When the principal sneezes, the whole school catches a cold. This is neither good nor bad; it is just the truth. Our impact is significant; our focus becomes the school's focus" (Whitaker, 2003, p.30).
We know, as administrators, we set the tone in our buildings or districts. Some of us set a positive tone and others set a rather negative one. We all have tough jobs where we have to communicate effectively with parents, students and teachers. The level of difficulty increases depending on the size of our student population, age of students, and whether you are in an urban, suburban or rural setting. Although I understand the life of an administrator, I worry that we have not been communicating well enough with those who control our fate through high stakes testing.
We are as integral a part of our school community as anyone else who enters the building but we are sometimes seen as sympathizers to the testing movement. However, we are not sympathizers. We are as concerned about the results and the retribution as any teacher. That needs to change.
I understand that there are administrators who hardly have a chance to come up for air because they are being pulled in so many different directions. There are also administrators who work in high powered, high performing districts, which can be both good and bad depending on the amount of pressure they feel from parents, district administrators or politicians within their district. Houses are bought and sold on how well schools score on high stakes testing.
In hidden conversations and closed door meetings away from parents, politicians and policy makers we as administrators discuss the negative impacts that high stakes testing has on our students. But what do we ever do about it? Do we contact our state politicians? Do we send our state education departments the “feedback” they often ask for after the test is given? Do we tell teachers that we too feel their pain? Or, are we seen as those who have the expectation that the students must score a 3 or a 4, even though we know that some of our students cannot and it’s not out a lack of trying on their part or preparation on the part of our teachers.
Following blindly into the slaughter house of high stakes testing is no longer an option for all of us. After attending the Save Our Schools March in Washington D.C. this past week, I found that our turnout was low compared to other educators, and make no mistake, we are educators. We must speak up and talk about the harmful effects high stakes testing brings on our students. The high stakes testing we are mandated to give to our students hurts the low performing students because they once again have another reason to feel badly about themselves.
Low performing on a test does not mean the students lack intelligence, creativity, or a work ethic. Many of them have a fear of failing, which can be a self-fulfilling prophecy, before they ever enter the classroom. Not doing well on a test really means that they cannot take a test.
Teachers provide other avenues for these students. They offer one-on-one oral testing, project-based learning, narrative reports and progress monitoring. However, they lack that luxury on high stakes testing. Teachers cannot even provide their students with help sounding out a word. What does this tell our 8 to 11 year old children who must complete the test?
In normal test-taking situations, when students are stressed about providing a teacher with an answer, teachers try to alleviate their anxiety in a number of ways. They provide individualized directions, allowing them to chew gum during the test or the use of a squeezable ball, all of which helps build self-esteem and creates student engagement. What’s going to happen when those avenues go away? What is going to happen to these students when their teacher no longer feels that they should offer assistance on other forms of assessments because the state assessments are the only ones that “count.”
In our meetings, we go through presentations given on creatively designed Power Points that tell us all the different ways we collect data on our students. We watch as teachers progress monitor and see growth over the academic year. However, when the newspapers come out and the media get the data from the state education departments, all of that “good” data we collect does not matter and our students learn that at a very young age.
We need to find common ground with how we assess our students’ progress because high stakes testing does not work. It is taking away time from this areas we have long valued like the arts, music and inquiry-based learning. High stakes testing is quickly taking the creativity and imagination out of schools and we need to put it back in.
Whitaker, T. (2003). What Great Principals Do Differently. Columbus: Eye on Education.
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The opinions expressed in Peter DeWitt’s Finding Common Ground are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.