Friday, July 20, 2012

Response to a Dialogue: The excess of testing.

I write in response to Stephen Krashen's letter on July 16, 2011 in the New York Times and his "Invitation to a Dialogue"

I am new faculty at Fairfield University and Director of one of three Connecticut Writing Project sites in the state. I have been a classroom teacher and researcher, however, for over 15 years in urban schools. I left New York to do my Masters degree in Kentucky  because I wanted to teach in a state that prepared youth for college and career readiness. At the time, Kentucky was on the radar of the nation for its educational reform. Why? They created a K-12 writing program that encouraged teachers to teach writing in all subject areas. Portfolios in 4th, 7th, and 12th grade were used as part of the state's accountability system and what I loved about them was that youth could showcase a variety of thinking in several genres and were encouraged to take their writing through many drafts, much discussion, and elaborate thought development. Through reading them, you learned a tremendous amount about students and saw that they could stand their ground once they graduated hight school. They were more than a Scan Tron sheet.

Kentucky removed the portfolios in 2007, however, and I left the classroom to pursue more education. I needed to learn how to help others make smarter decisions for educational reform. The removal of portfolios, I thought, was dumb and the replacement of such expectations by the ACT, placing greater emphasis on literary analysis, and providing mandates with less youth awareness was inane. 

In my classroom I stood under a banner that read, "My students are so much more than a test score." 

The problem with the use of standardized tests is they are limited on what they measure. Yet, they are used to destroy teacher morale, to bully teachers and students, and to establish a state of fear in our schools.  The poorer the district the more bullied the teachers. It's disgusting.  In my research where I interviewed refugee youth new to the country,  reading, writing, thinking, and speaking were equated to taking tests. When I asked them, "What is English class like?" they usually responded, "It is having a teacher read to you and answering the questions she gives you."  The university freshmen I currently teach also report that their teachers primarily instructed them for state tests. They were rarely were engaged in intellectual, thought-provoking, and stimulating conversations in high school. They hated these tests but it is all they have ever known. They readily admit that they were taught not to think. Thinking, for them, is new territory. 

The tests have destroyed their minds. 

I'm recalling an observation I made on Facebook this spring  around the time testing was occurring nation wide. Many of my friends who have school aged children were leaving posts like, "My child is in her room crying. She is scared of her tests in the morning." "My child wants to quit school and she's in second grade. She hates to learn". "All my child does in school is take tests."  These were posted by non-educators. My teaching friends are extremely frantic about teaching and many want out (in fact, anyone who knows a teacher might be able to switch the child above with the word "teacher"). These are spectacular individuals who offer passion and fuel to our schools. I love their enthusiasm, but many are writing to me to say that they can no longer take - they're forbidden to teach. They can only test and be reprimanded if they don't. 

Young people need to be accountable and to have a tremendous skill set for the 21st century (which includes writing in a variety of genres for multiple purposes). Still, the testing regime encourages on-demand quick writing that is not realistic. It's contrived and bizarre, yet more and more prevalent in our schools. I am so thankful that brilliant teachers and scholars have put volumes of knowledge into the field to counter what these tests are doing. I'm angry that politicians have not listened to such expertise and have made ignorant decisions through the reforms they've mandated.

Although it is difficult to correlate, it might be the testing itself that causes the deficits in skills that we are trying to "fix". I am horrified by what I see being done to teachers and students. They are not allowed to be innovative, creative, inquisitive, or interested. Diversity in viewpoints and originality in thought are being squashed. Robotic, monstrous dictations are forced upon them. I am shaking my head thinking, "I'm glad I went to school when I did and had the wonderful teaching experiences in Kentucky while the State encouraged  portfolios and the power of believing in youth." George Hillocks wrote in 2002 that the choices made by states in their reforms also create the testing traps placed on teachers and students. The Common Core State Standards aren't bad....but I fear the testing that will come with them.

The rhetoric needs to move toward action. More of us need to unite to push this madness out of our schools.

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