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Test Prep in California: Anxiety, Stress, and Never-Ending Pressure

December 9, 2012

There is a really good article by Sherry Posnick-Goodwin that is in the November edition of California Educator, I also found and linked to it on the California Teachers Association‘s web-site and will paste it below.

For those of you who aren’t involved in the world of teachers and students, let me explain something: When people (like our President) make vague references to how they don’t want any “teaching to the test” to be going on in schools, they clearly DO NOT know what they are talking about!

Test scores are everything in schools everywhere in this nation, California is NOT exempted from this.  Art programs: cut or gone!  Music: forget about it!  Field trips: Are you serious?!  What is going on is more than just the ancillaries which I just mentioned disappearing, it is what happens IN the classrooms which is troublesome.  Students are tested, then tested again, then tested some more on top of that.  The big thing for the past few years is to have students practice on tests that MIRROR the CST exams…test this skill, test this standard or objective, narrow your focus as a teacher.  Main idea, well that is hit hard on CSTs…prep, prep, prep some more on Main Idea….other skills, which aren’t weighted as heavily…well, brush past them, they aren’t represented as heavily on the test.

What is going on in education is a NARROWING of the educational and academic lives of our students.  I do fear that 10 or 20 years down the road when this grand experiment plays to its denouement, we will have an entire generation of students who have trouble thinking for themselves about how to go about solving problems.

Here is the article, read this carefully, it is disturbingly true: PLEASE READ THIS AND PASS IT AROUND TO YOUR FRIENDS…something, at some point, is going to give.

Volume 17 Issue 3

Test prep is taking over student learning

Sherry Posnick-Goodwin

imageSusan Huls teaches at Arroya Vista Elementary School in South Pasadena, an affluent community that attracts parents seeking high test scores. There are monthly tours, and prospective parents are on a waiting list to visit the school. Even with an Academic Performance Index (API) score of 932, a small drop of a percentage point or two sends teachers into a panic resulting in more test prep, she says.

“Maintaining the scores is our stress and pressure,” says Huls, Teachers Association of South Pasadena. “So we teach, model and practice our test-taking strategies beginning on the first day of school. I spend about 800 minutes a month on test prep, and as we get closer to test time, I spend about half of the time on test prep.”

She shows youngsters how to “cross out” what she calls the “least obvious” answers on multiple-choice test-prep handouts, and explains that it’s possible to determine which answer is right by eliminating the others. Then students play “Around the World” with flash cards.

Test prep doesn’t prepare students for the outside world, Huls worries. 

“Businesses want people who can think creatively, not kids who know how to bubble in a test,” she says. “Instead of one standardized test, it would be better if students were tested on multiple measures and could demonstrate problem-solving skills and show they knew how to apply what they have learned to real-life situations.”

“Parents expect high scores. To them, it’s almost like a return on their investment,” she adds. “And for us, it’s becoming the sole indicator of job performance. In what other profession would someone’s job performance be measured by another person’s single test score?”

Meanwhile 110 miles south, students nod in time with the beat as Escondido Elementary Education Association (EEEA) member Jesusa López plays a “let’s get ready for the test” rap song for her third-graders. It’s September, and preparation for the Standardized Testing and Reporting (STAR) exam is under way at Conway Elementary School.

López smiles, but she is worried. “I could see my students were learning last year — I provided a well-rounded education. But they didn’t hit the magic number on the one important test.” López suffers many sleepless nights worrying about raising scores of her students who don’t test well.

Many Escondido educators experience such stress, says EEEA President Romero Maratea. “Using data to inform instruction is good,” he says. “But when data is being used to judge teachers, it results in stress and more test prep.”

The district, on Program Improvement and facing NCLB sanctions, assesses students’ test readiness three times a year, but most teachers are preparing students for standardized testing year-round.

Rankings of individual Escondido teachers are shared at staff meetings, and teachers feel demoralized if their scores are lower, even slightly, than others teaching the same grade level, says Maratea. Teachers with higher scores may feel happy, but there’s pressure to stay on top.

This competitiveness concerns many because it can decrease collaboration, which negatively impacts student learning. Maratea sees this happening locally. “It’s sad, but it happens. There’s so much pressure.” 

Do good test scores mean good teaching?

Test prep includes drills, practice tests and going over strategies on taking standardized tests. CTA’s policy is pretty clear, says Assessment and Testing Chair Cliff Kusaba. Test prep should not interfere with teaching time. “We have developed accountability standards. Test prep should not take 60 percent of classroom time, and it should be embedded as part of the curriculum, not as a separate activity.”

Good luck with that Cliff!  Go spend some time in a classroom, especially for a school in Program Improvement (PI)…

In fact, prepping should not happen until after the curriculum is taught, he adds. “We ask for multiple measures to get away from the focus of a single test to determine student learning. Teachers prepare students for all kinds of tests, mostly for the important test called life.”

Kusaba says CTA is concerned with the craziness that comes with standardized testing.

“It used to be that we had an entire year to teach curriculum, but from a standardized test perspective, the last day of the school year revolves around the California Standards Tests,” says Jeremy Adams, author of the teacher memoir “Full Classrooms, Empty Selves.” “Our calendar and pacing revolve around this reality.”

Test scores are now defining “good” teachers, although teachers with the best scores may not always be the best teachers, says Adams.

“Average teachers may get great scores, but good teachers make lifelong learners out of students. Teacher A could teach exclusively to the standards and drill-and-kill for months leading up to the test. Teacher B might take time for projects, supplemental material and classroom discussions. Teacher A might get better scores — but whose students are more likely to have developed an enduring love of history and thus an appreciation for learning 10 years into the future?” 

Test-taking strategies outrank learning and teaching new concepts

 Abigail Sims’ eighth-graders at Lovonya DeJean Middle School will be tested on sixth-, seventh- and eighth-grade history on California Standards Tests (CSTs) this spring. At the beginning of the year, Sims polled students on the history they remembered from sixth grade. It wasn’t much; many sixth-grade teachers skipped teaching history, since it’s not on the sixth-grade STAR test.

“Honestly, I spend about a week and a half every month on test prep,” says Sims, United Teachers of Richmond. “When I teach a major concept, I ask the children how they think it will appear at the end of the year in test form. I can see their anxiety build.”

Sims prefers students spend time on library research, project-based learning, field trips, artwork tied to instruction, and historical literature. Instead, she does a lot of “drill-and-kill” to make sure her students will be able to answer multiple-choice questions correctly.

“At the beginning of the school year, I come to school with a lot of cool ideas about how I want to creatively approach subject matter,” she says. “I have beautiful images of what I’m going to do, but those images get trampled when there is so much focus on test scores.”

Adams agrees. A Bakersfield High School economics and government teacher, he fears too much emphasis on test prep may diminish enthusiasm and creativity for teaching and learning. He believes testing should identify which parts of the curriculum are being successfully taught, so teachers can pinpoint which units need fine-tuning and which need a complete overhaul. “It’s a deflating prospect to realize that so much of modern teaching has devolved into a process of teaching for test success instead of life success,” he says.

The Kern High School Teachers Association member prepares students for the CSTs as well as the California High School Exit Exam for graduation and sometimes Advanced Placement tests.

Adams gives students tips for passing multiple-choice exams. “If you have a question that involves Stalin, Hitler, war or disease, the answer is likely negative. If you have a question about democracy, art or Lincoln, the answer is likely positive.” “There is an unfortunate propensity to cover the information that is likely to appear on the CST exam, the standards, and redundantly cover it. The unfortunate consequence: There is a lack of in-depth historical analysis,” he adds. “There is little time to read a speech by Lincoln, act out a scene from Sophocles, or partake in a class discussion about current events that are germane to the realm of history, all of which can easily get pushed aside in the pursuit of bubbling in the correct answer come April.”

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