Our Addiction to Testing Is Ripping the Humanity out of Education
“We must begin every conversation by looking at student achievement—nothing matters more… all students need to take annual, statewide assessments that are aligned to their teacher’s classroom instruction in reading and math in grades three through eight and once in high school.” — Arne Duncan, US Secretary of Education, Jan. 12, 2015
“I am so HAPPY all the tests are finish. The reason I was not that good was because all the tests made me think that you are letting tham make us suffer. Will now that the tests are away I feel real good.” — email from a former third-grade student
I have a confession to make: High-stakes testing was a large part of why I left the classroom. I rarely admit this publicly, as teachers who speak out against high-stakes standardized testing are often branded as being against accountability and having low standards for their students. In my case, nothing could be further from the truth.
“High-stakes” is the unofficial name for any test with important consequences attached to it: high school exit examinations, professional licenses, and as I experienced, standardized tests for third graders. A huge amount of stress was placed on these tests and “failing” schools were subjected to sanctions (think lost field trips and teachers’ aides) and even risked closure of the school itself. Everyone involved felt a great deal of pressure. Unfortunately, the people who felt that pressure most of all were the children taking the tests.
The students often felt like they were set up to fail—and I could see why. In my experience, the tests are unfair and unrealistic, not to mention exhausting. I saw students cry, get stomachaches, stay home from school, and have major behavioral issues every time testing rolled around. In my third-grade class, testing lasted for hours each day, for almost two weeks. Although parents can legally opt their children out of testing, many parents are unaware of this, and teachers are frequently reprimanded for informing parents of their right to do so.
It is important to keep in mind that these tests are designed to measure whether or not students are performing at grade level; consequently, they do not measure improvement. When I was teaching third grade, I frequently had students reading at almost every grade level from kindergarten to middle school. If a child began my class reading at a kindergarten level and ended reading at a second grade level, she (and by extension, the teacher and the school) would still show up as a failure, even though the child had made incredible gains.
It is also worth noting that schools are scored, and judged, on the basis of the students who happen to be enrolled when the tests are administered. That’s not a small point: In schools with a high turnover—often the result of poverty, homelessness,and custody issues —students may be taking a test in their second, third, or fourth school of the year. One year, my three top students (out of 20) left our school the week before testing and were replaced by three very low-performing students. If the tests had happened a month earlier, my class scores would have looked very different.
High-stakes testing also ignores the fact that we are a nation of immigrants, some having arrived more recently than others. While there are some “supports” now available for English language learners, they are neither consistent nor clear, and students are regularly forced to take a test in a language that is literally foreign to them. One mid-year transfer to my class moved to Oakland from Mexico City the week before testing was to begin. Because my classroom was not a designated bilingual classroom, I was forbidden to instruct him in Spanish, and he had to take a test in English the week after he arrived in a new country. What, exactly, were we measuring there?
When I was in the classroom, we had everyone from academic coaches to principals to outside consultants trying to help us raise our scores. Some were helpful and others useless, but all of them stuck to teaching techniques, benchmarking data and determining which groups of children we should be working most closely with. Teachers were shown how to game the system by only focusing on the students who were right below grade level. Those who were far below were considered too far gone, and since we had no chance of getting them to test at grade level, they were sacrificed in the name of boosting scores in kids who had a shot at actually making the grade.
What all of these professionals forgot, ignored or were not allowed to mention is that when a student’s basic needs are not met, they cannot learn —and my students had more than enough trauma in their lives without worrying about high-stakes tests. Many of them came to school hungry, tired and were the victims of or witnesses to violent crimes. They rarely had both parents at home, due to abandonment or incarceration. Others knew little English and could not get homework help at home.
One little boy had seen his dad, mom, grandmother, aunt, and several other relatives walk away from him before his great-aunt took custody. She routinely told me she didn’t think she could keep him, because “he too bad.” And he was extremely difficult, but who wouldn’t have been with the rejection of that many adults? Another girl was being raised by her grandmother and great-grandmother because her mother had abandoned her as a baby. She would often fling herself to the floor, crying and yelling that she hated herself and wanted to die. She was not the only third-grade student I had who expressed these sentiments. My first priority was to help them feel safe and loved so that they could learn, but the district pacing guide, implemented to get us ready for the onslaught of tests, didn’t allow me to do that.
Several of my students had witnessed violent crimes. One of my students, when she was in first grade, had seen her father get shot in the face. By the time I had her in third grade, she was still traumatized and grieving, but also felt guilty because she had opened the door to the person who killed her father. Our rigorous test-prep-oriented curriculum allowed for no variation in lessons, so when this young student became hysterical because we were working on reading comprehension via a story about a little girl and her father, I was not allowed to deviate from the lesson by choosing a different story. Instead, she was sent to another grade level for the week we were focused on reading comprehension. At what was an intensely vulnerable moment in her educational career, she was forced to leave the safety of her own classroom and join a class of total strangers (who weren’t, by the way, working at her level), all for the sake of staying on schedule and checking off the boxes for test readiness.
Then there were the students who came to school hungry because they hadn’t eaten since lunch at school the day before. Most teachers fed their students, at least the hungriest ones, on a regular basis—an act of caring rather at odds with the reality of what is sustainable on a teacher’s salary. But we go into the profession because we love children and we want them to thrive. We know they cannot learn while hungry, yet no one else will address those needs.
Our education secretary, Arne Duncan, recently shared his belief that “nothing matters more” than student achievement. I couldn’t disagree more. As an educator, I’m thrilled to see my students achieve; nothing makes me happier than watching them reach new academic levels. But there is also no doubt that their emotional and physical well-being is, and should be, paramount, and that in impoverished schools like the one I taught in, well-being is too often sacrificed in the quest for achievement. That's what drove me out of the classroom. And I know I’m not the only one.