Michele Somerville is the mother of three former NYC DOE public school students, as well as a writer and an educator.

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Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Beware the Beast of Standardized Testing Frenzy

In September of 1988, I got a long-term substitute job teaching eighth grade English in a weak public middle school in a poor part of Brooklyn (New York City). I started in September, on the fifth or sixth day of school, in a position from which four substitute teachers had already fled, in horror, apparently, each after a day of teaching.  Most of my students, ages 14 and 15, were reading on about a fifth grade reading level. None could write a cohesive, grammatically correct paragraph. Few could discern between a sentence and a sentence fragment. Going was hard and slow, but after two weeks or so I managed to get most of them on the line. What this means in practical terms is that after two weeks half were handing in homework (up from zero %), they were reading short passages and had learned to produce mostly thoughtful and reasonably error-free three and four-sentence reflections on short texts they had read.
I was ready to start reeling them in when two things happened at once; I ordered copies of Autobiography of Malcolm X for my classes -- and the principal began to require me to postpone normal instruction in order to do standardized test prep every day.
I failed to fully grasp, at the time, that the test for which the students were supposed to prepare was one on which none of them were capable of faring well.  The test was for entrance into NYC specialized schools; I suspect not a child in that school was anywhere near being able to test into (the well-reputed) Bronx Science High School. For the first few days, I just did the test prep. I was new. I was on probation. I had no leverage. What choice did I have?
The materials themselves were godawful. There were spelling and grammar mistakes, erroneous definitions in vocabulary sections, and reading comprehension questions that made no sense. After three sessions of test prep, my students reverted to their former disinterested, class-disrupting selves. They started to see me, the teacher who had toughed out those two weeks and come through the other side, as the principal's tool. I quickly realized they were right. I was.
This principal had been commending me in the extreme for the progress my students had made in just a few weeks. So impressed by my students progress was she that the principal had already paraded district supervisors (unannounced) into my classroom on three occasions in order to demonstrating her own ability to turn a school around. For this reason, I expected an exchange between educators might take place when I went to talk with her about the matter of test prep lessons. There was no conversation. I didn't even sit down. "You'll teach test prep every day until the students take the test."

When the messenger came to the door each morning with the day's stack of booklets enough for four sections. I'd direct him to the tower of booklets by the window. He'd leave the books. It became routine, and the tower quickly became an outward sign of my refusal to obey my principal. Three feet of paper accumulated. (This in a school in which students were prohibited from taking books out of the building. My own class didn't even have a full set of textbooks students could use in class.) The students cracked wise about the stack as it grew and some started to come around.
During prep periods, I'd go through the booklets and scoop up vocabulary words. Those I would teach in a fast-paced, military-style drill (which the student) for five or ten minutes at the end of each reading writing lesson. This was effective. Students learned a lot of vocabulary fast and liked it.
But the prep periods started to disappear. Instead of coverages (wherein one substitutes for an absent teacher and can either use the time to teach -- which I usually did -- or to catch up on paperwork) the principal assigned me to fill out high school application forms in a file room. Although I thought this a poor use of the the time of an English teacher with four years of full-time elementary and secondary school classroom experience, two years of college teaching experience, many publications and a Masters degree; I welcomed the punishment, at first, because it allowed me access to my students permanent record cards. It was in the course of this busy work that I learned that every one of my eighth grade students had been left back at least once. In some cases, children had repeated two grades.
After a week or so the principal summoned me to discuss my stack of booklets by the window. I told her I'd get rid of the booklets but that I wouldn't do test prep every day. She informed me she'd would give me a "U" (for an "unsatisfactory" rating) if I failed to do the test prep, reminding me that a teacher with a provisional license (which I had) would have great difficulty securing a permanent position in what was then called the Board of Education.
That famous e.e. cummings line -- "there is some shit I will not eat" -- sounded in my head, all morning two days later, the day I quit.
I thought of these students yesterday as I watched Michael Bloomberg and New York City Schools Chancellor Dennis Walcott take credit, in a televised press conference, for very slight improvements city students' performing on standardized tests. They have little to be proud of. Given the energy and emphasis Bloomberg et al invested in his strategy for educational reform, and given the amount of legitimate instruction he very likely sacrificed at the altar of the great white hope of standardized testing, those test scores should have been much, much higher!
When a teacher teaches to the test, he or she fails to teach what is not on the test. As most classroom teachers know, preparing students for standardized test is usually a lot easier than teaching students to think, do math, read intelligently and write. The frenzy for "teaching to the test" is already creating safe havens for pedagogical mediocrity, and is already offering uninspired, uninspiring teachers and administrators an easier way to nail down tenure and ride out teaching until pension time is nigh.
I am not anti-testing. I have helped my own children to prepare for standardized tests. I help other people's children prepare for standardized tests. Sometimes I am paid for this. Drilling children on math facts, teaching vocabulary, reading comprehension practice -- they are all good for learning. But a strong and appropriate curriculum at any level calls for a balance among introduction of new material, reinforcement and assessment. The more inventively conceived and imaginatively delivered lessons are, the more successful the learning at hand is likely to be. Test prep frenzy siphons imagination and inventiveness out of good teaching.
Ironically, it is not even classroom experience that yielded the minor improvements of which Bloomberg is inexplicable proud. It is more likely test scores crept up a bit as a result of Bloomberg's successful attempts at increasing institutional racism in the schools. Parents of children in under-supported, struggling schools don't hire after-school tutors as (mostly) white middle-class parents in stronger schools do. If anyone deserves credit for boosting New York City students' scores on standardized tests, it's those private tutors!
Black and brown students were not part of Bloomberg's standardized test success story. They didn't fare any better on these tests. Their scores went down. No surprise there. Privatization pay-offs go mostly to white middle-class schools. The mayor's pet barons don't want to pump money into so-called "failing" ("failing" being code for "black and brown") schools. Black and brown children whose parents can't secure charter placements are all-out casualties of Bloomberg's reforms.
I have been saying for years that the English Language Arts city-wide tests are not good tests. If we all learned anything from the inane pineapple question on this year's eighth-grade English Language Arts test, we learned that more intelligence needs to be brought to bear in the designing of these tests upon which so very much is predicated.
Students do not enjoy test prep, and while some boredom builds learning stamina, the tedium of mediocrity is very different from the tedium of rigor. Standardized test prep frenzy disseminates harmful levels of dumbed-down thinking throughout schools.
My two teenagers are studying on college campuses for a few weeks this summer. One called me at the start of the second day, earlier this week. She was extraordinarily excited. I expected to hear her wax prosaic about the food in the cafeteria, the beautiful campus, her roommate in the dorm, the freedom -- but the very first thing she said was: "Guess what Mom, I'm reading Aristotle!"
Most students, even underprepared ones, even the victims of systematic educational malpractice, crave rigor.
In 1988, when I began to prepare my students to read Autobiography of Malcolm X, I was shocked to discover that not one of my students had ever read a full-length work outside of school. Reading books was something other people, smart people did. The anticipation -- the knowledge that they would soon read a 300-page book that might not een bore them -- created a certain fervor, a light. Which standardized test frenzy quickly extinguished.
Even very young children should be required to endure worthy tedium but the story of the pineapple is neither Autobiography of Malcolm X, nor Aristotle's Poetics, and students know it.
Ask any NYC DOE student in grades 4 through 12; they'll tell you they feel like pawns in the game of politics that has spawned and now feeds the beast of standardized testing frenzy. Recently a large group of students at the public school some regard as the best school in New York City were found to have cheated on Regents exams. Students in the better NYC DOE schools generally get very high grades on these tests without any preparation, and most students at Stuyvesant, where the cheating scandal occurred, get perfect or near-perfect scores on these tests. Yet these highly intelligent, well-prepared students cheated.
I think we see in this a symptom of the pernicious and widespread malaise created by standardized testing frenzy, whereby it becomes everything. If we keep feeding the standardized testing beast, it will eventually gobble up genuine learning at every level. The system will wind up dumbed-down. Cheating will become a norm.
Especially highly intelligent students know that when their teachers begins handing out the preparation booklets for the upcoming standardized test, some more valuable lesson is, by necessity, being foreclosed upon.
When students are enraged by this, their anger is justifiable, because they know some educrat "suit," or perhaps their mayor, whose child had access to the finest schools, is "working" them.
Cheating, really.

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