Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Standardized Testing: Confessions of a Terrible Teacher

If a social studies teacher
gets more students to read more,
does anyone in the forest 

hear the pages turning 
if it isn't on the standardized test?
I'VE SEEN TWO RECENT STORIES about standardized testing that, frankly, I found stunning. The first indicated that only 5% of teachers believed the dramatic increase in testing was improving U. S. education. The second report had the figure higher, at 7%.

I suspect your reaction might be similar to mine:   Who'd have thought it would be that high!

Then again, 12% of Americans still approve of the job Congress is doing. So you figure some people are just more forgiving.

Why is it, then, that teachers hate standardized testing? Is it a case of hiding their deficiencies? Or is it a concern for real learning?

Let me try a few examples and see if any of this makes sense. Start with the terrible attacks of 9-11. Imagine that those events occurred this morning. Should a social studies teacher (as I was) take time out in days ahead to discuss the tragedy?

In a standardized testing world the answer is obvious.

The answer is NO.

In fact, it would be a grave error in education today to focus on current events. Standardized tests cannot reflect current events. "Sorry, kids," a good teacher in 2012 would wisely say. "We're going to be discussing the Townshend Acts, instead."

(No joke, there:  That was in the standardized curriculum the State of Ohio designed and used for American history from 2004 to 2009.)

OR: TRY THIS. I REMEMBER KATY, in my World History class. Katy had Down Syndrome and to complete a project requirement I put in place for every student, she did a decoupage of the Mona Lisa. With the help of our very fine Learning Disabilities teacher, Katy got up in front of fourth period and answered basic questions about Leonardo da Vinci and her work. When she finished Katy looked proud and her class did something I had only seen once before. They gave Katy a standing ovation.

Standing ovations, though, don't prepare anyone for standardized testing.

I had failed again.

Let's go back again to consider 9-11. For weeks, following that tragedy, the New York Times ran brief biographies of every victim of the attacks. I read them, day after day, and almost always cried. One was about a woman who came from England to visit her brother. On that fateful day he asked her to come to see where he worked and they went up to the the restaurant, Windows on the World, at the top of the North Tower. They were there at 8:46 a.m. when the first plane struck. They were trapped there. And they died there together.

So, call me a crappy educator, because, I'll be honest, if 9-11 happened today, I'd still focus on current events. I'd still tell that story about the woman from England.

I'd still be a terrible teacher.

One final example and my shame shall be revealed and complete. I admit that in those September days, now a decade past, I had a young girl in class, Jenab, who was Muslim. I could see it every day that she was wondering, "What do my classmates think about me now?"

I confess I forgot that only standards mattered. I made it a priority to make clear to a 12-year-old girl that no one in their right mind could ever hold her accountable. It didn't hurt that Jenab was one of the sweetest, smartest kids I had in class that year. It wouldn't have mattered if she wasn't. Fool that I was, I thought my duty was to address the needs of every child in the best manner possible.

SO, YES. I CONFESS. I was a terrible teacher.


  1. Oh John the terrible teacher...

    I remember your students reading all those books and telling me all about them. I also remember the planning that went into the plays,skits, songs and so forth. I loved every minute as did the students. I dred going to work tomorrow as we have our annual test administrator meeting where they put the fear of dare I say it GOD INTO US as we ready to give these awful standardized tests to our students. I pray all the time asking God to guide our educational leaders to understand the importance in real life as well as real history!

    Kate Blanton

    1. Wow, Kate, I really think teachers have to start fighting back. Our leaders are killing what is best in education.

  2. Standardize testing not only puts stress on teachers but also their students. Teachers are now teaching strategies on taking these tests instead of the basics in classroom learning. Last week was the dreaded FCAT week for both of my children, they did not look forward to it. They raised the score up by half a point now. My youngest daughter made A/B honor but was told if she didn't make the score on the FCAT she would not be promoted. How can a school hold a child back when they are passing in the classroom? How can teachers be expected to teach this new math when they don't know how to do it. I went to a parent/teacher conference with my son the other day, and what she said hit home for me. She said that almost all the students are failing math because what they are expected to teach is a new way of doing the basics of adding, subtracting, multiplying, and division. She continued on to say that the whole fourth was behind in math because of the new math. If teachers can't be taught on how to do and teach the new math how are our children suppose to learn it and pass? What happened to the basic math? Why does it have to be so complicated now? As I told my son's teacher that I couldn't even understand what they are doing in math either. It is sad when no one understands the new era of teaching.

  3. I don't see why it has to be an either or. When something like September 11th happens, there are multiple ways to tie it back to standardized curriculum. For instance, you might tie it to any number of terrorist-type attacks that preceded basically every American war. Or you might orient 9-11 in historical scope, talking about what role American foreign policy may have played in the events.