Middle School Suicides Double As Common Core Testing Intensifies

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Here’s a high stakes testing statistic you won’t hear bandied about on the news.

 

The suicide rate among 10- to 14-year-olds doubled between 2007 and 2014 – the same period in which states have increasingly adopted Common Core standards and new, more rigorous high stakes tests.

 

For the first time, suicide surpassed car crashes as a leading cause of death for middle school children.

In 2014, the last year for which data was available, 425 middle schoolers nationwide took their own lives.

 

To be fair, researchers, educators and psychologists say several factors are responsible for the spike, however, pressure from standardized testing is high on the list.

 

In fact, it is a hallmark of other nations where children perform better on these tests than our own.

 

In our efforts to emulate these countries, we’ve inadvertently imported their child suicide problem.

 

In South Korea, one of the highest performing nations on international tests, youth suicide is a national epidemic.

 

According to the National Youth Policy Institute in Korea, one in four students considers committing suicide. In fact, Korea has the second highest youth suicide rate among contemporary nations.

 

For several years, the Korean school system has topped the roughly 70 member countries of the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) educational league, which measures 15-year-old students’ knowledge through the PISA test, an international student assessment exam within OECD member states.

 

However, the system is roundly criticized for its emphasis on memorization and test prep with little real-life application. In fact, 75 percent of South Korean children attend “cram schools” where they do little else than prepare for standardized assessments.

 

 

Likewise, Chinese students suffer similar curriculum and rates of child suicide. Though Shanghai students have some of the highest scores in OECD, abuse runs rampant.

 

According to the China Daily, teachers at Hubei Xiaogan No 1 High School in central Hubei province actually rigged their students up to IV drips in the classroom so they could continue studying after being physically exhausted.

 

Brook Larmer of the New York Times reports visiting student dormitories in Maotanchang, a secluded town in Anhui province, where the windows were covered in wire mesh to prevent students from jumping to their deaths.

 

In the United States, education “reform” hasn’t reached these depths, but we’re getting closer every year.

 

Efforts to increase test scores have changed U.S. schools to closer resemble those of Asia. Curriculum is being narrowed to only the tested subjects and instruction is being limited to testing scenarios, workbooks, computer simulations, practice and diagnostic tests.

 

A classroom where students aren’t allowed to pursue their natural curiosities and are instead directed to boring and abstract drills is not a place of joy and discovery. A school that does not allow children to express themselves but forces constant test prep is a lifeless environment devoid of hope.

 

But that’s not the worst of it.

 

American students are increasingly being sorted and evaluated by reference to their test score rather than their classroom grade or other academic indicators. Students are no longer 6th, 7th or 8th graders. They’re Below Basics, Basics, Proficents and Advanced. The classes they’re placed in, the style of teaching, even personal rewards and punishments are determined by a single score.

 

In some states, like Florida, performance on federally mandated tests actually determine if students can advance to the next grade. Some children pass their classes but don’t move on purely because of test scores well within the margin or error.

 

The results are devastating.

 

Marion Brady tells a gut-wrenching story on Alternet about a 9-year-old Florida boy who tried to hang himself after failing the state’s FCAT (Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test) by one point.

 

His mother explains that he had to take a summer remediation course and a retest, but still failed by one point. She couldn’t bear to tell him, but he insisted that he had failed and was utterly crushed.

 

After a brief period where he was silent, alone in his room, she became apprehensive:

 

“I … ran down the hall to [his] room, banged on the door and called his name. No response. I threw the door open. There was my perfect, nine- year-old freckled son with a belt around his neck hanging from a post on his bunk bed. His eyes were blank, his lips blue, his face emotionless. I don’t know how I had the strength to hoist him up and get the belt off but I did, then collapsed on the floor and held [him] as close to my heart as possible. There were no words. He didn’t speak and for the life of me I couldn’t either. I was physically unable to form words. I shook as I held him and felt his heart racing.

 

“I’d saved [him]! No, not really…I saved him physically, but mentally he was gone…The next 18 months were terrible. It took him six months to make eye contact with me. He secluded himself from friends and family. He didn’t laugh for almost a year…”

 

The boy had to repeat the third grade but is haunted by what had happened as is his mother.

 

And this is by no means an isolated incident.

 

According to U.S. Census Bureau statistics, the suicide rate for 5- to 14- year-olds jumped by 39.5 percent from 2000 to 2013. The rate for 15- to 24-year-olds, which was already 818% higher than for younger children, also increased during the same time period by 18.9 percent.

 

That’s more than 5,000 children and rising each year taking their own lives.

 

Again, high stakes testing isn’t responsible for all of it. But the dramatic increase along with a subsequent increase in high stakes testing is not unrelated.

 

The Alliance for Childhood, a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization that advises on early education, compiled a report from parents, teachers, school nurses, psychologists, and child psychiatrists noting that the stress of high-stakes testing was literally making children sick.

 

On testing days, school nurses report that their offices are filled with students complaining of headaches and stomachaches. There have even been reports of uncontrollable sobbing.

 

In 2013, eight prominent New York principals were so alarmed by this increasing student behavior that they wrote a letter to parents expressing their concerns:

 

“We know that many children cried during or after testing, and others vomited or lost control of their bowels or bladders. Others simply gave up. One teacher reported that a student kept banging his head on the desk, and wrote, ‘This is too hard,’ and ‘I can’t do this,’ throughout his test booklet.”

 

And they’re not alone.

 

In fact, student anxiety is so common on test day that most federally mandated tests include official guidelines specifically outlining how to deal with kids vomiting on their test booklets.

 

School counselors note increasing student anxiety levels, sleep problems, drug use, avoidance behaviors, attendance problems, acting out, etc. that increase around testing time and during test prep lessons. This is a major contributor, they say, to the unprecedented increase in the number of young children being labeled and treated for psychiatric illnesses ranging from learning disabilities and attention disorders to anxiety and depression.

 

And the psychological trauma isn’t limited to the students, alone. The adults also suffer from it.

 

In 2015, Jeanene Worrell-Breeden, a West Harlem elementary school principal, took her own life by jumping in front of a subway train to escape a standardized testing scandal. Under intense pressure from the federal and state government to improve academic achievement, she had allegedly instructed her staff to change students’ answers on a new Common Core aligned high stakes test.

 

But the trauma isn’t always so dramatic. Teachers and principals often suffer in silence. And when it affects the adults in the room, imagine what it does to the children.

 

It isn’t that teachers aren’t trying to teach or that students aren’t trying to learn. It’s that the expectations and testing are developmentally inappropriate.

 

Middle school children’s brains are still growing. They are only physically able to learn certain concepts and skills, but we’re forcing them to deal with increasingly advanced and complex concepts at younger ages.

 

And when expectations and high stakes consequences come crashing down on children, they can feel there is no way out.

 

This is why thousands of parents have refused to allow their children to take high stakes standardized testing.

 

This is why there is a growing grass roots movement against these sorts of assessments and other corporate school reforms.

 

It’s time the media connect the dots and report these sorts of stories in context.

 

Don’t just shrug when reporting on child suicide rates, if you report it at all. Give the microphone to experts who can point the finger where it belongs.

 

And the rest of us need to make sure our representatives at the state, local and federal level know where we stand.

 

High stakes testing is child abuse. We should not emulate other nations’ scores especially when they come at such a cost.

 

The fact that we don’t engage in the worst abuses of Asian schools should be a point of pride, not jealousy.

 

We should cherish and nurture our children even if other nations sacrifice theirs on the altar of competition and statistics.

Always Be Testing – The Sales Pitch for Corporate Education Reform

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(After the “Brass Balls” speech in “Glengarry Glen Ross,” by David Mamet.)

 

(Rated PG-13 for language)

 

(Interior: a public school classroom during an after school staff meeting. Teachers are seated at student desks including Singer, Moss and Aaronow. Williamson, a middle school principal, stands in front of the room flanked by Blake, a motivational speaker brought in by the state. Singer is furiously grading papers. The other teachers are pleasantly chatting about trifles before Blake calls the gathering to attention.)

 

[Blake]
Let me have your attention for a moment! So you’re talking about what? You’re talking about that kid you failed, some son of a bitch who doesn’t want to pass, some snot-nosed brat you’re trying to remediate and so forth. Let’s talk about something important. Are they all here?

 

[Williamson]
All but one.

 

[Blake]
Well, I’m going anyway. Let’s talk about something important! (to Singer) Put that colored marker down!

 

[Singer]

But I’m grading papers…

 

(Blake)

I said Put that marker down! Markers are for testers only.

 

(Singer scoffs)

 

[Blake]

Do you think I’m fucking with you? I am not fucking with you. I’m here from downtown. I’m here from the Governor and the Legislature. And I’m here on a mission of mercy. Your name’s Singer?

 

[Singer]
Yeah. Mister Singer, actually.

 

[Blake]
You call yourself a teacher, you son of a bitch?

 

[Moss]

I don’t have to listen to this.

 
[Blake]
You certainly don’t, Madam. Cause the good news is – you’re fired. The bad news is you’ve got, all you got, just one week to regain your jobs, starting today. Starting with today’s meeting.

 

[Moss]

What!? The union contract doesn’t allow you to just fire us all without cause.

 

[Blake]

Union!? There ain’t no more union! This is a Right to Work state now, Bitch. And that means you have the right to work – for less – until I fire your sorry ass.

 

(Assorted grumbling)

 

[Blake]

Oh, have I got your attention now? Good. Cause we’re adding a little something to this month’s merit pay. As you all know, the teacher whose students get the highest test scores gets a bonus. First prize is a thousand bucks. Anyone want to see second prize? Second prize is a box of pencils. Third prize is you’re fired. You get the picture? You’re laughing now?

 

[Singer]

That’s ridiculous. Mrs. Moss teaches the advanced kids. All her students get high test scores.

 

[Blake]

What? And your kids are in the general track? They don’t get high test scores? Then step it up, Singer! You want to get a paycheck in this district, you’ve got to earn a paycheck. You got test prep manuals. The school board paid good money for them. Get those workbooks so your kids can pass the test!

 

[Singer]

Workbooks!? That’s not learning?

 

[Blake]

That’s where you’re wrong. Workbooks are the only learning that counts! Kids take the tests that show whether you’re doing your fucking jobs! You want to keep working here? You want to keep sucking at the public tit? You get those kids to pass the motherfucking tests. And those workbooks do that. They teach kids how to pass the motherfucking tests!

 

[Singer]

But my kids are all from poor homes. They’re malnourished. They don’t get the same medical care. There are no books in their homes. Many of them suffer from PTSD from abuse or exposure to violence….

 

[Blake]

And you think they deserve some kind of entitlement? A medal? Fuck them and fuck you! Let me make one thing perfectly clear – If you can’t get your students to pass shit, you ARE shit, hit the bricks, Pal, and beat it cause you are going out!

 

[Singer]

Are you kidding me right now? You want my students to pass these tests. The tests are unfair. They’re economically and culturally biased. The connection between the tests and learning is weak.

 

[Blake]
The fucking tests are weak? You’re weak. I’ve been in this business for fifteen weeks.

 

[Moss]
Fifteen weeks? Try thirty years.

 

[Blake]

Anyone who’s still a teacher after thirty years should be put to sleep. All you need is a year or two. That’s what I’m doing. Teach for America. Five weeks training, two year commitment, then move on to Washington where you can advise lawmakers on what schools need.

 

[Moss]

What’s your name?

 

[Blake]

Fuck you, that’s my name! You know why, Missy? Cause you drove a Hyundai to get to work. I drove an eighty thousand BMW. That’s my name.

 

[Singer]

I took the bus.

 

[Blake]

(To Singer) And your name is “you’re wanting.” You can’t play in a man’s game. You can’t teach them. (at a near whisper) And you go home and tell your wife your troubles.

(to everyone again) Because only one thing counts in this life! Get them to score above basic. Get them to demonstrate the minimum skills necessary!

 

[Singer]

What about what they think and feel?

 

[Blake]

No one gives a shit about what they think and feel. You hear me, you fucking faggots?

 

(Blake flips over a blackboard which has two sets of letters on it: ABT, and AITP.)

 

[Blake]

A-B-T. A- Always, B-be, T-testing. Always be testing! Always be testing!! A-I-T-P. Attention, interest, testing, passing. Attention — do I have your attention? Interest — are you interested? I know you are because it’s fuck or walk. Your kids pass or you hit the bricks! Testing – you will test those students by Christ!! And passing. A-I-T-P; get out there!! You got the students comin’ in; you think they came in to get out of the rain?

 

[Singer]

Actually, many of my students live in public housing down there by the railroad tracks. You know those slums? Roofs leak in half those units…

 

[Moss]

And for a lot of kids school is the only structure they get all day. Their parents are out working two to three jobs. They have to take care of themselves and often younger siblings.

 

[Singer]

And food. Don’t forget food. If it wasn’t for the free breakfast and lunch program, many of my kids wouldn’t eat…

 

[Blake]

Bullshit. A kid doesn’t walk into this school unless he wants to pass. That’s why they’re here! They want to learn! They’re sitting out there waiting to be told what to do. Are you gonna’ tell ‘em? Are you man enough to tell them?

 

[Moss]

I’m a woman. Most of us are women.

 

[Blake]

(to Moss) What’s the problem, Pal?

 

[Moss]

You think you’re such a hero, you’re so rich. Why are you coming down here and wasting your time on a bunch of bums?

 

(Blake sits and takes off his gold watch)

 

[Blake]
You see this watch? You see this watch?

 

[Moss]
Yeah.

 

[Blake]

That watch cost more than your SMART Board. (Takes off his shoe) You see this shoe? Italian. It costs more than your entire salary. (slicks back his hair) You see this haircut?

 

[Moss]

I get it.

 

[Blake]

Do you? Because I do. I made 26 million dollars last year. How much do you make? You see, Pal, that’s who I am. And you’re nothing. Nice person? I don’t give a shit. Good mother? Fuck you – go home and play with your kids!! (to everyone) You wanna work here? Test!! (to Aaronow) You think this is abuse? You think this is abuse, you cocksucker? You can’t take this — how can you take the abuse you get in a classroom?! You don’t like it — leave. I can go out there tomorrow with the materials you got, make myself a thousand dollars in merit pay! Tomorrow! In one class! Can you? Can you? Go and do likewise! A-I-T-P!! Get mad! You sons of bitches! Get mad!!

 

[Singer]

Oh, I’m mad. I’m mad that a shallow schmuck like you thinks he can come in here and tell us how to do our jobs. School is about so much more than test scores. You can’t reduce it all to a multiple choice assessment. These kids need a broad curriculum, not just reading and math. They need science, art, social studies, foreign language, recess – all the stuff the rich kids get at the $50,000 a year private schools. And all you want to give them are standardized tests!

 

[Blake]

You know what it takes to teach public school?

 

(He pulls something out of his briefcase. He’s holding up a hammer and a plastic model of a one-room schoolhouse. He puts the model down on Aaronow’s desk and then smashes it to pieces with the hammer.)



[Blake]
It takes school choice to teach in a public school. It takes charter and voucher schools, schools run like a business – not this mamby, pamby, commie, socialist shit!

 

[Moss]

Choice? Is that what you call letting private interests suck up public tax dollars without the same transparency and regulations as public schools? You mean schools not run by an elected school board, who meet in private and do almost whatever they please with our tax dollars? You mean schools that can turn away the hardest to teach children – unlike public schools that take everyone?

 

[Blake]
I’m talking about schools with balls!
(He puts the hammer over his crotch,– he puts it away after a pause)



[Blake]
You want a paycheck? Do like the choice schools do — Go and do likewise, folks. The money’s out there, you pick it up, it’s yours. You don’t–I have no sympathy for you. You wanna go into your classes tomorrow and test and get your kids to pass, it’s yours. If not you’re going to be shining my shoes. Bunch of losers sitting around in a bar. (in a mocking weak voice) “Oh yeah, I used to be a teacher, it’s a tough racket.” (he takes out a software package from his briefcase) This is the new Common Core aligned diagnostic system. It’s like the MAP, Study Island, iReady and iStation – only better.

 

[Singer]

Those programs suck.

 

[Blake]

This is better. With it, your students will sit behind a computer screen for several hours every day taking stealth assessments.

 

[Singer]

You mean mini-tests?

 

[Blake]

No. Not mini-tests. They’ll run through the program and get instruction on every Common Core standard and their answers will show how much they’ve learned.

 

[Singer]

They’re tests. Standardized tests. Every day.

 

[Blake]

This is the Pearson leads. And to you, it’s gold. And you don’t get it. Why? Because to give it to you is just throwing it away. (he hands the software to Williamson) It’s for testers. (sneeringly) Not teachers.

 

I’d wish you good luck but you wouldn’t know what to do with it if you got it. (to Moss as he puts on his watch again) And to answer your question, Pal: why am I here? I came here because the Governor and Legislature are paying me to be here. They’re paying me a lot more than you. But I don’t have to take their money. I can make that tying my shoes. They asked me for a favor. I said, the real favor, follow my advice and fire your fucking ass because a loser is a loser.

 

(He stares at Moss for a sec, and then picking up his briefcase, he leaves the room with Williamson)

 

[Singer]

What an asshole.

 

[Moss]

He may be an asshole but he’s got the state on his side.

 

[Aaronow]

This isn’t what I signed up for. This isn’t why I became a teacher.

 

[Moss]

What did you sign up for?

 

[Aaronow]

TO TEACH! Not to be some… some… glorified real estate agent!

 

[Singer]

It’s funny. We know how crazy all this testing, Common Core, and charter school crap is, but no one wants to hear us.

 

[Moss]

And now without collective bargaining, we can’t even speak up without fear of being fired.

 

[Aaronow]

Fear!? If we don’t push all this teaching to the test nonsense, they’re going to fire us. And if we do, they can replace us with computer programs. We’re damned if we do, damned if we don’t.

 

[Singer]

Not if people wake up. (Moss and Aaronow scoff) Not if the public takes a stand, if parents and teachers opt their kids out of the tests…

 

[Aaronow]

Didn’t you hear the man!? They’re putting the kids on computer programs to test them every day!

 

[Singer]

Then we fight every day. We protest every day. We get parents together and other concerned citizens and we go to the capital and we fight. Call your representative. Go to your Senator’s office. Stage a sit in. Hold a mock trial. Write a blog parodying a scene from a famous movie. Get public attention. Make some noise.

 

[Aaronow]

And you think people will care? You think people will know?

 

[Singer]

We’ll teach them. We’ll show them. That’s what we do.

 

[Moss]

We have no other choice.

 

[Aaronow]

Always be testing?

 

[Singer]

Always be teaching.

 

(Curtain)

 

The Original Scene from GlenGarry Glen Ross:

Why Teaching to the Test is Educational Malpractice

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Malpractice is defined as “careless, wrong, or illegal actions by someone (such as a doctor) who is performing a professional duty.”

In some fields it can get you arrested. In most it’s at least frowned upon.
In education, however, it’s encouraged.

In fact, as a teacher, you can be singled out, written up or even fired for refusing to engage in malpractice. You are bullied, cajoled and threatened into going along with practices that have been debunked by decades of research and innumerable case studies.

Take the all-too-common practice of teaching to the test.

Not only do students and teachers hate it, but the practice has been shown to actually harm student learning. Yet it is the number one prescription handed down from administrators and policymakers to bring up failing scores on high stakes standardized tests.

Never mind that those same test scores have likewise been proven to be invalid, racially and culturally biased and inextricably linked with parental income. When the only goal is raising student test scores, what’s a little malpractice between friends?

In this article, I will explain the top five reasons why this policy is harmful. But first, we need to define our terms. There is a multitude of practices that are sometimes called teaching to the test. What exactly are we talking about here?

Assessment expert W. James Popham provides a helpful distinction: “curriculum teaching” vs. “item teaching.” Curriculum teachers focus on the full body of knowledge and skills represented by test questions. For instance, if the test is expected to include questions about decimals, the teacher will cover the full range of knowledge and skills related to decimals so students understand what they are, know how to manipulate them, understand how to use them to solve more complex problems, and are able to communicate about them.

By contrast, item teaching involves narrowing instruction, organizing lessons around look-a-like questions that are taken directly from the test or represent the kinds of questions most likely to be found on the test. In this way, the teacher only provides the chunks of knowledge students are most likely to encounter on exams. For instance, item teachers might drill students on a certain set of vocabulary words that are expected to be assessed rather than employing instructional strategies that help students build a rich vocabulary that best contributes to strong reading comprehension.

To be clear, when we talk about teaching to the test, we’re talking about item teaching. I maintain that there is nothing wrong with curriculum teaching. In fact, that is the preferred method of educating. It is a best practice. The problem is when we resort to endless drills and give students innumerable questions of the exact type we expect to be on the test.

Here’s why item teaching is to be avoided:

1) It Makes the Tests Even More Invalid

As noted, standardized tests are terrible assessments. They do not properly or fairly assess intelligence or academics. However, whatever validity they have is further eroded when schools teach to the test.

The problem is this: if all you want to do is artificially raise test scores, teaching to the test is effective. It works. This is why middle class or wealthier families often pay to enroll their children in a test-prep course before their kids take or retake the SAT exam. It most likely will boost their children’s scores. However, it defeats the purpose of the test, which is to predict academic success in college. All it shows definitively is that these children come from families wealthy enough to provide private tutoring.

I say it “artificially” raises test scores because it is not connected with a similar increase in learning. Students don’t learn more about reading or math from test prep. They learn how to take the standardized math and/or reading tests.

There is even evidence suggesting that real, authentic learning may suffer under these circumstances. But more on that later.

2) It Steals Instruction Time

There are only so many days in the school year. Taking away class time to focus on test prep reduces the amount of time where students are authentically learning. We already take away weeks of class time for the actual assessments. Then many schools take additional time for practice tests. Now we’re losing even more time to teach students how to take the tests.

How much time is lost? According to a report by the American Federation of Teachers, public schools spend an average of 19 days to a month and a half on testing and test prep combined. However, some districts spend much more time on teaching to the test than the average. One school included in the study spent an average of 20 to 40 minutes a day on testing. Moreover, this time increases dramatically in the most highly tested grades and poorest schools.

Taxpayers compensate teachers to teach – not game the system. Students want to learn real skills, not advanced ways to jump through hoops. It can be argued that teaching to the test robs everyone of time that can be better spent.

3) It Dumbs Down the Curriculum

Teaching to the test is not real teaching. Students are not being taught authentic skills. Researchers Lauren Resnick and Chris Zurawsky call it a recipe for bad teaching. “When teachers match their teaching to what they expect to appear on state tests of this sort,” they write, “students are likely to experience far more facts and routines than conceptual understanding and problem-solving in their curriculum…. Narrow tests…can become the de facto curriculum.”

The modern economy is not crying out for the next generation of test-takers. Economists Frank Levy and Richard Murnane warn that all kinds of jobs, but particularly higher paying jobs, increasingly require more complex critical thinking skills and much fewer rote and routine skills. Their 30-year analysis shows a steadily declining demand for workers who are able to do rote tasks and a skyrocketing demand for “expert thinking” skills. Employers want prospective employees with the ability to solve problems that require more than simply following rules or applying old knowledge to new situations. They need workers with complex thinking and communication skills.

In short, teaching to the test greatly reduces the depth of study and turns it into the same kind of mechanical process employers aren’t looking for at the expense of the kinds of skills they demand.

But that’s not all. An over-emphasis on the subjects tested, inevitably narrows the curriculum. Non-tested disciplines receive less attention during the school day. Time is diverted from subjects like physical education, music, and drama so that teachers can provide more instructional time on commonly tested areas like reading, writing and math.

The result is far less well-rounded students who are instilled with the false assumption that certain vital endeavors are meaningless or certainly subordinate to basic skills.

4) It Actually Hurts Learning

Not only does item teaching dumb down what’s being taught, it actually erodes basic skill development even in tested subjects. Explicit instruction in test taking strategies is not educationally neutral. It’s harmful.

For instance, researcher Monty Neill explained how test-taking strategies can erode authentic reading comprehension skills. Standardized reading tests often present students with a long passage followed by several multiple choice questions. One of the most common strategies is for students to read the questions first before reading the passage. In many cases you don’t have to read the passage to answer the question. Even if you do need to read it, the question provides students with a clue that they can look for when skimming the passage for the right answer. However, independent evaluators found that over-reliance on this strategy can lead to children who can find the correct answer on the test but cannot explain what the passage is about. The implication is that there may be a significant number of test wise students who lack the basic skills needed to be successful in higher education.

Additionally, even where tested subjects like reading and math are emphasized, the non-tested areas of these disciplines are underutilized. Reading, for example, isn’t just about passage comprehension. It includes listening and speaking skills that are not assessed on high stakes tests. So students can get advanced scores without having the requisite skills for mastery of the subject.

This is especially important for students going on to college. They will be expected to do many things they were not tested on such as making an oral presentation, conducting a science experiment, or writing a research report. For all the talk of Common Core aligned tests making students “college and career ready,” teaching to the test undermines this goal.

5) It Hurts Morale of Students and Teachers

And then we come to perhaps the worst part: motivation. Young children don’t need a reason to learn. They’re naturally curious and soak up knowledge like a sponge. However, as children mature and enter the higher grades, that natural curiosity can be damaged, dampened and even destroyed with long-lasting effects.

Teaching to the test turns school into a completely extrinsic exercise. It’s a game. Learn how to take the test so you can get a good score – don’t work hard to learn things you really care about. It should come as no surprise then that such emphasis has a negative impact on intrinsic motivation according to Edward Miller and Roberta Tovey’s Motivation, Achievement and Testing. In fact, though test prep gives students the tools to artificially raise their scores, it also can remove the motivation to get good scores in the first place. In short, it undermines the reason kids come to school at all: to learn and self-actualize.

And the damage isn’t limited to students. Item teaching also removes the joy of teaching for the teacher. It exacerbates feelings of frustration and disillusionment with the entire testing process. Wayne E. Wright (2002) documented the effects of high-stakes testing and the increased prevalence of teaching to the test in an inner-city California school. One teacher summarized her frustration with the schools test driven agenda by commenting:

“The most pathetic thing is that up until two years ago, I counseled young people, “Come into teaching. It is a wonderful profession.” Now I counsel them to find something else because this is not the profession I would choose for myself.”

(Wright, 2002, p. 28).

Recommendations and Conclusions

We’ve seen how damaging test prep can be. But does that mean it should never be utilized?

I don’t think there is definitive evidence to make that conclusion. Item teaching is not necessarily bad if done to best effect, under strict control and as minimally as possible. Doing this once or twice probably won’t poison the entire act of teaching, but it also won’t have a dramatic effect on the scores. Perhaps we should adopt a policy of cautious moderation and tread carefully.

However, it is clear that teachers should emphasize curriculum teaching over teaching to the test. Focus on student development of real critical thinking skills and the higher levels of Bloom’s taxonomy. In this way students will be more likely to apply their new cognitive abilities and content knowledge in areas that extend beyond the confines of a particular test. In short, they’ll actually learn stuff – the important stuff – not just how to take a standardized test.

Unfortunately, it’s not that simple. Administrators and policymakers often direct teachers to spend increasing amounts of class time doing item teaching. Almost every state includes hundreds of released test questions for just this purpose. An entire publishing industry exists to create and distribute item teaching materials. This is, in fact, one of the major ways the test companies make their money – make tests so hard kids fail and then sell schools the test prep materials to get students to pass.

What’s needed more than anything is to educate the educators – or at least their bosses. Teachers need to understand how harmful the policies are they’re being directed to undertake. Administrators need to understand that teaching to the test has diminishing returns in the long run. And our policymakers need to wake up and smell the coffee.

Test scores are neither adequate nor sufficient indicators of school success. Students cannot be reduced to numbers and evaluated as if they were produce.

Until we realize that as a bone-deep truth, we will continue to fail students as they continue to fail us. And our teachers will be continually forced to violate their deepest principles in order to stay in the classroom.


ENDNOTES:

Levy, F., & Murnane, R. J. (2004). The new division of labor: How computers are creating the next job market. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Miller, E., & Tovey, R. (Eds.). (1996). Motivation, achievement, and testing. Boston: Harvard Education Press.
Neil, M. (2003b). The dangers of testing. Educational Leadership, 60(5), 43-46.
Popham, W. J. (2001, March). Teaching to the test? Educational Leadership, 58(6), 16’20.

Resnick, L., & Zurawsky, C. (2005, spring). Getting back on course: Standards-based reform and accountability. American Educator. Retrieved June 30, 2006, from http://www.aft.org/pubs-reports/american_educator/issues/spring05/resnick.htm

Wright, W. E. (2002). The effects of high stakes testing in an inner city elementary school: The curriculum, the teachers, and the English language learners. Current Issues in Education, 5(5). Online at http://cie.ed.asu.edu/volume5/number5.

Less Resources, Harder Tests: Common Core in the Last Days of Obama

teaching_testing

 

The bell hadn’t even rung to begin class yet, but Ce Ce already had enough.

 

She saw the pile of standardized test look-a-like sheets on the front desk and immediately asked if she could go to in-school suspension.

 

I’m not kidding.

 

She’d prefer to spend the day in silence doing homework isolated from the rest of the class than practicing high stakes testing with her peers.

 

And she’s not alone. This happens every year now. As assessment season gets closer, administrators push teachers to do test prep. And students revolt.

 

I’m not exactly sure why. Test replicas are not my favorite things to do, either, but they’re not THAT bad. I don’t think it can be my teaching since the mutiny usually happens before I’ve even begun.

 

It’s the testing. Pure and simple. Some students are so demoralized by the very prospect of skill-and-drill that spending one more second reading passages and filling in bubbles seems a fate worse than death.

 

And I can’t really blame them.

 

In the last two years, Pennsylvania has modified its mandatory assessments until it’s almost impossible for my students to pass.

 

Bureaucrats call it “raising standards,” but it’s really just making the unlikely almost unthinkable.

 

Impoverished students have traditionally had a harder time scoring as well as their wealthier peers. But the policy response has been to make things MORE difficult. How does that help?

 

Consider this: If a malnourished runner couldn’t finish the 50 yard dash, forcing him to run 100 yards isn’t raising standards. It’s piling on.

 

Oh. Both your arms are broken? Here. Bench press 300 lbs.

 

Both your feet were chopped off in an accident? Go climb Mt. Everest.

 

That’s what’s happening in the Keystone State and across the country. We’re adding extra layers of complexity to each assessment without regard to whether they’re developmentally appropriate or even necessary and fair to gauge individual skills.

 

Where Common Core State Standards have been adopted (and Pennsylvania has its own version called PA Core), annual tests have become irrationally difficult. That’s why last year’s state tests – which were the first completely aligned to PA Core – saw a steep drop off in passing scores. Students flunked it in droves.

 

Where the previous tests were bad, the new ones are beyond inappropriate.

 

Take Text Dependent Analysis (TDA). It’s something we’ve always done in language arts classes, but it’s meaning has subtly changed thanks to PA Core.

 

Two years ago, it used to denote that students had to refer to the text when writing essays. Now it’s come to mean something more – referring to the text (or texts) with at least two degrees of complexity.

 

On the Reading section of the Pennsylvania System of School Assessment (PSSA) tests, students must peruse several passages and respond in writing.

 

Before PA Core, middle school students might have had to read one passage and then explain what its main idea was. This would require them to cite specific examples from the text. For instance, “This passage is mostly about bears because the author writes about hunting them in the Klondike, the ways in which their habitat is affected and their hibernation instinct.” Then students would have to go into more detail highlighting sections of text that support this.

 

Now students have to read TWO passages and write about something that pervades BOTH but is still tremendously complex. For instance, a 6th grade example released from the state has students read a poem and a folktale about people tricking others into sharing food. Then they have to write about the theme of both pieces and analyze how it is developed in each text using specific references.

 

The texts concern nothing most students would find interesting and are difficult to understand for children of that age. Moreover, properly developing an essay of this type should be done over the course of several classes. But middle schoolers are expected to do this in a single testing session.

 

Test proctors are instructed to put aside about 80 minutes for the essay and several related multiple choice questions though, technically, students can take as long as they’d like. They could be given extended time to write for several hours if they want. But most children at this age simply don’t have that kind of stamina. They are not physically and mentally prepared to sit and concentrate like that.

 

It’s a task many adults would find challenging, but we’re expecting 10- and 11-year-olds to do it!

 

Can middle school students (ages 10-14) handle this level of complexity, especially in such a short amount of time?

 

Honestly, it depends on the child. Everyone matures at a different rate. However, for most of the students I have taught in over a decade of middle school experience as a Nationally Board Certified teacher with a Masters Degree in Education, it is my professional opinion that this level of mastery is out of reach.

 

In fact, at an in-service training, administrators at my building had the entire teaching staff attempt this essay to show us what was expected from students. The general consensus was that it was unreasonable.

 

Requiring this level of difficulty simply ignores children’s basic humanity. Most of my students come to me not knowing how to write a good essay. If they were all computers, I could break up everything they needed to know into small bits, give it to them piecemeal over the course of the year, and they would learn. But they are not computers – they are children.

 

That’s why they rebel. We’re demanding more from them than they can give.

 

It might be different if we met them half way. It might be more reachable if higher expectations came with additional help.

 

If my students had any chance to achieve at this level so early in their cognitive development, we would need to bring in a team of writing specialists, a flurry of councilors, nutritionists, and wrap around social services. However, no resources have been added to help students meet these added testing hardships. In fact, Pennsylvania has slashed school budgets by almost $1 billion annually.

 

All the responsibility is thrown on the underfunded schools as if the few teachers who haven’t already been furloughed can somehow perform magic.

 

A surgeon can’t operate without tools. Nor is he expected to do the job of nurse and physical therapist as well.

 

It’s a matter of less resources and harder tests, then blame teachers when it doesn’t work.

 

It’s not just bad policy; it’s a denial of reality.

 

Add to that the social, cultural and economic aspects. Lawmakers pretend everyone is starting from the same point, but this is demonstrably untrue.

 

I teach mostly black and brown kids at a high poverty district. Many of my students only get a hot meal at school. They’re malnourished, violence-scarred, and under-equipped. They have few books in the home. Their parents aren’t around because the adults are working multiple jobs to support them. They live in violent neighborhoods where gunshots, drive-bys and premature death are commonplace. And you think they somehow have the same chances of scoring well on standardized assessments as children without these problems!? You expect them to prioritize standardized testing!?

 

And after years of being subjected to child abuse as education policy, the only thing they’ve learned from testing is that they’re not good at it and they might as well not try.

 

Is it any wonder some of them would rather sit in our school’s version of prison than stay in class and practice test taking strategies?

 

We’re running up against the nature of cognition and how young minds grow. We’re ignoring the social, cultural and economic conditions in which these children live. And we’re pretending this is somehow a fair and just accounting of children’s academic skills and their teachers’ effectiveness.

 

Children need to be engaged. They need to see how an assignment affects their lives. They need to care. They need intrinsic motivation, which is almost impossible to find for a test that is essentially extrinsic.

 

Our current education policy is the equivalent of holding a gun on children and demanding they perform almost impossible tasks.

 

It is time to stop the violence. It’s time to end the child abuse.

 

But is anyone listening?