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Education policy maven Rick Hess of the American Enterprise Institute think tank offers straight talk on matters of policy, politics, research, and reform. Read more from this blog.

Education Opinion

Trying and Failing to Humanely Teach to the Test

By Guest Blogger — February 19, 2018 4 min read
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Kicking off the next six weeks of guest bloggers is John Thompson, a former inner-city teacher and self-described “anti-reformer.” In a previous life, John was an award-winning historian before shifting gears to teach high school in Oklahoma City. In 2015, he published A Teacher’s Tale: Learning, Loving, and Listening to our Kids, arguing that test-fueled reform is doomed to fail

I’d like to thank “little r reformer” Rick Hess for letting me guest post while he is out on his latest campaign to punch holes in discredited orthodoxies of “Big R Reformers.”

I’m in the process of reworking my book, A Teacher’s Tale: Learning, Loving, and Listening to Our Kids. It is a case study of teaching in an era of school reform. Unfortunately, the book was more academic than I anticipated, so I’m now rereading my first drafts in order to replace most of the scholarly material so student stories drive the narrative. (All but one name, Eunice Jones, are pseudonyms.)

Too many passages in A Teacher’s Tale that describe my mistakes and failures were edited out. Since I now urge school reformers to distance themselves from their mistakes, I need to restore passages which describe my flaws, as well as illustrations of why the data-driven corporate reform movement was doomed from the beginning. Being a former academic, I’ve long used social science when arguing against the inherent harm of test-driven reform. In these posts, I’ll mostly let my kids’ words and actions speak against these types of Big R Reforms.

Back in the late 1990s, knowing that some sort of high-stakes testing would be imposed, our school, John Marshall High School in Oklahoma City, had a year-long experiment in preparing students for an End-of-Instruction graduation test. Back then, nobody would have believed that even the most fervent reformers would try to hold individual teachers accountable for test-score growth, but we still knew the dangers of teaching to the test. I agreed to teach tested classes to see if I could register higher test scores without undermining meaningful instruction.

I’d had great success in incorporating graphs, maps, charts, and literary passages in teaching history, and those were the types of material that our U.S. History End-of-Instruction test would focus on. There are plenty of proven ways to use these resources in a meaningful, hands-on manner, so I felt no guilt in stressing them. For most of the year, which I chronicled as a part of the National Board Certification application process, my students said that our lessons remained just as interesting, but they complained that I became less fun as the year progressed.

The students were my early warning system, alerting me when I became stressed as the tests approached. With their help, I believed I’d kept the testing pressure subdued. After all, these still were low-stakes tests. And the kids got a kick out of grading my attitude. Here is my contemporaneous description of test day:

Now, as I prepared to pass out the standardized test, I felt pride in our preparation. My voice became nurturing and the kids smiled at my joke about the line of teachers who want my job if test scores do not rise. I explained that when urban students do poorly, there are two main reasons: Either they get frustrated by tough questions and give up, or they try too hard. So just do your best. We spoke of pride. We spoke of responsibility to the school and the community. We all agreed we would want our kids to be able to pass this test.

Then we encountered another example of a challenge that our school had no ability to address: chronic absenteeism. I was one of many teachers who made multiple phone calls to absent students, but often we’d barely met them. The school completely lacked the capacity for getting truant students to class. Or at least it was unable to trace them down in a timely basis. Now that the school was required to assess a certain percentage of students, it was able to make a one-time push to get truant students to class on test day.

My notes further explained the jolt when a principal led five chronically absent students into the room as I was about to pass out the tests. I couldn’t remember when they’d attended class. My notes said:

As I approached the emotional climax of my exhortation, I efficiently and coolly directed a student to leave the room. A girl who had not attended my afternoon class since the first day of school, and who was sitting next to a student who was easily distracted, violated one of my cardinal rules. I will not recount her misdeed because mine was much, much worse. I addressed her as "You, you, who I don't know your name."

Even if nothing else had happened, I would have had plenty to feel guilty about, but then the principal returned the student to take the test. The contemporary account draws upon a then-common phrase, “If you don’t feed the teachers, they’ll eat the kids":

A few minutes later, an administrator came by, with information about the student which forced me to recognize I had been cruel to the girl. From one perspective, I had acted appropriately. Five students were making a rare appearance in class. They had done little of the test preparation. I could not take the risk that their attitude would be contagious. Besides, many of the kids who attend class faced problems that are just as daunting as those who cut. But only I knew the full truth. Happenstance had destroyed our chance to raise test scores, so I "ate a kid."

Actually, I didn’t learn the “full” truth for a couple more years when I heard more about the mental illness and the murder that affected some of those kids.

Even with the additional students, our pass rate was 20 percent higher than the other class! My bar on the school’s accountability graph was half an inch taller than the rest of them! Wow! Did I feel proud!

Seriously, I never again allowed bubble-in accountability to enter into our learning space. After NCLB, my principals always made sure that I was assigned non-tested subjects, which meant that I had bigger classes with many more kids who had endured multiple traumas.

By the way, I made plenty of other mistakes during my 20-year career. I wish reformers would renounce at least one of their errors, failing to listen before imposing bubble-in accountability. It isn’t necessarily their fault that attaching stakes to tests would inevitably harm many children. And I doubt Big R Reformers had any idea of the magnitude of challenges we face in the inner city. But, maybe a new generation of little r reformers can start helping poor schools build capacity, perhaps starting with chronic absenteeism and the traumas that keep too many students from attending school.

John Thompson

The opinions expressed in Rick Hess Straight Up 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.