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Pass On Standardized Tests

Teachers from at least one school in Seattle are refusing to administer standardized tests to their students, calling the results of the test “meaningless.” Teachers in other states are also balking at spending valuable time to teach the test and are considering refusing to administer the test. Simply put, teachers are being asked to “teach the test,” not educate students.

I speak as a former teacher of thirty years who saw a school district transformed in the late-nineties as standardized tests became significant not only to measure student’s performance but to evaluate teachers. Current teachers who may fear for the jobs aren’t able to reveal what they know about the lengths schools and districts will go to raise the scores on standardized tests (and I don’t mean cheating, which does occur). No longer under the thumb of my principal or school district, I can discuss the dark underbelly of test preparation.

In Philadelphia in the late-nineties a new superintendent was hired. His first year he downplayed performance on standardized tests. The tests were given with little fanfare. Many schools in the district did poorly.

The following year the superintendent moved aggressively to prove reforms he had implemented were successful. At our school over a period of just a few years our esteemed principal got rid of an art teacher, the school librarian and severely cut back on music (effecting a teacher who had been at the school forever and was beloved by all). Her hours were cut so she would only work with K-3 in a school that was a K-8 school. In their place the principal hired additional staff to work on reading, math and science – the areas covered by the standardized test. Teachers who offered programs in those areas were given preference when it came to receiving paid after school extracurricular programs – again at the expense of the arts.

District-wide the superintendent was equally as aggressive. What few know (and probably still don’t know) is that schools are penalized for each student who does not take the standardized test (at least in Pennsylvania). A student who answers just one question correctly actually helps a school while the school’s results are penalized if that student was absent and did not take the test. The first year of the superintendent’s reign this fact was not made known to individual schools. Poor attendance at some schools led to poor scores. The next year, out of the blue, a local radio station held a contest, offering a concert for the high school which had the best attendance for the standardized test. Commercials on the station ran ad nauseam. A coincidence? I think not.

At our school a reading teacher, whose main job was the preparation for and administration of the test, called the homes of any students who were absent the days the test was given. When they returned, even if still ill, students could make up any test missed (even if it meant being pulled out of their regular class where educating was going on). Attendance significantly improved when the test was given. Were parents contacted either before or after the test was given to improve attendance? The answer is obvious. The school couldn’t care less.

Lastly, manuals were provided to each teacher, with day-by-day lesson plans on how to teach for the test (something not done the previous year). Teachers were told to teach “the test,” not educate students. I often wondered aloud what would occur if on the day of the test a different test were given rather than the one we were told to prepare students for. Test-taking skills weren’t taught. We were instructed to teach “the test.”

Is it any wonder our school and many others significantly improved on their test scores from the previous year? The superintendent made sure the improved scores made headlines in the local papers and TV stations. His so-called reforms, he could say, were validated. It was nonsensical. The district couldn’t be accused of cheating (teachers didn’t erase incorrect answers and fill in correct ones as was the case in Washington, D.C.), but was the improvement in scores honest and accurate? No way.

So I applaud teachers who are risking suspension (as is the case in Seattle) for refusing to teach a test whose results are meaningless; a test which takes away valuable weeks of preparation when students can be educated. Test-taking skills should be taught to students. A state-wide test can be one tool in evaluating student performance. But a test should never become more important than educating students. A test shouldn’t stymie the creativity of teachers. And valuable programs shouldn’t be cut so a school can hire teachers whose main job is to prepare students to take a test. Applaud the teachers in Seattle and other cities who take educating so seriously they risk their job by refusing to administer a meaningless test.

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