Conquering the Testing Monster

Testing. Take off the -ing at the end and you have a dreaded “4 letter word”. We shouldn’t feel that way about testing as, of course, as educators, we know that the collection of relevant data helps us inform instructional practices.  However, the phrase “relevant data” is really important here.  This is talked about everywhere and I love this piece below that addresses this very issue.

The following is a post from Diane Ravitch’s Blog on June 17, 2013 titled First Grade Teacher: How I Conquered the Testing Monster 

In response to the question, “Can You Do the Wrong Thing in the Right Way?,” this teacher responded with a fascinating account of how she conquered the testing monster in her first-grade classroom.

She writes:

I’ve been thinking about testing too. A lot. I teach first grade. My students arrive at the tender age of 5 or 6 and exit at 6 or 7. I give my students 6 benchmark tests a year, 3 in literacy and 3 in math. This past year, 4 more tests were added to the roster – this time on computer. That adds up to 10 – yes 10 -multiple choice tests every year for children who still cry for their moms, pee on the carpet, fall asleep spread eagle on the floor, and poke, prod, tease, and growl at each other. Oh –did I say that the children can’t read, at least for the first third of the year –the first 3 or 4 tests?

I am told the tests are to help inform my instruction. But I know the truth. The tests are there in first grade to get the kids ready for the tests in second grade –the tests that really matter – the tests that will count on the schools’ API and AYP reports. (California tests 2nd grade).

As a pragmatist, I’m efficient, organized, hold traditional values, and like rules and order. I know how to do what is expected of me and how to show results. So I reasoned I could use these structural strengths to get the tests over with, show the expected results, meet the smart goals, so that I could move on to the creative part of teaching –the part that cannot be quantified– the part of teaching where I get to interact with the children I am charged with developing academically, I get to know their passions, fears, ideas, the part of teaching that educates children – where there are no borders between painting and reading and playing basketball and building towers and writing , the part of teaching that is magical, that combines knowledge of standards, expertise, and passion on the part of the teacher with excitement, willingness, surprise, and vision from children.

But that is not what happened. Every breathing space I created for myself and my students by my efficiency got filled up with another expectation. More students – 18 one year, 20 the next, 24 for a few years, then 26; a new policy of all-day, full inclusion of special needs children in the general education classroom; a neighborhood impacted by the housing market decline and its resultant mobile population – causing more to move in and out of my classroom during the year; a school in program improvement – in effect designated as failing, and the resultant punishments – more administrative scrutiny, narrowing of curriculum to math and reading, canceling of arts programs during the school day; flight of families to school with better scores; and noisy classrooms in buildings without connecting walls.

So I got tired. I got beaten down. I got discouraged. And if you think I had it bad, think of the kids. Imagine a teacher for them who is always cross, always serious, harps about the test, never takes the time to ask them how they are doing, is too busy to tie a shoe lace or rub a boo-boo. That is me. I cringe as I write this.

Standardized tests don’t just stop my students from thinking, they teach them not to think. Imagine a 5 year old child who doesn’t read, and may not even speak English. They look at an 8 by 11 inch white paper devoid of all but one or two sketches. They listen as I read the question to them. Then I read the 3 or 4 choices. They pick the choice and fill in the bubble. Imagine the time I spend teaching them how to find the question, scroll with their eyes through the 4 choices, all while listening to me drone on and repeat the question and the choices until all 26 of them have bubbled something in. Imagine that this one test has 8 pages of questions – 15 or 20 questions in all. No wonder I’m cross. No wonder their eyes are glazed and they are growling.

But it gets worse. I am complicit in this next part. Standardized tests actually make students stupid. Yes, stupid. Not only are the kids not thinking, they are losing the ability to think. In my zeal to get administrative scrutiny off me and my students, I mistakenly thought that if I give them the test results they want, then I could do what I know was best for my students. To that end I trained my students to do well in these tests. I taught them to look for loopholes; to eliminate and guess; to find key words; to look for clues; in short, to exchange the process of thinking for the process of manipulation. I capitalized on my knowledge of young children, and the fact that they want to please adults and like to get the answer “right”. I justified my actions by saying that I had no choice, that the consequences of low test scores at my school were too dire to contemplate, and I wasn’t willing to put myself in professional or financial jeopardy. Clearly, testing made me stupid too.

I can’t speak for all my fellow teachers at my school, but I suspect many of them would, at the very least, recognize similar behaviors in their test-teaching practices. So, when despite our best collective efforts at raising test scores failed and my school entered 2nd year program improvement, I surrendered my stupidity and started speaking up, and eventually speaking out. I read research, blogs, government publications, and journals. I read widely from educational, historical, economic, pediatric, and psychological literature. I challenged administrative authority at my school to do the same – read, think, debate, discuss, and much to my surprise, did not get rebuffed. Astonishingly, I got ignored.

At about the same time I woke up out of my testing-induced nightmare , I started to notice the monster I had helped create. My students were only happy when they got the answer right. For many years my collegues and I had noticed a trend in young children – a trend toward passivity in learning. We had theories – all the kids had TV’s in the bedrooms, they had far too much screen time – computer, games, cells, TV’s in cars, lack of adult supervision and interaction, lack of conversational models at home, lack of social models at home, the list went on. But what wasn’t on the list was what I was culpable for – I had become about the right answer. They wanted to please me. They knew that if they waited long enough I would help them find the right answer. And I did.

One day, during small group math rotation, I put up privacy boards during the practice part of a lesson on math reasoning. The story problem went like this: There are 10 buttons on my coat. 6 are red and the rest are blue. How many are blue? We have worked on these kind of problems frequently, and the children have seen them in test format. Using connecting cubes as buttons, the children had to make a model of the problem. Three kids cried that day. The stress of thinking for and by themselves got to them. You see, many of the children had become expert at copying – watching what other children did in the group to get an answer and then providing “their” answer a nanosecond later. The children did not trust themselves enough to even attempt an answer. Their discomfort was palpable, and I was appalled.

Crying notwithstanding, I continued to use privacy boards. I also started to coach the kids about my belief in their abilities. I found that as they worked out a math problem using manipulatives to represent objects, I could lean in and coach them, one to one. Then, when they all had their answers, we pushed down the privacy boards to explore what we had all done. Ever so slowly, over many weeks, they started to regain their confidence.

You might wonder why I had not been doing this kind of teaching all along. I had, 11 years ago, pre-NCLB. Testing, along with the breadth of the standards and the resulting mountain of material to cover, much of it developmentally inappropriate, slowly eroded my professional judgement. Pressure to produce results through collaboration and mind-numbing analysis sapped my energy. A constant barrage of media stories about the ineffectiveness of teachers, some of it supported by leaders at my own school, drowned my spirit. Then I heard you, Diane, speak as a guest of my district and union. I started to read your work and have never looked back.

So thank you from the bottom of my heart. You are truly brave. You inspire me to speak up and speak out. You remind me that knowledge is power –I had forgotten. Now I get my ducks in a row, collect my facts, back up my intuition and experience with research, and speak up without fear or rancor. And in the process of speaking up for myself, I speak up for my students. And ever so slowly I start to rebuild my confidence too.