The American public schools, the place where every child is given free education and high stakes exams. The quality of said schools varies greatly by outside forces-home life, neighborhood dynamics, and income levels. Teachers, who have no say in who enters their classroom, what baggage they bring, or what learning styles they’ll be accommodating, are dumped on for the inability to make every kid pass an exam they’ve never seen. No matter the circumstances, every student is given the same test.
Why has American public education removed real learning from the classroom and replaced it with a focus on high stakes testing? Are kids better prepared for life now than they were 15 years ago? My journey as an educator says they’re not.
I started my career as an eighth grade English teacher in 2000 and MCAS was just beginning to sink its fangs into the classroom. I was 24; it was my second career and I was so excited to leave the world of business to teach; I planned to make a difference. I met my kids annually with homework on night 1. They moaned and groaned, but the letter they wrote me that first day was my way into their heads. I not only learned about their writing ability, but I instantly had ways to connect (if Marcus liked baseball I’d incorporate it into a lesson), I saw their strengths, they told me their perceived weaknesses. I stayed up all night pouring over these letters, commenting and grading them, all the while excited to help these kids gain the confidence and academic skills needed for high school. The mandated, high stakes tests don’t take these kids, their weaknesses, their likes or dislikes into account, they just focus on whatever facts are deemed important.
For 180 days a year, I “performed” 4-5 “shows” each day; all centered around English- reading, grammar, writing, and speaking; each customized for those kids who gave me insight into their heads from their letter on day one. I met with students, by my suggestion or of their own desire, during my 42 minute prep period; often forgoing bathroom use, lunch or any actual prepping for upcoming lessons. I met with students after school whether or not my contracted time was up. Often I used this time for academic support, other times I was just a trusted adult ear to listen to friend or family problems, discuss a great book they’ve read or give feedback to budding writers on the novels they had begun penning. This small group time built trust, and helped the kids who came to see me thrive academically. Smaller classes would make more difference in tuning out future teachers, doctors, lawyers, builders, artists, politicians, custodial engineers, than any exam.
Every night, for the nine years I spent teaching, even when I was started out and was saddled with student loans and making a mere $32,000/yr. with a Master’s Degree, I brought home a bag filled with assessments, books to introduce, and ideas for plans to create. Assessments created by me or co-workers ; or pulled from teacher resources that paired with books we used in class were what I used- teachers are professionals trained to create curriculum after all. I tailored assignments to meet IEP (individual education plans) requirements and even for the kids without IEP’s who I saw had deficits, and I did this in stealth mode so no kids felt academically inferior. I worked late into the evenings, full days on the weekends; grading, revising, and creating materials that suited the learning styles of the learners in front of me. And I loved it!
In nine years I saw a mixed bag of society come through my door. My students came from varying family structures as well as economic and racial groups. Some wanted to learn each and every day, some had outside issues preventing them from learning that day or many of the days I saw them, some were simply apathetic and nothing I could say or do would motivate them, but they all got my best attempt to support them.
I gave my 100+ students all I could to help them become first and foremost independent thinkers and fervent learners. Second to that I hoped they’d let me guide them through the rich curriculum the school had in place; so they’d leave me ready for high school. And they did, often returning to tell me that my expectations helped them manage high school classes. In nine years, not once did they return to mention how well the MCAS prepared them for high school.
As time went on, standardized testing took up more and more valuable classroom time; the results becoming more and more important, with annual improvements in scores taking over for actual improvements in the kids independent thoughts. Preparing for my kids was replaced by analyzing test scores. Teaching became about parroting rather than connecting. I decreasingly had time to connect with kids and I increasingly dreaded the 180 school days. I also dreaded the professional development set-up for us; no longer was it about reaching students; it became about driving test scores. So, when my son was born in 2009 I took a year leave then decided my kids would be my only students; I resigned the following spring.
The more I read about high stakes testing the happier I am with my decision to walk away. In Massachusetts, MCAS is suddenly old news and PARCC is on the upswing. Adding dollars to the pockets of companies creating, selling and processing test scores. Cutting back on teaching and assuming every person is the same. Contradicting what teacher’s are trained in- differentiating learning.
In a recent Boston Globe article, Sarah McKeon, Framingham public school teacher and co-president of the Framingham Teachers Association sums up standardized testings shortfalls in this quote, ” How can we be told to differentiate learning for our students, but then give them a standardized test? Each student is unique and cannot be standardized”. I couldn’t agree more. Some kids will excel in areas others don’t, just as adults move along in varying career paths. We’re all wired differently and we all have strengths and weaknesses. I believe that we can improve our weaknesses, but we should let our strengths shine. And a standardized test, that does not account for any of that, should not be the end all be all of our educational system.
Colleges and employers agree that those leaving high school are not prepared for the real world. They have unrealistic expectations from years of scoring well on standardized tests and getting medals just for participating. Why continue the standardized test-based classroom culture that turns out adults who can’t hack it, often enlisting their parents to call professors and employers when things don’t go their way?
-Just a passionate, opinionated educator seeking better for her kids, Jess
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