Are You Not Entertained?! The Consequences of Standardized Test Prep

Are you not satisfied with the educational system?!

In the film, Gladiator, the character played by Russell Crowe, Maximus, is a Roman Soldier who is enslaved and made to be a gladiator. He is already a killing machine, a hardened soldier, and, angry at being forced to kill for sport, he proceeds to dispatch his opponents quickly, easily, and shouts at the crowd, “Are you not entertained?!” He knows they are not. This is not what they had in mind.

So, I feel like shouting something similar right now. I just sat through an hour long “workshop” to help me prepare my students for the California High School Exit Exam, otherwise known as the CAHSEE. This test is supposed to see if the kids have learned the minimum amount necessary to earn a high school diploma. If kids don’t pass the test, no matter what grades they earn, they don’t get a diploma. So, there are high stakes for the kids.

The adults have a stake in this, too. The pass rate is used by people, district officials, to judge the schools, primarily the administrators. And, the scores are published in newspapers, used by politicians, and part of how schools get funding. People use these scores to decide if the schools are doing a good job. And, more and more, districts are using them to evaluate teachers. The assumption is that if students are passing the test, they must be learning what we want them to learn. The further assumption with this test, and other standardized tests, is that the tests are a valid measure of student learning. In other words, the things that the students learn in school are being tested by the CAHSEE and these are the things we want them to learn.

Educators have been warning that an over reliance on standardized tests will lead to teachers teaching to the test and a narrowing of the curriculum. For years now, the prediction has been that if you put pressure on teachers to raise test scores, that will become the point of the school year, and that teachers will do what they need to do in order to ensure student, and, therefore, teacher success.

The warnings have come true. It has come to pass. The teachers are teaching to the test and the curriculum has been narrowed. Here is the absolute, undeniable truth. I am going to relate to you what happened in this workshop as proof that the canary has died, the warnings have come true, it is no longer a possibility, it is a reality.

The workshop began with us watching a clip of Nick Saban explaining that the reason he works so hard is because he likes to win, to be the best. So, that’s the tone of the presentation. We are supposed to want to win. This is reinforced when the presenter* says he is competitive and always plays to win, and that when he was a classroom teacher, he used the student scores on the standardized tests, like the CAHSEE, to see if he was winning at work.

Does that sound like education to you? Is education a game to win? Do you want teachers worrying about winning? You might think you do. Let’s look at what that means, in practice.

The presenter brought out charts to represent data that showed how students scored on the CAHSEE. We found that about 24% missed passing the test by 5 points or less. We saw that about 80% of the students in the district are passing the test and about the same or slightly more are passing at our school. That sounds pretty good, to me. An 80% pass rate sounds decent. Not great, certainly, but not reason to panic, either.

So, the presenter put up a chart that showed the breakdown of the types of questions that the test has. They were split up by standards. California uses standards as the teaching objectives, the skills that students are supposed to learn. So, for example, he told us that 25% of the test is Reading Comprehension. So, we should focus on activities that teach students Reading Comprehension. Why? Because that standard had the most “bang for the buck”. His reasoning, as a certified math teacher, was that if students were learning reading comprehension, then they were learning Word Analysis and Response to Literature at the same time. Maybe, but maybe not. Word Analysis is more like a vocabulary exercise where you use knowledge of Greek and Latin roots, prefixes and suffixes, and so on, to figure out what words mean. But, Reading Comprehension is more about figuring out plot or tone or something like that. (Most of this is not very high on the cognitive scale, by the way. It is low, to mid-level thinking, mostly identifying things, recognizing them.)

And, honestly, respectfully, he was talking about teaching English about as well as I would talk about teaching math. That is to say, he was pretty much wrong.

So, my problem is, first, that we are making a lot of assumptions. Most of my fellow English teachers were muttering that focusing on Writing Applications, which comprises 20% of the score, is a better idea. What does that mean? That we would focus on teaching kids to write essays. Why? Well, when you’re writing, you’re reading. You are literally reading what you have written. When you write, you usually have to read something, like literature, and you need to comprehend it, to analyze it. Realistically, you are probably addressing five, or more, standards in that kind of activity.

It’s much more of a bang for your buck activity. Read and write about what you read.

That was mentioned. His response was enthusiastic. Yes! Great! Have them write! And, he said, there are things you can do if the kids don’t write well. He said you should make sure they indent paragraphs. You should have them write five paragraphs. You should have them make sure they have topic sentences for all of their paragraphs. This will, he said, help “masquerade their writing” [sic] so it looks as if they know how to write.

He actually said that. It will help mask the fact that they can’t write well.

Are you not entertained?!

Basically, this district official was telling us ways to game the system, the best ways to increase test scores. We did not talk about student learning. We didn’t talk about what was best for kids. See, that’s a given in these areas. This is best for kids. We should use test scores to drive instruction. We should make curricular choices based on what standards will help students pass the test with the highest score. We should win!

Let that sink in. We, as teachers, are choosing the lessons based on what will increase student test scores. We are not asking if this will help kids prepare for college. We are not asking if this is what students need to be ready for life after high school. We are not asking if this will help them get a job and support themselves.

Not only are we teaching based on what standards will be on the test and which ones will raise test scores the easiest, but we are focusing on that. We are narrowing the curriculum so that we can make sure the kids are successful with that. Because, as we were told, success breeds more success. The presenter then recommended that we get the released test questions and spend 3 to 5 days on going over those questions. We should teach them to do better on those questions, help them practice to take the test.

Are you not satisfied with the educational system? Isn’t this what you wanted? It must be. We all heard the warnings. Teachers have been saying this for years. We have been telling anyone who would listen, and most didn’t, that this would happen. How could it not? How could you put so much pressure on teachers to raise scores and not expect them to focus on those things that would do the easiest and most effectively?

This is the state of the educational system today. This is what No Child Left Behind has given us. Why? Because the pass rate of Sophomores on the CAHSEE counts for 100% of the Annual Yearly Progress (AYP) score that is a huge part of NCLB and determines things like if a school is considered failing or not. Of course you, as a principal, are going to focus on this. You’re not stupid. Your job is riding on this! They publish these scores in the papers. And, increasingly, districts are trying to use these scores to see if teachers are good or not.

So, am I going to do it? Why wouldn’t I? I want people to think I’m a good teacher! This is my job! This is how I pay my bills! It’s how I support my family! Yes, I am going to want my kids to pass this test and get high scores. And, you must want me to, as well, because you will base my evaluation on this, you will publish my name in the paper with these scores, as they do in some places, like Los Angeles and New York.

I guess you are satisfied and entertained because I’m still a gladiator and the games don’t look to be changing any time soon. The tests are not going away.

*I want to be clear that this is in no way critical of the presenter today. I am sure he was doing the best he could with the assignment he was given. In my opinion, we are all complicit in this problem. We, the teachers that go along with it, the administrators who push the agenda, the citizens who believe it.

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