satisfactory. Districts and schools that are high performing or making significant improvements in their performance are also identified and rewarded.

      Diane Ravitch wrote in her book, The Death and Life of the Great American School System, ”Our schools cannot be improved by blind worship of data. Data are only as good as the measures used to create the numbers and as good as the underlying activities. If the measures are shoddy, then the data will be shoddy. If the data reflect mainly the amount of time invested in test-preparation activities, then the data are worthless. If the data are based on dumbed-down state tests, then the data are meaningless. A good accountability system, whether for schools, teachers, or students must include a variety of measures – not just test scores.”

       While it is true that other measures will be included in the new teacher evaluation system in NY, this is not so with designating a school as failing (i.e. in need of improvement). That is solely based on student performance on federally mandated tests. Thus, the pressure on all.
       Most would agree that a good standardized test (given on one day, and taking 1 ½ hours) could provide useful data to compare schools to schools and to identify ineffective teaching and/or weak curricula. It is time for the public to find out more about what is going on with mandated high-stakes testing and take action to wake up bureaucrats and politicians who apparently think these tests are a panacea. And let’s not forget to follow the money…the test makers are laughing all the way to the bank ($32 million in NYS) and our students, teachers, and school districts are the victims of an experiment run amok. 


  1. I'm in my 4th year teaching in an "urban" school system where many of the children come from poverty. Being in a charter school, a teacher's potential earnings reflect how well their students performed on high stakes tests. Last week (when we had some of your testing results coming in), I found myself getting angry with one particular student who'd performed in the 99th percentile earlier in the year, but then completely botched 1 section of the test this time around, because he was behaving badly during the testing situation. I did NOT like who I was becoming when faced with this situation. It occurred to me how ridiculous it is for adult salaries to be determined on the moods of children (and mind you, our kids are OVERTESTED!!!). I'm very reflective as a teacher. I had to take a step back, and I realized just how demoralized I was becoming. When I started teaching, I was passionate about interacting with the children and developing relationships with them. Now, those relationships are in jeopardy because I have to be a task master in class instead of allowing them to grow at their own pace. It's a catch-22: if I allow them to grow at their own pace, their test scores won't be "good enough," and I'll be out of a job... if I push them as hard as I need to maintain high test scores, THEY become demoralized because they cannot be CHILDREN. THIS is a piece of what's killing our country. If we continue down this road, more and more of our kids will grow up to be smart psychopaths, because no one cared about their hearts, only their brains.

    1. Hannah, The catch-22 you describe must be addressed. I feel parents will be the solution if they choose to organize. While parents cannot opt-out of these tests, I wonder what would happen if parents boycotted the tests and kept students home? Maybe then the Board of Regents would take note. It is time for action. Please try to keep up your morale. When the committed teachers start to give up, we will really be in trouble. Thanks for writing.