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Undoing the Damage of High-Stakes Testing

In the song, Tis of Thee, Ani DiFranco sings, “We’ll never live long enough to undo everything they’ve done to you,” and I believe this is the mantra we should associate with high-stakes testing. Standardized tests have plagued our education system since the 1920s and associated with the results of these tests are decisions that impact our students’ futures. I am not telling you something you probably haven’t realized. You probably want to change the system, but…..

and that is the killer word for all education reform is the “but” because this means that very soon you will enter this school year and have to subject our students to another year of this well-known enemy that has plagued us for decades, high-stakes testing. Testing results are what determine our future and our students’ futures.

It’s 2010, soon it will be 2020 and that will be a century of standardized testing, yet we will continue to never have changed this system.

The Damage to Educators

Educators are judged by the scores and that is the language that talks and makes decisions. Depending what scores our students make determines how our district leaders who never stepped in our classroom determine if we are good teachers. Depending on what scores our students make determines how politicians, parents, and the media evaluate if we are good teachers. Now it determines our school funding, how much we get paid, and what and who we teach the next year. This is why teachers teach to the test, because in this type of system it is easier to conform and make sure kids pass than to keep fighting year after year. I’ve seen some great teachers get burnt out this year. They were incredible mentors but they don’t want to be part of the school system anymore.

The Damage to Students

The saddest part is what these test results determine for our students. They determine if they get scholarships and in many cases the lowest achieving students come from the poorest families. If they don’t receive these scholarships then they can’t afford college. The test results determine if students pass to the next level. They determine which classes they have access to, what colleges they get accepted to, if they are taught by experienced teachers, and what privileges they receive in school. If a student fails and hates school then they are forced to stay for more grueling hours in either their summers or before and after school. In some cases, I have found these students have learning needs, but still forced to take standardized tests. The test results determine if their schools which are already the worst in the country are provided funds not to receive technology but to receive air conditioning and enough staff. In three of my Master’s classes I had different teachers tell me their schools in the US could not even afford toilet paper. The parents would provide this for their children or they would ration the toilet paper.

I visited a DODS school and they had a speech pathologist, a counselor, a psychologist, a special education teacher, a technology specialist, a nurse, and an English language teacher. I cried. Every teacher I met I told they were fortunate and so were their students. I cried because in Texas I spent a semester doing a reading program for a middle school with the lowest reading levels in the state. They didn’t have any of these positions and they needed them. The special education students were placed in general education classes as were the ESL students.

Breaking Cycles

It makes me ill to believe some statesman who more than likely went to the best schools in the country and not any of these schools will look at the test scores and decide the faith of that school. It makes me ill to believe the media would rather make stories of teachers getting fired viral than to deal with the issue of the condition of the worst schools in our country. I went to these schools and so did my cousins and parents and their parents. It is sad that the same schools with the lowest achieving scores have existed for generations in my family. It is sad that this is the same for many of my family’s friends. It is sad that my family members for generations seem to continue failing at these schools and are stuck in cycles. It’s time to revolutionize schools. We need to step up and finally change them because I don’t want to have to see the same students stuck in these cycles of poverty and failing at the same schools generation after generation due to a century of standardized testing.

The only way we can break a century of the status quo is by first getting fed up! Not until we are disgusted, fed up and passionate to make a change will education reform occur. In my next post, we will tackle how we can try to change the system. For now, I hope you’re as fed up as I am!

This was inspired by a comment from Deven Black to this post, Children and Cardboard Boxes.

About Shelly Sanchez Terrell

Shelly Sanchez Terrell (@ShellTerrell) is an award winning digital innovator, international speaker, and the author of Hacking Digital Learning: Ways to Launch EdTech Missions, The 30 Goals Challenge for Teachers, Learning to Go, and Teacher Reboot Camp. She has trained teachers and taught learners in over 20 countries as an invited guest expert and ambassador for the U.S. Embassy. She was named Woman of the Year by the National Association of Professional Women and received a Bammy Award as the founder of #Edchat. Her greatest joy is being the mother of Savannah. She currently enjoys being a PBL elementary teacher and curriculum writer in Houston, Texas.


7 thoughts on “Undoing the Damage of High-Stakes Testing

  1. Hi Shelly, I read this comment on a plane a couple of days ago (6.19.10), in response to a New York Times piece on schools pressed to show progress on standardized tests who change kids’ answers (cheat).

    “Although the intense pressures on teachers don’t justify cheating, they certainly make it understandable. What would you do if your professional life and livelihood depended on students’ test scores, and the little demons wouldn’t come to school regularly, do their homework or even pay attention in class? The only moral course of action left in these twisted times of test scores as king is nonviolent resistance on a grand scale: the faculties of entire schools and districts should teach what is best for their students and not waste time on test prep; refuse merit pay; let parents know that tests are not the true measure of their children’s knowledge; and stand together against all unfair dismissals of their colleagues.”

    -Joanne Yatvin, Portland, OR (The writer is a former public school teacher, principal and district superintendent who now teaches at the Graduate School of Education at Portland State University)

    Maybe Ms. Yatvin should be invited to join the COOP? I am particularly taken with the idea of massive non violent resistance in response to values teachers hold dear. That would be a kind of political formation process unlike anything we’ve ever seen in the history of the sector.

    Posted by Kirsten | June 22, 2010, 8:01 am
    • I am on board with non-violent resistance. I have pitched the idea on a few #edchat sessions and found that I quickly was pushed to the fringe of the conversation. I haven’t seen other plausible alternatives offered to strongly make the point that we are done with this era of standardized testing. In fact, the mainstream options are: put up with it and find some more pleasing way to go through with it, or leave public schools. I don’t like those being the only options.

      Posted by Adam Burk | June 22, 2010, 8:03 pm
  2. Thanks Kirsten for your comment! I am not surprised by this cheating. In my Master’s research I came across studies where principals encouraged their students with low scores to drop out of the school so their scores wouldn’t count against them. I am also for massive non-violent resistance and analyzing how this can come to fruition.

    Posted by Shelly Sanchez Terrell | June 22, 2010, 8:41 am
  3. what great insight – thank you both for riling me up. 🙂

    i just read by John Spencer. it’s brilliant… i’m hoping he joins us here soon.
    Kirsten – in it – he talks of cheating in the same way you cited – only from the kids perspective.

    Will Richardson’s post today hit it as well: – we spend so much time withdrawing or wasting time debating an issue we don’t even believe in. when the conversation is centered on not making the grade or not achieving.. that’s when we need to (as Martin says in the design of business) stare down the capital markets.

    we so need to get on the offense.. no more defense.
    can’t wait to read Shelly’s next post..
    there are so many great role models out there: – we just need to scale it out.. make it available to everyone (teachers and students alike.)

    Posted by monika hardy | June 22, 2010, 9:18 am
  4. Well put, Shelly!

    I am frustrated by how many people simply see Standardized Testing as one more tool to have in the tool box. While they admit that it shouldn’t be the end-all-be-all, they believe they still play an important role. This kind of thinking is cancerous and grossly misinformed.

    Standardized Testing is driving education reform. The testing tail is wagging the leaning dog.

    I absolutely loved the lyric you provided from Tis of Thee.

    Again, well put!!

    Posted by Joe Bower | June 22, 2010, 12:54 pm
  5. In the field in which I work, EFL (teaching English as a foreign language), high-stakes standardized tests are alive and well.

    Unfortunately a significant number of students in Korea, Japan, China and Taiwan are not. Why? Because they chose suicide rather than continue their miserable lives as students preparing for these tests.

    How can we slow the death rate? We have to cut off the demand for the results of such tests.

    Where is the demand coming from? Well, if you look at these excerpts from the sites of the three major language tests – IELTS, TOEIC and TOEFL – you’ll see that just about every government, educational institution, company and organisation in the Western world (and up to 190 countries) demands these tests. So these are the people that need to be convinced of the need to stop.

    “IELTS is accepted by most Australian, British, Canadian, Irish, New Zealand and South African academic institutions, over 2,000 academic institutions in the United States, and various professional organisations. It is also a requirement for immigration to Australia and Canada.”

    “Today TOEIC® test scores are used by more than 9,000 companies, government agencies and English language learning programs in more than 90 countries, and more than 5 million TOEIC tests were administered last year.”

    “The TOEFL® test (Test of English as a Foreign Language™) is the most widely respected English-language test in the world, recognized by more than 7,500 colleges, universities and agencies in more than 130 countries.”

    I doubt if the proponents of these tests publish suicide data. Perhaps someone should ask them if they are even aware of, let alone care about, the effects their examinations are having on the lives of so many millions of students. Clearly they are making considerable amounts of money selling these products, but how much of that are they putting back into student counselling and health education? When does turning a blind eye become impossible any longer?

    While the questioning of standardized tests on the basis of our growing research base into assessment reliability and validity is well and good, and we can waggle our fingers at those bold enough to attempt cheating, I think there are larger issues at play in using them as the sole or major criterion for making life (and death) decisions.

    I can only hope that the discussion will broaden and become part of the mainstream dialogue of those working in this massive educational industry.

    Posted by Greg Quinlivan | June 23, 2010, 8:08 am
    • Greg,

      Thank you so much for bringing this to our attention. You’re right that it’s the government we have to reach. I read recently a group of teachers took a stand in the UK against standardized tests. I’ll be researching this some more and blogging about it soon here. These companies have lobbyists, because they make so much money. They try to make us believe we need the data to improve the education system but for decades there has been little progress. Instead, students feel too much pressure and dropping out or in the cases you refer to committing suicide. Yes, we do need to come up with a way to change the system.

      Posted by Shelly Sanchez Terrell | June 23, 2010, 4:08 pm

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