When I retired from teaching, in 2008, I thought perhaps I might be losing my grip. I already believed that a growing fetish for standardized tests was warping U. S. education out of all recognition.
Maybe I’m just a crabby old codger, I thought.
Maybe the problem is me.
I don’t think so, though. I still loved my students the day I walked out of my classroom for the last time. I still loved teaching. And my fears have only increased since I retired. I also know I’m not alone in my concerns about the damaging effects of all the testing. The backlash is growing. That’s certain. On Facebook, for instance, you can find dozens of groups opposed to all the standardized testing. I’m not a crabby old codger, either. I’m happy to be retired. I still communicate with a thousand former students, via Facebook; and I get to babysit my granddaughter every Thursday.
Even my retirement check is excellent.
Still, I worry constantly about what we’re doing to a current generation of teachers and students. It’s obvious now that the collateral damage from testing is immense. Almost half of all principals admit cutting time for physical education in order to focus on “teaching to the test.” Art and music programs have been ravaged. Even time devoted to science and social studies has been reduced, because if it isn’t tested, then it can’t be measured as learning.
The passion for learning is harder and harder to keep alive. No child in history is ever going to look back fondly on their years in school and say, “Oh, I loved how we used to do all that test-prep.”
The widespread collateral damage might be justified if bombs were actually hitting the proper targets.
Real educators (not all the arrogant school reformers who love testing) see every day that they are not.
They’re just causing collateral damage.
Test scores in reading and math aren’t soaring. Gaps in the performance of racial groups aren’t narrowing. Most scores on the national tests, ACT, SAT and NAEP (National Assessment for Educational Progress) are flat as bologna sandwiches tossed under the wheels of speeding school buses.
Or, as we learned recently, with SAT results for 2015, scores are declining! We’ve crammed billions of dollars’ worth of standardized tests down millions of teachers’ and tens of millions of students’ throats.
In other words, it turns out, I wasn’t crazy. I wasn’t a grumpy old codger. Or, maybe I was; but I was still right about all the testing. In 2009, I sat down to write a book about what teaching is like—about both the joys and challenges—and my opposition to testing has only deepened with time. I have watched politicians screw around and screw around and keep changing the tests teachers and students are expected to take.
I have seen and heard about all the collateral damage.
The educators I meet tell me, almost without exception—and I always ask, because I want to get the case I built against testing in my book right—that testing isn’t helping. No. Testing is ruining education.
So, the years passed—and I was still happy, not grumpy—and I kept sharpening my attack, until, recently, my book was finished. Opposition to the shifting regimen of standardized tests is now one of the three critical messages included in Two Legs Suffice: Lessons Learned by Teaching.
I believe effective teaching boils down to hard work, and plenty of it, for both students and teachers, and to artistry. I believe the focus on standardized testing is a “paint-by-the-numbers” approach to learning.
I hint at the problems as early as Chapter 2 (The Quintessential Fact).
Then, in Chapter 11 (Two “N” Words and a “D” Word), I begin in earnest to focus on the crippling effects of standardized testing in a story about teaching middle school students empathy.
During a discussion about dehumanization one day, a young lady in my class raises her hand, and says, “Mr. Viall, the other kids dehumanize me. They call me a ‘dog.’”
It was a moment I will never forget, one of the few times in my class, given the context and emotion in the room (we had been talking about the Holocaust), where I was actually speechless.
And, so, it still bothers me today. I knew then—and knew now, you can’t measure empathy with a fill-in-the-bubble-test.
Yet, clearly empathy matters.
Here’s how the chapter begins:
Two “N” Words and a “D” Word
“Folks never understand the folks they hate.”
James Russell Lowell
I was working out at the gym one afternoon, trying to burn off a few bag-of-chips-for-lunch calories, when I ran into an old high school friend. Ray Spicher spent a career in education, serving as a highly-regarded principal for the Cincinnati, Princeton and Madeira City Schools.
Naturally, we talked shop. I asked what he thought of standardized testing. I’m like an idiot savant when it comes to the topic and ask the same question of every educator I meet.
His answer captured perfectly what I believe is a central dilemma of school reform. He said he thought testing helped kids at the low end in school, forcing teachers to devote attention to their needs. Overall, he thought testing was a disaster.
Then he added (this is not a perfect quote, because both of us were huffing and puffing and pedaling stationary bikes), “I used to tell my staff whatever you measure you’ll get more of. If you test for ‘more cars in the parking lot,’ you’ll get more cars in the parking lot.”
My fear exactly: We’ll have more cars in the parking lot. Some will be old Ford Pintos, a model famous for its propensity to explode in a ball of flames when rear-ended. Others will lack tires and sit atop four concrete blocks. The engines of two or three won’t turn over. Several that run will have the kind of air bags that explode. They’ll be more cars, true, but the young drivers, if they can get them running, will have no better idea than before where they want to go.
I’m a history teacher. I know, when it comes to standardized testing, what history shows.
I touch on that history briefly in Chapter 11, then hit it again in Chapter 28 (Gone, Test, Gone), noting that not only are these tests expensive, not only aren’t they working, but politicians keep changing their minds about what tests teachers must give and what tests students must take.
Here’s how I explain that problem:
Gone, Test, Gone
“Infinite effort and ingenuity went into accomplishing very little.”
Was I right to be so adamant in opposition to standardized testing? To the very marrow of my bones, I believe I was.
In May 2009, the State of Ohio gave the social studies section of the OAT one last time. Scores across the state remained dismal, though good at my old school. Complaints about content were multiplying. Printing, distributing, administering, collecting and grading the tests cost money. The state budget was tight. So, scattering benchmarks and indicators to the winds, the state did away with the social studies portion of the OAT.
Counting state standardized testing in the late 80s and early 90s we’re deep into the third decade of the Age of the Testing Fix. Yet nothing has been fixed, almost nothing gained. What do we have to show for all the time and money spent? A strait-jacket has been placed on good teachers. Much of what makes education special has been lost or circumscribed. The paperwork burden on frontline educators grows, metastasizes and threatens to kill the host. Bureaucrats tighten their grip on schools.
The IRS model comes to education.
By 2010, it was obvious NCLB had failed. Policy makers decided new Common Core standards would work where old standards had not. All tests then in use would be scrapped.
Fresh billions would be spent to devise and implement a new testing regimen. Forty-two states and the District of Columbia jumped aboard for the latest merry-go-round ride.
Experts promised. This time testing was going to work.
Five years later, many states are backing out. Politicians who care ten times more about remaining in office than students or learning still argue over what teachers must do.
How nutty does this seem? The Ohio General Assembly voted in 2010 to implement Common Core. Ohio educators began gearing up to meet the newest testing challenge. Vast amounts of time and effort were invested, only to discover in November 2014 that lawmakers were shifting position once more.
In 2015, tests tied to Common Core were used for the first and only time. The Ohio General Assembly decided to drop out of Common Core.
So another set of tests was dead.
Brand new tests, possibly based on the pre-Common Core standards used by the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, would be created for 2016. If lawmakers had their way, these standards would remain in place for three years. Then they, too, would be phased out and Ohio would develop some really cool standards of its own. Frontline educators, increasingly fed up with political idiocy, could only rub their weary eyes in disbelief.
The merry-go-round continued to spin. Every June, it stopped in pretty much the same place.
In the meantime, we continued to use standardized tests to “measure” what students knew and held teachers alone accountable. Molly Hinker, a dedicated young Language Arts teacher, was shocked one year when a young lady turned in her standardized test two minutes after receiving it. She had colored in the bubbles at random and left every essay question blank.
A teacher may not supply answers, but Ms. Hinker did ask if she might not like to take her test booklet back and try doing something.
She replied astutely, “It’s not my grade, it’s yours.” And with that she headed happily for her seat.
In terms of accountability, we still blame teachers for low scores even if a student fails to show for class sixty-five days in a single school year.
We still blame teachers when kids are homeless and have to worry about their next meal.
We still blame teachers when teen girls get pregnant and lose interest in school.
We blame them when teen boys smoke marijuana daily.
We blame them when parents abuse or neglect kids, who must cope and take tests the following day.
We fault teachers and fail to help children.
And that’s a tragedy and a crime.
For today, I’ll leave it at that. I’m retired now, as I’ve said. I don’t have to worry about kids anymore.
Yet, I do.
I don’t believe for one moment that all the testing were doing helps kids who need help the most.