Back when I was growing up in the 70’s, we had one test in fifth grade that required us to have a lesson on how to fill in those standardized test prep bubbles with a number two pencil. On the day of the test, our teacher stood tall and spoke with a tone that was stricter than usual. Three ovals were drawn on the blackboard. “No bubbling outside the line. No leaving unpenciled spots inside the bubble. Do it right.” Like Goldilocks, she pointed out the bubble that had too much pencil, the second one with too little and the third that was “just right.”
We took the test and never even found out our score. But how times have changed! These days as a result of those test scores, students are labeled by their teachers. “He’s a one.” “That class is filled with 2's and 3's.” “I am thrilled he scored a 4!”
The day before our test, our public school curriculum included science, history, reading and math. The day after the test, the same exact lessons were taught and we learned.
No one shook with fear. No teachers worried that they would not be rehired. No one was cheated of the opportunity to learn meaningful skills and material year after year.
Well, now it’s over 35 years later and now the wolves are in charge of the henhouse. And who are these wolves?
Here is how I imagine the typical wolf. Have you ever met the person who can’t stand being around kids? She just wishes that those little brats racing around in Batman capes spinning in circles and making up jokes would just put on business suits and earn a living. Well, somehow those imagination-less, prudish grownups with sterile, impatient thoughts, the same people who make you wonder, "Were you ever a kid?" well someone put them in charge of education. And they are making record profits for the testing industry and the hedge fund backers of cult-like charter schools as they ruin young minds.
How many tests are students taking? “Preliminary research by the Council of the Great City Schools, which represents large urban districts, found that students take an average of 113 standardized tests between pre-K and 12th grade.”
How do I know it’s such a problem? I was a New York City public school teacher, and I am currently teaching 520 public school students a week in addition to mentoring six new teachers in New York City public schools and charter schools. Along the way, I talk with everyone, teachers, administrators and students. I work in the South Bronx, Harlem and Crown Heights. As I gather information through observations and conversations, it’s clear that testing is the Darth Vader of these students’ lives. Here are some examples of testing’s destructive effects:
I know a second-year teacher of third graders may not be rehired because her students' scores may not improve this year. If students do not show progress at meeting grade level scores two years in a row, say good-bye to the teacher. But most of her new students are new to English. Is this is factor? Not to the administration! Her students must pass and show improvements on meeting grade level every year.
A sixth grade teacher I know is assigned to teach humanities, a combination of English and history. But her administration does not want her to teach history because no students have state tests on history. Whenever she tries to sneak in a lesson on ancient China, Greece or Egypt, lessons from the class curriculum, the administrators express disapproval. The teacher wants to keep her job. Her supervisors tell her that all of her lesson plans need to be aligned with the state English test so that her school’s statistics, published annually and a source of public boasting, can demonstrate high passing rates. The result? Her students are not learning any history in sixth grade.
When I taught 99 eighth graders in three classes, all of my students were struggling with school. They openly hated school. And I would have too if my school resembled theirs.
The four test scores are a 1 (failing), 2 (approaching grade level), 3 (grade level) and 4 (above grade level). All of my students had earned 1’s or 2’s in seventh grade and the administration wanted to see improvements.
In another school where I work, the fifth grade teachers were told by the administrators that no teachers in the school can give quizzes and tests of any kind. The reason? Students are so stressed out by state testing that they feel overly tested. Therefore, no math, spelling or vocabulary quizzes can be given. How are teachers to assess students’ learning if the only assessment is on irrelevant state tests? Teachers are handcuffed by these rules. Students are learning far less. Along the way, phonics, grammar and handwriting have been taken out of the curriculum. When I teach fifth graders in these schools, they cannot spell, write clearly or use proper grammar. Fifth graders are ten years-old and in their last year of elementary school.
Well, what have they been doing all these years? That’s right! Test Prep! How better can you make sure that they will be low-wage employees without the skills to compete in the workplace? Test Prep!
In my own eighth grade public school English classroom, we had no class sets of books. We had no grammar books. But we had a gleaming new set of Kaplan test prep books that were 400 pages long. Over the course of three months, my 99 students filled out every single page. And, Yes! My students scores went up. But they learned nothing valuable except on poetry Fridays when I mercifully dropped the test prep books for half the class period, and we spoke about and wrote poems. Aside from that, I would rate the learning a Solid ZERO.
The applied subjects are social studies and science. Knowing how to read and write in English class will help students study social studies. And through social studies, students build their skills on being a good human being. I have taught social studies to students in 2nd, 4th, 6th, 7th and 8th grades. Aside from studying history, we learn about ethics, voting, geography and other essential aspects of good global citizenry.
Remember, educators main job is to prepare students for adulthood. Nothing does this better than social studies. But because social studies is not labeled important any longer, it is marginalized.
The study of science is also denied its important place in schools. Math was created to support science. The two subjects should be combined and students should not be studying pure math any longer. Students should study math as it relates to science. The study of computers should take the place of high level math. Why? Math is a fascinating course of study but computer science will aid students as they seek employment.
We need to retrain high school math teachers to teach computer science. Calculus, trigonometry and algebra two should be electives for those who want the challenge of learning high-level math. But here in the modern world, Computer Science should be the new requirement for graduation.
Since science is not tested, it is a low priority on the curriculum. And yet, scientific exploration is essential. Curing disease, climate change and improving agriculture can only be accomplished through scientific innovation. What could be more important?
And yet, no young children in the schools where I work are doing science experiments, ecology walks and geology explorations like the students in the private schools are. Science education may be reading a few pages in a textbook during a test prep break.
Our future governors, the bosses of our public school students, are sitting in private school classroom while their families pay up to $45,000 for a spot. They are clearly reserved for the wealthiest students with a few very poor students with black or brown skin accepted each year so the fancy schools cannot be accused of being racist. This is called the barbell effect with the very rich and the very poor represented. In reality, it’s .5% poor students on one side of the barbell and 99.5% wealthy on the other side in most private schools. But barbell is the chosen terminology. No middle class students attend these independent schools. Private schools are training the students with intensive studies of social studies, science, dance, the arts, field trips galore and all other things educational except for testing. Private schools are exempt from testing. Students are too busy immersed in meaningful learning in preparation for being the next generation's leaders. And with employees who had test prep instead of education, they will be like the only literate person in a town of illiterates. But the test prep keeps on dictating curriculum and drying up students' interest in learning.
And, as one of my students used to say, “We are served test prep for breakfast, lunch and dinner.”