Simmering Frustration about State-Mandated Testing

I’ve been ruminating over this one for a time–not sure if I should post it or not. I actually wrote it about two weeks ago and have been thinking about it since.

The last thing I want you all to think is that I’m a ranting, raving lunatic.

Recently we had our monthly faculty meeting, which included a once-a-year agenda item: training for the upcoming yearly state-mandated testing.

As I sat and listened yet once again to all the strict guidelines coming from the state, I noticed anger simmering in me.

Where was it coming from?

Our newest administrator was the one reviewing all the guidelines with us, and I realized how much of her time has likely been taken up with preparations for the state test this year (a test, mind you, that is “transitional” as the state is building a new assessment system to line up with our new state standards… we teachers here in this state have no idea what the tests will actually look like that will become 50% of our evaluation each year according to the state’s new “teacher effectiveness bill”  either).

And I thought about the building administrative assistant whose job is pretty much taken over by all of this at this time of year. And if either one of these people managing the deployment of this test makes any kind of error in handling the test booklets securely or training all of us to respect all the guidelines, our school’s scores are at risk of invalidation.

This year there’s a new rule: students cannot have a water bottle anywhere near them as they are taking the test. I imagine someone last year spilled water on his/her test and now the whole state is locked down. Last year the new rule was no gum.

Other than that, all the rules are pretty much the same. And the most frustrating rule to me is the one surrounding “active proctoring”: I literally can do nothing during the testing but watch the students take the test. I cannot read. I cannot write. I cannot grade papers. Even when all the students in the room have finished a given test but the testing block is not yet over and THEY are all silently reading the books they get to have, I still can not do anything but watch them to make sure no one does anything that might lead to a “misadminstration” for a student’s test.

If we don’t follow all these rules, our school’s test scores could be invalidated. We’re at constant risk of a person from the state department of education showing up at our school during testing and wandering around to make sure we’re following all the guidelines.

We do this testing over two weeks. It takes up Tuesday and Wednesday morning for two weeks. This completely messes up our typical schedule. We find that the students involved in the testing (the 9th and 10th graders) are pretty spent by the afternoon and it’s difficult to get much accomplished with them. And the 11th and 12th graders who have had the morning to do whatever are also difficult to get focused in those afternoons. It amounts to two weeks where we can accomplish little and everyone is exhausted and confused about what class period is happening at a given moment.

And the results of all of this testing are never available to teachers at a time that would actually help us with our current crop of students. By the time the results are back, our students have moved on to another school year.

And every year I wonder just why we must do it. It’s certainly not for the teachers and students, even though it’s our lives that are in disarray for a couple of weeks. It’s certainly not for the administrative staff who puts in hours and hours of time to prepare the building for the testing.

The only argument that has traction for our students is that the results of the tests matter for their school as a whole–if our test scores drop then our school could be seen in a negative light by the community and by the colleges that they are all hoping to get into some day.

The problem? The high stakes that come along with these tests. The stakes are so high that security must be tight on these exams leading to all the constricting guidelines that make the testing days arduous for everyone involved. In our school, our students generally do well on these tests, but even so the stakes are high. If we can’t convince students to show up and take these tests seriously, our scores can drop and that does affect us. How? There’s the example mentioned above about how the colleges our students wish to attend may look at the value of their high school education from a school with dropping test scores. But also if the test scores drop then maybe our enrollment will drop because people think there are problems here at our school (we have open enrollment in our state–you’re guaranteed a spot in your neighborhood school but you can open enroll into any school in the district and a large component of our student body are open enrolled). If our enrollment drops then we get less FTE from the district since our total FTE is correlated with student enrollment. When we get less FTE from the district, teachers lose jobs. And soon, the evaluation of my “effectiveness” as a teacher will also hinge on these test scores even though I have no control over how seriously students will decide to approach the tests.

I have no problem with accountability. I have no problem with high expectations and high standards for all students. I have a problem with testing that provides little instructional value but that takes up an enormous amount of energy and time and money for us to deploy. I have a problem with mandated testing for pretty much every grade, every year (as the new assessment system in our state rolls out, it will encompass more grades for every year). I have a problem with stakes attached to these tests that are so high that it could compromise the integrity of test scores (just check the news for examples of schools and districts across the country that have cheated in various ways to meet impossible test score goals in order to protect their schools and their teachers’ jobs). I have a problem with a “transitional” testing system–why not take a year or two off from mandated testing until the state figures out exactly what the new exams will look like? Think of the money the state could save! I have a problem with a general desire out there (even voiced by our President in the recent State of the Union address) for schools to not “teach to the test” but a complete lack of understanding from the power brokers that our current education laws and policies encourage nothing but teaching to the test (Mister S articulated this quite well in a recent post). I have a problem with giving over two weeks of a school year to this testing. I have a problem with being told I must sit in a room, watching students take a test, for three hours on four different days.

I will follow all the guidelines. I will do what I am told. I will do this because my administrators in my school (whom I respect greatly) have asked me to do this. I will even try to make the experience as pleasant as possible for the students in my testing room. I will motivate them to take it seriously.  I will find ways to entertain my mind while I watch the students take the test. I will disguise from the students my frustration with all of this.

But I will not be happy about it and I will continue to find it difficult to locate the educational value in any of it (though I’ll keep looking). And I’ll continue to wish that some power broker out there would stand up and say “enough!” and get us on a track toward state testing that actually makes sense, that’s minimally intrusive to classrooms, and that provides real instructional value to teachers and students in classrooms.

So wish me luck. We start next week.

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4 Responses to Simmering Frustration about State-Mandated Testing

  1. Robert LaRue says:

    25 years ago I found out exactly how one school in the district was cheating on standardized tests. At time it was the ITBS. My son, who knew what I thought of the test in the first place, filled in beautiful geometric shapes on his answer sheet. (He attended the school where I taught.) The counselor called me in and said they would be asking my son to retake the test (a violation already) because the school needed the high score they expected from him to help raise their average. Turns out the counselor was going through each test and hand ‘cleaning up’ the bubble sheets. I won’t say more about that angle. I asked if he thought my son should prepare for the retake by devising better geometric patterns. The counselor was not amused. Apparently he did not know that properly normed tests account for anomalies like this… or he was just outright hoping to scam the system for the benefit of the school. I told him it was entirely up to my son if he wanted to take the test… and entirely up to him what he chose to do with the ‘answers’. From then on, I have always taken personal leave during the testing days. I will not participate in testing that is used for political purposes. Maybe these old illegitimate ‘cleaning up’ scandals have be avoided by the strict rules… but, as pointed out above, the test provide little useful educational information… and major hammers for crushing the already most challenged schools. These mandated state designed standardized tests are proof that the dreaded NEA, and teacher unions in general, are actually politically ineffective.

  2. Curt says:

    While a teacher would jeopardize their employment by protesting the test, students and parents can have a say in this matter. Bartleby Project

  3. Linda says:

    I am not from Michigan, but the political leverage of the schools everywhere are used because the majority of the country have children in schools and they (the parents) carry a big proportion of the vote. If the test has no educational value then why can’t the students take the test at the beginning of summer vacation? And I don’t understand the strictness necessary for the teachers monitoring the test, seems a lot of unnecessary policing. Teachers are trained so that they can read and monitor the students at the same time. Almost like they have a third eye.

  4. Pingback: Testing Backlash: Zombies, Spoken Word, Opting Out | The Paper Graders

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