Test frenzy is having a big impact on what happens in elementary schools, and much of it is not good.
Sarah is the kind of student you want to hug whenever she’s within reach. Maybe it’s her warm brown eyes and slightly rumpled look. Maybe it’s the fact that she’s shorter than most other students in our class. Or maybe it’s her endearing quirkiness or enthusiasm for just about anything involving learning.
It’s not unusual for Sarah to walk into our classroom in the morning and get so involved in a game of chess or a conversation with a friend that she forgets to take off her backpack and coat. Sometimes, at the beginning of the day, I’ll find her in her seat wearing both. I’ll have to remind her to take them off so she can lean back in her chair the rest of the day.
Sarah recently told me that it was 22 days until her 10th birthday. Sarah occasionally makes a trip all the way across the room to tell me something like that—only to reach my desk, stand silently for a moment, scratch her head, and announce, “Oh, Mr. Kramer, I forgot what I was going to tell you.” Then again, that’s not too unusual for any 4th grader.
Sarah prefers nonfiction to fiction. She’s reading about a year above grade level, she has a good vocabulary, and her mind is a treasure chest of information about scientific and historical topics. Sarah gave me a package of homemade candy at Christmas. I knew it was candy before I even opened it because of the sparkle in her eyes, the smile on her face, and the way she was licking her lips. And Thursday afternoon, about 45 minutes after lunch, Sarah gave me a look that will haunt me for a long time.
It happened while we were working on a writing assignment. We’ve done lots of writing this year—paragraphs, imaginative stories, explanations for work in science and math, and we just completed our autobiographies. Despite the fact that we’ve done writing assignments in various genres all year, I knew it was time to start preparing my students for the state writing assessment they’ll be taking soon.
So, I provided the class with the kind of writing prompt they’d be seeing on the test. We reviewed the characteristics of expository writing, discussed the kinds of prewriting strategies that would help, and I modeled, once again, the prewriting process on the overhead projector. Then, using input from the class, I demonstrated how to turn some of the prewriting ideas into a paragraph. Finally, I turned the class loose.
There are always slow starters on assignments like this. So even though it won’t be allowed on the test, I walked around the room, helping those who were stuck and encouraging those who had begun. Writing is, after all, a stop-and-go activity, even for adults who have been doing it well for years.
Some children need more time than others to develop their thoughts. Some need help with ideas; they want to talk about their thinking. Others need assistance because they don’t yet have the ability to communicate fluently in spoken English. And a few children in my class have problems paying attention to this kind of task long enough to get anything down on paper. After about 10 minutes, however, most were showing some signs of progress.
But Sarah was stuck. She said she didn’t know how to start, so I suggested a first sentence. The next time I walked by, she was still sitting there, staring at her paper. I pointed to one item on Sarah’s prewriting sheet and encouraged her to pretend she was telling me about it—talking on paper, we call it. I gave her a couple more words to get her started and then moved on. The next time I returned, Sarah was still stuck. And that’s when it happened.
“I know you can do this, Sarah,” I said. “You just need to pick up that pencil and get busy!”
Once in a while this approach works with procrastinators. Knowing that an assignment has to be completed before recess or the start of a science lesson does help focus the attention of some students. But Sarah just sat there, looking up at me. And in her eyes I saw sadness, mixed with fear, and a sense that she had been betrayed. I knew instantly that she had heard an edge in my voice, a frustration that I hadn’t meant for her to hear.
You see, after spending a number of years teaching 5th grade, I’m teaching 4th grade this year. It’s a year in which our state has a high-stakes test in reading, writing, and math called the Washington Assessment of Student Learning, or WASL. I’d heard many 4th grade teachers lament the stress and anxiety they say their students pick up from them as they try to prepare students for the test. At the beginning of the year, I decided to try to avoid this anxiety by focusing on learning, not test preparation, with my students.
But as I looked into Sarah’s eyes, I realized that I wouldn’t have been so impatient with her as a 5th grade teacher. I’d have looked more for her potential and less at her as a student who would probably turn in a mostly blank paper on the writing test—and parts of the reading and math tests, which also emphasize students’ abilities to explain their answers in writing.
I also realized that during the last few weeks I’d been mentioning the upcoming test to my students more frequently, saying: “This is the type of problem you’ll be seeing on the math or reading part of the WASL test. We need to make sure we practice this so you’ll do well.” I found that students sat up and paid more attention when I prefaced a lesson with those remarks.
Stories of the difficulty of the WASL have become part of the 4th grade culture in our state, passed down through families by older brothers and sisters. A 5th grade teacher at our school recently asked students in her class to write a paragraph identifying what they were most afraid of. She was dismayed to find that, among the typical childhood fears of death and illness, several students in her class listed future WASL testing as their biggest fear. Despite my best intentions, I had begun using my students’ anxiety about the upcoming test as a motivator for learning.
A standards-based approach to education seems so sensible. Who can argue with the idea of defining what we want children to learn, finding ways to teach those things, and using tests to measure how well we’re succeeding? I’ve had printed copies of our state standards posted on a whiteboard in my classroom for several years.
Where is the standard that says the most important thing to teach 9- and 10-year-olds about reading is to love it?
But test frenzy is having a big impact on what happens in elementary schools, and much of it is not good. Research indicates that in our state, and others, teachers are neglecting instruction in subjects such as art, science, and social studies because they aren’t tested. We have principals who tell their teachers, because of test-score pressure, “Teach the tested subjects, and if there’s any time left over you can teach everything else.” Lessons about character traits are disappearing. Elementary teachers are spending more and more class time on test- preparation activities. And prescriptive writing instruction all too often sacrifices the originality and inventiveness of developing writers in an attempt to raise scores on writing tests.
Every teacher I know wakes up in the middle of the night thinking about school, and I’m no exception. The difference is that last year I woke up thinking about students. This year, I wake up thinking about curriculum. My dreams have shifted from students to test preparation.
I’ve looked at the components of the state standards posted on my classroom wall many times. I’ve often wrinkled my brow thinking about what some of them mean, in terms of what I do with children:
Understand and apply knowledge of text components to comprehend text. Expand comprehension by analyzing, interpreting, and synthesizing information and ideas in literary and informational text. Think critically and analyze author’s use of language, style, purpose, and perspective in informational and literary text.
These are worthy goals. They’re also skills we work on, at a 4th grade level, on a regular basis. But where is the standard that says the most important thing to teach 9- and 10-year-olds about reading is to love it? And how likely is it that our children will develop a genuine love of learning when test pressures increasingly drive classroom instruction?
Last weekend, I added a poster of my own to the whiteboard where my state standards are displayed. I put it there to remind me to do what’s best for my students. Learning is the reason that 28 of us gather in Room 300 each morning, but how we learn and why we learn are just as important as what we learn.
My new poster involves a different set of guidelines from those I’d be following if I were running a classroom to maximize test scores. Here’s what it says:
1. Learning should be rooted in joy.
2. The most important thing to learn about reading is to love it.
3. We all need help with our writing.
4. For some of us, art and music are as important as breathing.
5. No lesson on math, reading, or writing is so important it can’t be interrupted for a lesson on honesty, generosity, or compassion.
My poster, like my teaching, is a work in progress. I’m planning to add reminders about the beauty of math, the excitement of science, and how learning about social studies helps us understand what it means to be human. But it’s a start, and it’s enough for now. I feel like I’m back on track.
When I walk by my standards-covered whiteboard, I no longer wrinkle my brow. In fact, I frequently smile. Just 10 feet from where Sarah reminded me what’s important in a classroom, there are words that make sense about children and learning. I think of them as “Standards for Sarah.”
Stephen Kramer is an elementary teacher in Brush Prairie, Wash. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. The name of the student he describes in the essay has been changed.