Assessment Commentary

The Trouble With Testing

By Jane Ehrenfeld — October 24, 2001 5 min read
It is cheaper to test than to commit the dollars to fix decrepit classrooms, lower class sizes, and pay teachers decent salaries.

On the last day of testing, in the spring of 1999, I faced a classroom of unhappy 3rd graders, and wondered what I could do to restore their self-esteem, which had been trampled by a week of taking tests they could not pass. Since September of the previous school year, which had been my first as a teacher, I had been asking myself this question. I had tried to teach them to the best of my ability, but with these highly disadvantaged students in a school that had been failing for many years, the limit of what I could do in a few short months seemed narrow.

The biggest obstacle to teaching well, however, was the tests themselves. They came in an endless stream. It seemed as if every time I turned around we were losing another week to testing. The irony to me was clear: We were taking these children out of their classes to test them, so we could find out that they couldn’t pass the tests; and then we were testing them even more to familiarize them with a testing format, while neglecting the content that would actually allow them to raise their scores.

Although this was Maryland, where the state tests were given only in the 3rd, 5th, and 8th grades, we were overwhelmed with practice tests, county tests, and benchmark tests that seemed to come in a steady flow all year. And now, if President Bush’s education plan passes, with its proposal to test children in grades 3-8 nationwide every year, that testing flow may become an unstoppable torrent. This aspect of the plan has broad bipartisan support. And despite a few passionate speeches detailing the harm such testing might cause, there does not seem to be enough objection to testing to stop the plan from being approved. I am terrified of what will happen to public education if it does.

For those of us who teach, it is clear that threatening people will never compel them to do better.

One of the plan’s most disturbing components is the decision to penalize troubled schools that do not show annual gains in their test scores. For those of us who teach, it is clear that threatening people, whether children or adults, will never compel them to do better. Our students will not magically sit up and start passing their tests just because their parents demand it. The same holds for our schools. And the strange and terrible logic involved in the decision to pay poor schools less and less money over time only adds the final nail to the coffin of the educational system we offer our disadvantaged students.

This education plan, as I see it, is a smoke screen. It shrouds the real and very complex problems of our school system in a haze of buzzwords. And it hides the fact that the most potent of these buzzwords—accountability—means nothing without concrete and logical remedies to fix our schools when we find out they are failing. Let’s face it: It is cheaper to test than to commit the dollars to fix decrepit classrooms, lower class sizes, and pay teachers decent salaries.

The schools cannot simply demand that their students stop suffering from the overwhelming burden of living in poverty. And they cannot demand that all teachers cover the curriculum when they are either testing or practicing for the test all the time. The best teachers I know are frantic trying to do their jobs well in a system gone mad with testing. They came from college full of excitement and energy, ready to throw themselves into teaching and to take on the challenge of working in the most troubled schools. And now these teachers are discouraged; not because of the students, and not because of the poverty and all its attendant problems, but because to teach well in a world of standardized tests is not possible, and because these teachers could never be content to spend their years mindlessly instructing children on how to fill in circles with a No. 2 pencil.

To teach well in a world of standardized tests is not possible.

How can Jen lead her students on a ride through the turbulent days of the civil rights movement when there is testing to be done? How can Tamie help them see the logic of fractions when there is testing to be done? How can Maureen take them deep into a Langston Hughes poem when there is testing to be done? These teachers are the best our school system has to offer: highly educated, well- versed in the latest educational research, and willing to spend evenings and weekends doing school work. Yet the same passion and intelligence that makes them such excellent teachers also ensures that they can get jobs doing anything they please. Teaching for them is a labor of love. But I predict that when an onslaught of testing prevents them from putting that love into practice, they will flee, leaving the system even more pressed for teachers than it already is.

Where are the voices of teachers in this debate? I hear the politicians loudly, but I haven’t heard how those who actually educate our children every day feel about this plan for yearly testing. It would surprise me greatly if from classrooms across the nation a rousing cry was heard, “Give us more tests! Testing makes us better teachers.” Those who best know the needs of our children, who are engaged every day in the struggle to educate them properly, are also the ones chafing under a system that wraps them in a stranglehold of testing. In my county, hardly a month went by without our losing a week to testing. No one in that school would have asked for more, and I’m sure the same holds true in school systems around the country.

U.S. Secretary of Education Rod Paige has labeled those of us who argue against yearly testing as defenders of “a broken system of education that dismisses certain children and classes of children as unteachable.” Nothing could be further from the truth. If I believed that my students were unteachable, I would have left the field long ago. It is precisely because I believe they are every bit as intelligent as the children of Andover and Exeter that I oppose yearly testing. As the recent testing boycott in Scarsdale, N.Y., showed, the best teaching happens when teachers have the freedom to implement innovative and creative curricula, not when they are prepping kids to answer multiple- choice questions. The children of Scarsdale are lucky; they can boycott their posh schools that are well-supplemented by local tax money without fear of punishment from the school system. My students are not so lucky; under the president’s plan, such a boycott would only result in having precious federal dollars stripped from their already underfunded school.

But teachers and parents in both systems want the same things for their children: a school that has the ability to attract excellent teachers with the promise that they will have the freedom to be excellent teachers. A system flooded with tests can do no such thing.

So we are forcing the best teachers and administrators out of the schools that need them the most, as they rebel against a testing system that ties their hands and threatens their jobs and their budgets. And as they leave, we doom our poorest students to the worst education, driving home even more forcefully the twin points that as a nation we are content to neglect them, and this is somehow their fault.

Jane Ehrenfeld now teaches 1st grade in the Roxbury section of Boston.

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