Publication Date: 2004-04-13
This teacher points out that "We should. . .mistrust any instrument that is designed by politicians to make them look concerned and force-fed by administrators to make them look good."
This commentary appeared in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer
I haven't had The Test nightmare since I was in my early 20s. You know the one. You wake with a start because you overslept and missed the big test, and as you step into the shower you realize that you graduated from college several years ago and it's now 4 a.m. on a Saturday morning in the real world.
These days I don't have The Test nightmare; I am The Test nightmare. Me and thousands of other teachers across the United States. Our daily existence is focused on improving test scores, in accord with the No Child Left Behind Act and, here in Washington, the WASL.
We go about improving test scores by blatantly "teaching to the test." This was a pejorative phrase in teaching circles until a few years ago, when administrators realized they better cover their collective butts if they wanted to keep their jobs. So now the qualified phrase is, "It's OK to teach to the test, if it's a good test."
Which is utter malarkey.
Passing standardized tests should be incidental to the educational process, not the focus. We should also mistrust any instrument that is designed by politicians to make them look concerned and force-fed by administrators to make them look good.
Adding to the absurdity is holding teachers and students "accountable" with this parade of tests. Teaching is more akin to an art than a science and therefore lends itself to observation rather than measurement. I don't know any teachers who object when a principal or parent drops by the class to watch; on the other hand, nearly all dislike having their skills judged by how well their students perform on an assessment.
During the many tests I've given this year, my primary concern has been staying awake. There's just not much to do once I pass out the pencils and read through the directions, other than to occasionally bellow "No talking!" and "Keep your eyes on your own test!" Which I do every five minutes or so just to stay alert.
What I'd like to say is, "This really blows, doesn't it?" I don't voice this opinion because I lack moral courage and enjoy a regular paycheck. But I think it blows, and I'm sure my students would confirm my view if I opened it to debate.
I didn't become a teacher to prepare students for tests. My primary focus is finding ways to connect literature to the lives of my students. This is a creative challenge and quite rewarding when it blooms in a well-received lesson.
By contrast, preparing students for standardized tests is drier than peanut butter. Rather than foster a love of reading and writing, it reduces literature to out-of-context excerpts and asks students to answer multiple-choice questions. Who wants to answer questions after reading a fine piece of writing? I can understand asking them to reflect on the piece, but that, or course, makes the interpretation of literature subjective -- and we wouldn't want to encourage that, right?
At the core of standardized tests is a contradiction. This is because they are based largely on the business model that corporate executives like to tout as a solution to educational woes, but at the same time lack bottom-line logic: Microsoft can fire unproductive workers; schools can't. If we could, our test scores would be golden.
There are days when, feeling businesslike, I want to grab "Billy" by the nose ring, lead him to the school gates and inform him that he's been let go due to lack of productivity. But in reality I don't think we want to toss out the teen for the test scores. You can never tell how people will turn out based on their tumultuous adolescent years, just as you can never tell when a valuable lesson will take root.
If we continue to take the easy way out by testing students rather than teaching them, many passionate and gifted educators will leave the field, and many students will be further alienated by our flawed educational system.
And that would be a real nightmare.
John Foley is a teacher at Cascade High School in Everett.