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Teachers Starting to Voice Their Opposition to Standardized Testing

February 19, 2012

Teachers by our very nature are hard to corral at times.  If you have ever been in a staff meeting with a bunch of teachers you have witnessed the myriad of silly questions that some teachers come up with on any given topic.  I have been at trainings where teachers can’t come to an agreement on anything, one teacher might have one idea, another teacher might have an opposing idea, and thus the meeting grinds to a halt.  What I am trying to say is that it is hard to get a consensus amongst teachers.

Well, if there is one area where I have seen teachers unite it is around the detestable testing regime that we must submit our students to.  For those of you who aren’t in classrooms let me just say that students are not just taking state standardized tests, they are also taking many district standardized tests which are designed for probing for potential weaknesses prior to the state standardized tests, so teachers can know what areas of the test to “teach to.”

This teacher in New York has written a letter to the New York State Department of Education discussing the issue of testing.  Maybe more of us teachers should write letters like this:

To Whom it May Concern:

I firmly oppose any initiative that continues (or expands) the current regime of standardized testing.  As an educator, I know that standardized tests are not humane, nor developmentally appropriate.

We are currently studying and writing non-fiction in my second grade classroom.  It is beautiful to hear students teach all about topics that they know and love, like ice cream, outer space, insects and more.  As part of the study, I decided to invite two of my students from last year into my classroom to share their work.  I first had to walk to my school’s satellite location (because we don’t have enough space in our school to house all of our students) and pick up the girls.  “Rianna and Jen!  Chris is here to bring you to his class!”  their teacher announced.  Their faces brightened, as they pulled on their hats and mittens and zipped up their jackets. 

As we were walking and discussing life in third grade I hear Jen say, “I’m nervous about the test,” under her breath.  I asked her why, “I just want to do ok.  My mom wants me to do ok.”  Jen  added, “Yeah, my mom got me lots of test prep books.  I want to do ok too.”  In that moment, I did not know how to respond to my former students, who moments before were excited about coming to share their work, and now were anxious.  I think I managed to say something like, “It will be ok.”  I regret saying that because it is not ok that they are feeling that level of anxiety at just 8 years old.

This anxiety is felt by families, educators, and the students.  Students have thrown-up, wet themselves, and ran out of the testing room because of their anxiety.    Educators say, “It’s a fight trying to get students to take the test.”  Anxiety and pressure do not drive learning, in fact, anxiety prevents learning. You cannot force someone to learn.

I brought Rianna and Jen’s attention back to their forthcoming visit to my classroom, even though I knew that anxiety still loomed behind their smiles.  I thought one of the most interesting parts of the whole experience (because I’ve never tried an exercise like this before) was when the girls were looking at their work from a year ago.  “Chris, I was reading this and it doesn’t totally make sense!”  Jen said.  “Yeah!  When I was re-reading, I saw so many mistakes!”  Wanda added.  Through their own reflection, the girls were noticing their own progress as writers.  I said, “Wow!  You’re noticing how much you’ve grown as writers!  You’re able to notice your mistakes because you’ve learned so much more about writing since last year!”  Both girls’ lips turned way up into wide smiles.  This assessment is not quantifiable with numbers, but it is authentic.  Further, the girls have agency throughout the entire process, instead of some external authority.  This is meaningful assessment that helps the girls and all students develop as independent and critical thinkers.

As an educator and a citizen of this country, I keep asking myself, “What is the larger goal of my teaching?  How am I helping kids to reach that goal?”  I believe my larger purpose is to help kids become independent and critical thinkers able to independently take action to change their world for the better.  I know that the current regime of standardized testing does not add to the realization of this goal, instead, it runs counter.  Students are anxious, families are spending scarce money on test-prep materials, and teachers are giving up their precious little free time for test-prep on weekends.  Rianna and Jen are worried about “doing ok,” but what are they learning?  How are they able to reflect meaningfully on simple test scores?  Where are their smiles?  Where is the joy of childhood?  Where is their voice?

Please reconsider the passage of the ESEA waiver and convene a committee of educators, education graduate school professors, families, concerned community members and students to talk about the state of education in the state.  There is no one easy solution to the problem of improving education and a truly public conversation must be opened because the current regime is just not working, it is not humane, and it is not developmentally appropriate.

Sincerely,

Chris Whitney, M.Ed.

Second Grade Teacher

Bronx Community Charter School

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