Can You Bubble That In For Me?

A blog reader, a colleague and friend, pointed out this poem by Ruslana Westerland, an EL educator, that asks who are the victims of standardized testing. So, I read it and thought about it.

Here’s what occurred to me. If you had doctors all over the country telling you that smoking was bad for you, you would listen. You wouldn’t let the government pass laws that mandated that we all smoke, right? It took a few decades but we eventually did let the research rule the day even though the Tobacco Industry fought it tooth and nail. Think about that, though, how hard they fought. It was clear they had money to make off those cigarettes.

If you personally visited three lawyers and all three independently told you that you would lose that case in court, would you still file papers? What if you visited ten lawyers and they all said virtually the same thing? What if your case got national attention and scores of lawyers all agreed that you would lose that case in court? You’d be mental to file anyway. Right? You wouldn’t do it. You’d realize that all of those professionals, those educated and experienced experts in law were telling you the truth.

I mean, I could see if you doubted the word of one or two lawyers, sure. But, all of them?

So, how many teachers do you know that are in favor of standardized testing being used to measure the overall success of students, teachers and schools? I’m sure you can find some who will tell you that the tests have their uses, yes. But, by my reading, it sure sounds like thousands of teachers all over the country are pretty soundly against these tests. And, from the way that people fight to keep these tests in place, you have to wonder what they are getting out of it. Do you think maybe there’s millions of dollars to be made in the testing industry? More importantly, ask yourself, who stands to gain when public schools get shut down and turned into charters (which is apparently the ultimate goal of No Child Left Behind)? Do the thousands of teachers all really have a vested interest in shutting down standardized testing? How do we get thousands of teachers to speak out in near unanimity on a given subject.

To some degree, this should be remarkable in and of itself. Despite the stereotypical image of the “school teacher” with prim clothing, glasses pinching the tip of her nose, who goes home and grades with red pen while watching educational programs on TV and eating a sensible meal quietly before retiring at a very reasonable hour, most teachers couldn’t be less alike. There is not a monolithic “teacher personality.” We have conservatives and liberals at my high school. I even talk to a couple of the conservatives, especially if they have cookies. I love cookies. But, this goes beyond politics. I mean, if you can get liberals and conservatives to both agree on something, then it just might be true. Apparently, even conservatives can be convinced of the truth occasionally. (Okay, sorry for the partisan digs. I had an extra cup of coffee this morning.)

I will play Devil’s Advocate here: The reason that teachers don’t like the tests is because they’re afraid of getting fired, making less money, having their poor teaching exposed, and they’re lazy. That’s the argument, I think. It might be true in one case or another. I will tell you that in my first year of teaching, I remember having a discussion with the principal who was evaluating me. We were going over the standards for teachers and talking about how I could improve. It was a very productive conversation, not least of which because I had lots of room for improvement. Teachers get graded as either Needs Improvement, Developing, Proficient, or Distinguished. Being an overachiever, I had designs on being a Distinguished teacher, fo’ sho’. (That’s “for sure” as the kids say it, you know. I understand it comes from “rap music.”) So, I told the principal that I, who was receiving mostly “developing” marks and a couple “needs improvements,” wanted to be distinguished and what was it going to take get there. He laughed, in a kind, not cruel, manner, and told me that it takes years to become distinguished. I was a little dismayed, but I said, since there are many veteran teachers here, we must have lots of distinguished teachers and he laughed more this time, and not kindly. He said, no, that most teachers were happy to get proficient scores.

I was stunned by that. My little overachiever brain couldn’t figure out how you could be okay with just being “good” at something. Doesn’t everyone want to be the best? And, even if you can’t be the best, wouldn’t you want to continually improve and at least try to be the best?

But, I guess he was right. There are teachers that are happy just getting to a certain point and staying there. And, that’s cool. I mean, if you’re getting proficient scores from your evaluator, then you’re probably doing a good job in the classroom. Nonetheless, I don’t know that this means that most teachers are lazy. Complacent, possibly, but hardly lazy. Teaching is a butt-load of work. I realize that “butt-load” is not a universal standard of measurement but it does connote a huge amount. Anyway, teaching involves lesson planning, creation of resources like power points, worksheets, graphic organizers, etc, the delivery of instruction, preliminary assessments, formative assessments, summative assessments, reflection, grading, reteaching and also, someone has to decorate the classroom. Like I said, that’s a butt-load of work.

So, getting back to the question at hand, do we think that most teachers are afraid of their poor teaching being outed by the tests? That seems really unlikely. Don’t you think? I mean, we have a near universal sentiment among teachers against the testing and statistics will tell you that probably 30% or less of those teachers are really “poor” teachers that would be outed. Most of them would be proficient or above. So, does it make sense to say that teachers, universally, just don’t want to be evaluated? Or, is it more plausible to think that what the teachers really want is to be judged fairly?

When I was getting my teaching credential, one of my classes addressed assessment (that’s what we call testing in educational circles) and we looked at how we test, why we test, and when we test. We looked at assessments to determine if they were valid. We talked about standardized testing, too. In reality, for a standardized test to be truly valid then it needs to be truly standardized. In other words, it has to be given at about the same time and in about the same conditions. This is why testing happens in, or about, April in most schools (the mandate is that it happen after a certain amount of time has passed in the school year) and why the teachers have to read scripts to the students when administering the tests. “You are about to take a test on mathematics. This test is designed to show what you learned in your mathematics classes this year. Read the questions carefully, then mark your answers on the answer sheet in the bubble that corresponds to the question you’re answering. Take your time, but do not spend too much time on any one question. When you get to the STOP sign, put your pencil down, close your book and wait for the testing period to be finished. You will have 60 minutes to finish the test. Are there any questions.” Then, it usually says in the book, very helpfully, to answer any student questions. I missed reading that the first time I gave the tests in my classroom and ignored all of the student questions. Luckily I read those directions the next time.

But, do you really think that the tests are given in this standardized manner? How standardized is it if you have students coming to school to take the test that didn’t eat last night, or this morning? How standardized is it if they barely slept because of “family issues?” You might say that those would be isolated cases and statistically irrelevant, but not in my school. Not in many schools across the country.

Also, in that teaching class, one of the things that this professor made very clear to us was that we should test what we teach and teach what we test. That’s one of those very simple but profound statements. Let’s call it the axiom of assessment, even. You test what you teach because you need to see if you taught it adequately and teach what you test because it’s not fair to do otherwise. Think about that. You have to teach what you’re going to test to the students. It’s not fair to test them on things they haven’t been taught. Now, bear in mind that the tests and the questions are closely guarded secrets. So, as a teacher, you don’t know precisely what will be tested.

Aha! But, you do! We are testing them on the standards!!! All teachers should be teaching to the standards, right? That’s good as far as it goes, but it’s unreasonable to think that just because we know the standards means that the tests are valid measures of our teaching. Go read the standards for yourself. I linked them for you. I don’t think that someone that doesn’t know me and my teaching can make up a test and come into my classroom on one day and administer that test to my students and get a fair assessment. Does that seem fair to you? But, that’s what happens. They say, “Well you taught to the standards, right?” Then, they give the test on one day, a test I’ve never seen and test my students having never met them and never having stepped into my classroom and they say that test is a fair judgement of my abilities as a teacher.

So, go back to that axiom of assessment. You teach what you test. On a simple level, we teach to the standards since that’s what’s being tested. But, that’s not what happens, really. What happens is that, since we know we are being judged and that our school, our students are being judged by these tests and that the stakes are pretty high since they fire people and close schools for poor test scores, we start teaching kids to do better on these standardized tests. We give them practice tests. We teach them test-taking skills. You know, eliminate the wrong answers, when in doubt pick “C”, read the questions before you read the passage and so on. And, there’s no point in going into depth in your lessons since standardized tests can’t go into depth with multiple choice questions. That’s not lazy, that’s just smart. Why waste your time on depth when the tests are looking for breadth?

So, who are the victims of standardized testing? We all are. It’s not just the kids. It’s all of us. It’s the generation of
students that are lacking in depth and being tested to distraction. It’s the generation of teachers that are being marginalized and ignored and unfairly criticized. Its the schools being shut down and turned into “for profit” charter schools. (A subject for another blog.) And, it’s you. Because those kids grow up. Those tests don’t really require critical thinking and problem solving skills. So, those kids will grow up, go into the work place and vote. And, they will do it badly because, as the poem says, paraphrasing Diane Ravitch, “You can’t bubble in the answers to life’s questions.”

Most of all, consider this. Would you rather have kids that can write a blog entry like this? Or kids that are good at taking standardized tests? Because, you can’t fit writing like this in a bubble. You can’t fit complex thoughts into a bubble. Thousands of teachers are telling you that standardized tests are killing education and you still let the government do it? Well, like the lung cancer victims who smoked their whole lives, don’t be surprised when you get what you deserve: a generation of kids who can bubble that in for you.


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