Dear Friends and other readers,
How do classroom teachers feel about standardized, machine-scored testing? Below is a letter from a young classroom teacher whose identity I am not revealing. This teacher, who has been teaching more than 6 years, fears retribution, apparently with good reason. The letter arrived last week.
Hi Mr. Merrow,
We’ve corresponded before. I’ve been teaching in (WITHHELD) public schools for the past (WITHHELD) years. I’m an ESL teacher but am also certified in Remedial Reading. I want to tell you about administering of the (STATE NAME WITHHELD) test to 3-5 grade ESL students last April. This event was the thing that broke the camel’s back for me when it came to deciding whether or not I could continue with a career in public school education.
As I’m still teaching in (WITHHELD), I chose to email you rather than respond on your blog. They told us they can monitor our social media use and ‘discipline’ us based on that, so…
For three solid weeks I had to administer a computer-based test that was not only too difficult for my students to navigate (computer issues, not having adequate keyboarding skills, English language deficits, etc.) but had specific lessons to be taught prior to the exam, lessons that were bizarre at best. As any good teacher would tell you, you don’t teach a lesson and test on it immediately, yet the (WITHHELD) exam seems to think it’s perfectly fine. Hmmm. My third grade students were instructed to cite three sources in their answers, yet this is not a skill that they are taught in the third grade. The layout/format of the test was such that most students simply answered the questions, and didn’t read the passages.
As teachers, we were instructed to give no help other than say, “Do your best. I can’t help you in any way. Do your best.” We could touch the computer only to log on a student. Some computers crashed up to 11 times each test session.
The most heartbreaking part, the one that tipped me over, was having to test a third grade student who had only been in the country a few weeks and was suffering trauma due to family issues. She had to be tested on the math part. She spoke no English. She was faced with a math test of mostly word problems. She looked at us pleading for help, but all we could say was, “Do your best…”
We used Google Translation to try to tell her that it was OK, she could just guess, just finish the job, etc. but she really didn’t understand. This child had to take THREE Math sections. She understood nothing. When she finished each day (it sometimes took hours), I had to return her to her regular classroom with both of us in tears. After I told her classroom teacher what had happened, the teacher would be in tears, too!
What did this measure? What did this tell us about our teaching? What did this do to help the student? NOTHING. If she was reluctant to come to school before the test, now she was MORE reluctant.
All states give a ‘pass’ to ESL students who have been in the country less than a year, but ONLY on the English Language Arts part. You could literally arrive in the country on Monday, and if the Math test is administered on Tuesday, you must take it. But today’s math tests include “explain your answer.” Or they are word problems. Or they test on math aspects that the student may not have been taught yet in his or her country.
The party line we get is “Math is universal…” Rote calculations, yes, but word problems, and introduction of geometry and algebra concepts in third grade are not universal.
I love teaching my students, but I feel, as do many of my ESL colleagues, that our voices are irrelevant. And when we complain that the tests are not measuring anything or that they test skills that have not been taught, we are told (or at least the message is implied) that we are ‘negative,’ ‘lazy,’ ‘old-school,’ et cetera.
Thanks for letting me vent. I know that there are MANY ESL teachers who are feeling the same way.
Do you have any advice for this young professional? Stick it out, or find a new line of work?
How many other teachers feel as this one does? Can our system afford to drive away teachers like this (GENDER WITHHELD)?
Three weeks of testing, sometimes for three or more hours a day? Have we lost our minds?
The current ‘moratorium’ is the ideal time for state-wide conversations about testing and assessment. I hope many of you are asking your school boards and superintendents to fill out that form I provided last week.
For your convenience, here it is again:
Students in our district will take _____ standardized, machine-scored tests during the course of the year. Is this an appropriate number?
Of these tests, _____ were selected by the district, and _____ are required by the state.
A student who attends our district from Kindergarten through graduation will take _____ standardized tests during his or her time in school. Is this number too high, too low or about right?
There are only _____ days on our 180-day calendar when a standardized test is NOT being administered. 
Some test results determine a child’s promotion, while others are used to evaluate schools and teachers. Is this the right approach? How useful is this information? Should we test only a carefully drawn sample  of students when we want to evaluate schools, instead of testing every student?
Right now we test all students in only _____ subjects. However, if we are going to evaluate all teachers according to their students’ scores, we will need to test in more subjects, including art, science, social studies and music. Is this advisable?
There is a ____ month lag time between the administration of a test and the delivery of the results. Is this acceptable?
Our school district spends $_____ per year to buy and score standardized tests. (These out-of-pocket costs do not include the labor costs.) This amounts to less than _____ % of our annual school budget.  Is this amount low, high or about right?
We devote _____ hours per year to testing, out of approximately 900 hours of actual class time during the 180-day school year. Is this amount excessive, too little, or about right?
In addition, many teachers devote another ____ hours to what is known as ‘test prep.’ The numbers vary from teacher to teacher and school to school and are difficult to pinpoint, but nevertheless the issue merits public discussion.
Last year we fired _____ teachers because their students’ scores did not go up sufficiently.
Last year we distributed $$ _____ in cash awards to teachers whose students’ scores went up well beyond the expected level.
Last year we investigated _____ incidents of alleged cheating on standardized tests, _____ by students and _____ by teachers and other administrators.
- 1. Be prepared to be surprised by the answer here because Lee County is not alone. Christina Veiga of The Miami Herald reported a story headlined ‘In Miami-Dade the Testing Never Stops.” She wrote, “Out of the 180-day academic year, Miami-Dade County schools will administer standardized tests on every day but eight.” http://www.miamiherald.com/2014/09/01/4322452/in-miami-dade-schools-testing.html#storylink=cpy↵
- 2. This is a perfectly plausible approach, as we reported on the PBS NewsHour recently, http://learningmatters.tv/blog/on-pbs-newshour/watch-testing-schools-instead-of-students/12470/↵
- 3. This number will probably NOT be high because most schools buy cheap tests. In Lee County, Florida, for example, the $5,258,493 it spends on testing is not even one-half of one percent of the district’s budget.↵