First Person

Is testing taking over our schools? An entire faculty says yes

Imagine your first day at a new school. You are surrounded by new faces and new teachers and are navigating a new building. What are you concerned about? Making new friends? Liking your new teachers?

When they enter our school each fall, our sixth-graders write about their hopes and fears for middle school. This year, 35 percent said their greatest fear was failing the state tests. At one of the most socially difficult times of their lives, over a third of our children have more anxiety about standardized tests than any other issue.

What has happened?

We — the teachers of a public secondary school in New York City — are writing because we wish you to join us in asking this question about what’s happening in our schools. We ask you to consider our experiences and the experiences of our students in a world where schools face more standardized tests and increasing pressures related to their outcomes than ever before.

This year in our school, as in schools across the country, we have seen the number of standardized tests we are required to administer grow sharply, from 25 to more than 50 (in grades 6-10). In the next six weeks alone, each of our sixth-graders will be required to take 18 days of tests: three days of state English tests, three days of state math tests, four days of new city English and math benchmark tests, and eight days of new English, math, social studies and science city tests to evaluate teacher performance. Additionally, students who are learning English must spend two to three more days taking the NYSESLAT test for English Language Learners — a total of 21 days in just the next few weeks.

Consider your own education. Yes, high-school students have always faced college entrance and graduation exams. But as elementary or middle-school students prior to the federal No Child Left Behind law and Race to the Top competition, you likely had no more than a few days of standardized testing every spring (if that). For today’s students, however, these standardized tests have become a centerpiece of their educational experience. Time spent on these tests is time not spent on learning or teaching. The centrality of testing should be shocking, but instead is somehow accepted as commonplace.

One teacher at our school asked her seventh-graders how they felt about the tests. The word “scared” came up multiple times, as did the word “hate.”

“I feel nervous,” said one, “because you think you’re not going to pass.” Another protested, “I don’t think tests show our learning, and they don’t show our growth.” A third stated, “It makes it more possible to fail.”

If this seems overly dramatic, consider that in New York City, 70 percent of students last year were labeled “failing.” This is not, as many believe, a function of low performance, but a deliberate decision by the state to increase the number of students labeled “failing” in a move that has created more pressure on teachers and schools, and public support for new — untested — reform initiatives. We question the collateral consequences of such a mechanism for educational change.

Let us be clear at the outset: as a staff, we are not opposed to all standardized tests and believe that, used sparingly, such tests can provide useful feedback to schools, teachers and possibly students. We are instead concerned about their vast and increasing number and — just as disconcerting — outsized influence. The tests are no longer about feedback. The stakes attached to them now commonly include school funding and evaluation and closure, teacher pay and evaluation and firings, and of course student promotion and self-perception. It should come as no surprise that many schools have chosen to focus more and more of the school year on what is often called “test prep.”

Consider the case of two of our U.S. history teachers who sought to engage students in a case study about Fred Korematsu and the ways in which the rights of U.S. citizens have been suspended in times of war. At the last minute, worried about the impending Regents Exam, these teachers felt compelled to drop this important, in-depth investigation that would tap into student passions and diversity. Instead, they made the difficult decision to “cover” a broad and sanitized survey of U.S. foreign policy from the Monroe Doctrine to the Cold War.

As it turns out, the thematic essay on last year’s U.S. History Regents test was on American foreign policy, and the vast majority of our students passed the test. Did we make the right decision?

What does it mean to “test-prep” students as a means for teaching them to read and write? It means to teach without context or commitment, without personal connection or application. It means to teach using excerpted writing passages and scripted questions. David Coleman, architect of the Common Core standards that serve as the basis for the latest tests, shared his opinion that “as you grow up in this world you realize people really don’t give a shit about what you feel or what you think.” A curriculum based on standardized tests implies that our students’ lives, our lives, and the vibrant lives of our communities just don’t seem to matter.

In contrast, as teachers we recognize every day that there is no true curriculum without students’ lives, engagement, and voices.

One of the central characteristics of our school has been that all content and skills are embedded in real-world curriculums. We have a common understanding that students produce better work when they believe it is meaningful, when academic work spills into the world and back again. Our students make presentations to elementary-school students about bullying and to hospital institutional review boards about medical research proposals. They work with the Metropolitan Transit Authority on bus engine design, and with the Queens Memory Project on interviewing and preserving immigrants’ stories in Queens.

They may spend weeks on a single case study, developing nuanced understandings of complex problems. In this work, they are evaluated by school-based assessments that, in contrast to standardized tests, take the shape of diverse projects and presentations. Standards, including the Common Core, are a central part of our curriculum work, but they are only one of many considerations embedded in the work our students do.

As external pressure increases to sacrifice curriculum for the sake of “test prep,” all of us have been forced to make difficult decisions. We often hear policymakers tell us that a strong curriculum will result in strong test scores. This is simply not true. Standardized tests are, by definition, tests removed from student engagement and context; they require a particular kind of teaching that is antithetical to what most of us believe education should be. Many of us as teachers think of test prep as unprofessional and unethical. All of us believe curriculum should never begin or end with standardized tests.

This year, we took a stand on this point by subverting the evaluation of our teachers based on standardized tests. A new mandate in New York City — an indirect result of Race to the Top — requires each teacher to be evaluated by two standardized tests, most of us for at least one subject we don’t teach (the city recommended that schools evaluate their music teachers, for example, based on English and math scores). It also dramatically increased the number of tests and used tests that had never been piloted. We found this untenable.

When the city asked us to choose two standardized tests for each teacher as part of her or his evaluation, we all agreed to assign ourselves the same tests wherever possible. For one of the tests, all of our middle-school teachers will be evaluated on the state English test for all of our students. The result: students will take the minimum number of new tests, and teachers will all receive the same score. If our students fail, all of us will fail together. In this decision, we affirm our belief that we are a teaching community that collaborates and shares curricula, not a collection of individual good or bad teachers. We will not have our entire school community bound to a barrage of tests.

It is a small but important act of resistance.

So how might all of us, as citizens with a stake in our schools, resist the narrowing of curriculum and students’ lives? First, it is clear to us that our elected officials must hear from more than principals and teachers that creating new tests and tying more consequences to those tests cannot be the core of any education reform plan.

Second, some of us are also supportive of the opt-out movement that is growing across the country, wherein parents have creatively removed their children from standardized testing. In doing so, they refuse districts and states the data with which to evaluate students, teachers and schools based on standardized tests.

Some of us are more ambivalent about this movement. But we all know that to move forward, we must do more than say no to a system in which we do not believe. We seek systems where assessments can be effective at supporting students, systems where assessments are valid, reliable and fair. Based on our experiences, we have come to believe that these systems must be built through the work of individual schools, not through large-scale standardized tests.

We suggest that policymakers begin by moving resources away from standardized test creation and toward supporting the development of quality assessments in schools. Perhaps they might create incentives for schools to design their own school-based assessments, or encourage schools to move toward performance- and project-based assessment practices shared strategically among schools (see, for example, the New York Performance Standards Consortium of schools).

We cannot emphasize enough that any school’s capacity to develop is profoundly related to the allocation of school resources. Our school invests in lower student-teacher ratios, increased hours of teacher collaboration each week, and a week of paid curriculum development before the school year begins. Each year we struggle to find this funding, and we have often fallen short of our goal.

This week, as our school enters another season of testing, our sixth- and eighth-grade teachers have chosen to read to students a principal’s letter that one parent posted online: “We are concerned that these tests do not always assess all of what it is that make each of you special and unique … the scores you get will tell you something, but they will not tell you everything. There are many ways of being smart.”

Our students cheered. That they could be seen as individuals with interests and friends and dreams — not just as a set of numbers — deeply resonated with them.

At the end of the day, we hope students see their educations not only as a means to graduate, jumpstart their careers or get into college, but as a means to investigate, interact with and innovate in a rapidly changing world. As John Dewey reminds us, “Education is not preparation for life, but life itself.” We believe in a curriculum that is rich and personal — that is, for the living. To treat curriculum and schools otherwise is to demean education, reducing it to no more than training or indoctrination in a world that needs people to be so much more.

This piece was jointly written by the entire faculty of P.S. 167 – The Metropolitan Expeditionary Learning School: John Atorino, Jen Avellino, Robin Baumgarten, Tarin Baxter, Sarah Bever, Randi Bivona, Yazmin Brigido, Matthew Brownstein, Dan Cassagne, Lesley Crawford, Christine DiLapi, Emily Edwards, Alyson Emmett, Amelia Eshleman, Ari Feldman, Eric Fergen, Mica Fidler, Shayna Garrison, Melissa Glantz, Hannah Goodman Brenman, Ilana Gutman, Paco Hanlon, Ambar Hernandez, Adam King, Court King, Rebecca Kleinbart, Allison Maxfield, Kara Melley, Hillary Mills, Sybille Moss, Adreina Nuñez, Evan O’Connell, Seyi Okuneye, Leslie Pinto, Erick Roa, Elyse Rosenberg, Hilary Rosenfield, Matthew Satriano, Kimberly Scher, Abigail Sewall, Laura Shectman, Eric Shieh, Joshua Stein, Michael Stern, Sara Ston, Thea Taylor, Kimron Thomas, Ali Wexler, Brooke Winter-DiGirolamo, Claire Wolff and Jenna-Lyn Zaino. This piece originally appeared on the Hechinger Report.

First Person

I covered Tennessee’s ed beat for Chalkbeat. Here’s what I learned.

PHOTO: Marta W. Aldrich
Grace Tatter covers a press conference at the Tennessee State Capitol in 2015.

For three years, I covered the Statehouse for Chalkbeat Tennessee, reporting on how policies from Nashville trickled down into more than 1,800 public schools across the state.

Now I’m starting back to school myself, pursuing graduate studies aimed at helping me to become a better education journalist. I’m taking with me six things I learned on the job about public education in Tennessee.

1. Apathy is often cited as a major problem facing education. That’s not the case in Tennessee.

I heard from hundreds of parents, educators, and students who were passionate about what’s happening — good and bad — inside of schools. I covered crowded school board meetings and regularly scrambled for an open seat at legislative hearings where parents had filled the room after driving since dawn to beat the opening gavel. Not incidentally, those parents usually came from communities with the “worst” schools and the lowest test scores. While many disagreements exist about the best way to run schools, there is no shortage of people, particularly parents and educators, who care.

2. Tennessee has one of the most fascinating education stories in America.

I’ve had a front-row seat to massive changes in K-12 education under reforms ushered in by Race to the Top — an overhaul being tracked closely well beyond the state’s borders. But the national interest and import doesn’t end with changes stemming from the $500 million federal award. Tennessee is home to some of the nation’s premier education researchers, making its classrooms laboratories for new ideas about pre-K, school turnaround, and literacy instruction, just to name a few. And at the legislature, more lobbyists are devoted to education than to most any other cause. A lot of eyes are on Tennessee schools.

3. The education community is not as divided as it looks.

During the course of just a few years, I watched state lawmakers change their positions on accountability and school vouchers. I witnessed “anti-charter” activists praise charter leaders for their work. I chronicled task force meetings where state leaders who were committed to standardized testing found middle ground with classroom educators concerned that it’s gone too far. In short, a lot of people listened to each other and changed their minds. Watching such consensus-building reminded me that, while there are no simple debates about education, there is a widespread commitment to making it better.

4. Money matters.

Even when stories don’t seem to be about money, they usually are. How much money is being spent on testing, teacher salaries, school discipline reform? How much should be available for wraparound services? Why do some schools have more money than others? Is there enough to go around? Tennessee leaders have steadily upped public education spending, but the state still invests less than most other states, and the disparities among districts are gaping. That’s why more than a handful of school districts are battling with the state in court. Conversations about money are inextricable from conversations about improving schools.

5. Race is a significant education issue, but few leaders are willing to have that conversation.

More than 60 years after Brown v. Board of Education, Tennessee’s schools are largely racially segregated. Yet most policymakers tread lightly, if ever, into conversations about achieving real racial integration. And in many cases — such as a 2011 law enabling mostly white suburban Shelby County towns to secede from the mostly black Memphis district — they’ve actually gone backwards. Then there’s the achievement data. The annual release of test scores unleashes a flurry of conversation around the racial achievement gap. But the other 11 months of the year, I heard little about whether state and local policies are closing those gaps — or contributing to them — or the historical reasons why the gaps exist in the first place. To be sure, state leadership is trying to address some of Tennessee’s shortcomings. For example, the State Department of Education has launched modestly funded initiatives to recruit more teachers of color. But often, race and racism are the elephants in the room.

6. Still, there’s lots to celebrate.

If there were unlimited hours in the day, I could have written thousands of stories about what’s going right in public education. Every day, I received story ideas about collaborations with NASA in Oak Ridge, high school trips to Europe from Memphis, gourmet school lunches in Tullahoma, and learning partnerships with the Nashville Zoo. Even in schools with the steepest challenges, they were stories that inspire happiness and hope. They certainly inspired me.

Grace Tatter graduated from public schools in Winston-Salem, N.C., and received her bachelor’s degree in history from the University of North Carolina. She’s now pursuing a master’s degree in specialized studies at the Harvard Graduate School of Education.

First Person

I’m a Houston geography teacher. This is my plan for our first day back — as soon as it arrives

PHOTO: Creative Commons / Texas Military Department
Texas National Guard soldiers arrive in Houston, Texas to aid citizens in heavily flooded areas from the storms of Hurricane Harvey.

Hurricane Harvey has upended so many things here in Houston, where I am starting my third year as a teacher. One of them is the lesson I am planning for the first day of school — as soon as it arrives.

This upheaval is nothing compared to what people across the city have faced, including my students, who have been sending me photos of evacuation boats going past their houses.

But it is fundamental to the task of being a teacher at a time of crisis. As an A.P. Human Geography teacher, my job is to help students make connections between the geography concepts we are learning in class and their real lives: Does Houston look like the models of urban development we study? Does their family history include a migration?

Before the storm, my thinking went like this: I am white and was born in England and most of my students are Hispanic, many with parents who were born in other countries. I was excited for us to share and compare our different stories. My students last year were shocked and fascinated when they discovered that my white, middle-aged father who is a university professor was applying for a green card, just as many of their family members were.

Now, Hurricane Harvey has underlined for me the importance of those real-world connections. As I looked at the photos from my students, I was struck by how geography concepts can affect us in very real — even life-threatening — ways.

I had planned to teach a lesson at the end of the year about how urbanization affects the environment. The lesson looks at how urbanization can exacerbate flooding: for example, how paving over grassy areas can increase the speed with which rain reaches the bayous, causing the water levels to rise faster. I would then have students evaluate different policies cities can adopt to mitigate that risk, such as encouraging the building on brownfield rather than greenfield sites and passing laws to protect farmland — options that have significant benefits but also significant costs.

I have decided to move this lesson up in the curriculum and teach it when we have school again. School is scheduled to start again on Tuesday, though at this stage everything is provisional, as each hour we find out about more families that have had their homes destroyed by the rising waters. It is still unclear how all our staff, let alone students, will get to school.

I am worried that the lesson could re-traumatize students who have experienced so much trauma in the past few days. I know I will need to make an active effort to make students feel comfortable stepping into the hall if they are feeling overwhelmed. However, my experiences with the recent presidential election make me think that this lesson is exactly what some students might need.

After the election, many students were genuinely confused about what had happened. One question in particular was on their minds: How you can you win the popular vote but not the election? We talked through the Electoral College together, and having clarity about what had happened and why it happened seemed to give them a firmer foundation to build on as they processed their emotions. I am hopeful that teaching about flooding will help ground them in a similar way.

This lesson about flooding was once simply another lesson in the curriculum, but now it has taken on a new urgency. In moments of disaster, it is easy to feel powerless; I certainly could not help the people I saw posting on Facebook that they were been on hold with 911 for hours while standing on their roofs.

Yet teachers have a unique power — the power to shape the minds of future generations to solve the problems that we face. Houston’s location means that it will always be susceptible to flooding. But by teaching about the flood I hope I can play a small role in helping our city avoid repeating some of the tragic scenes I witnessed this week.

Alex McNaughton teaches history and geography at YES Prep Southeast in Houston.

Looking to help? YES Prep is collecting donations to support its students and their families. Houston ISD and KIPP Houston are also soliciting donations for their students.