Saturday, October 18, 2014

How Testing is Destroying My School

Testing is out of control in our schools.  I knew this before I stepped back into a public school classroom this past September after teaching for many years in a psychiatric hospital.  But seeing the testing obsession play out in students’ and teachers’ lives…well, I simply was not prepared. 

In just the first six weeks of school, I have administered more pointless, random, unnecessarily difficult tests to my students than I can count.  We have barely had more than two consecutive days to simply teach where we were not interrupted by some ridiculous mandated assessment. There’s the REACH (for teacher evaluation purposes only), On-Demand Writing Tasks, tests that go to our network, tests for the district, tests because our school in on probation, and placement tests to use the TWO online test prep programs our school is forced to use weekly.  These tests are not aligned to the curriculum, they don’t measure what we are actually learning in class, they are not tied to a broader unit of study.  These are tests just to feed the data monsters.

And thanks to Common Core, these tests are PURPOSEFULLY too difficult for the students.  We are told kids should be frustrated and learn to “persevere”.   They need exposure to “complex text”.  And we need to measure what they don’t know so we can measure what they learn.  But the reality is the kids are upset, they are demoralized, they are learning that they are no good at school and that defeat plays out in their behaviors.  The school is in a constant state of unrest and anger-fights breaking out, kids acting out to disrupt class, and the school lives under a veil of surveillance and punishment.  A climate of pressured, high-stakes testing is exactly the opposite of what our kids need.

And it’s not just the tests, it’s also the test prep.   We have not one, but two online test prep programs our school is mandated to use weekly.   45 mins per week, per subject, plus an assessment in one program and completion of 2-3 “lessons” in another used directly for math.  These expensive programs are basically test prep questions presented in a video game format.  Get the “right” answer and earn coins to play games.  In some classes, these programs take up as much as 40% of instructional time each week.  Even our little kindergartners are forced to get on iPads and practice taking tests.  Our Early Childhood teachers know this is wrong.  In fact, all our teachers know this is wrong.  But the answer to every question we ask is…”because this is what they need to know for PARCC (the Common Core aligned test.)”

And I haven’t even gotten into the numerous and constant technical problems with these programs.  “My iPad doesn’t work.” “I can’t remember my password.”  “I’m new to the school and don’t have a password.” “I can’t get on the internet.”  “The program keeps logging me out.” “My iPad is all in Japanese.” We waste probably 20-30 minutes per use just on technical difficulties.  While I love the use of authentic, meaningful  technology in the classroom, I hate, I HATE edtech.  But Silicon Valley is no doubt making a bundle on the backs of my students.

And what’s worse, I am a special education teacher, so my students are the most fragile of all.  And these tests are killing any possibility to motivate my kids.  There are only so many times I can repeat the mantra that “These don’t matter, guys!”  “Just do your best!” These tests are breaking the trust between me and my students.  It feels so unethical to day after day administer tests that are so far beyond their current abilities.  It’s like we’re giving these kids tests in Chinese, just to prove they don’t know any Chinese.  And they leave feeling just…dumb…because they couldn’t answer any of the questions.  I don’t even need the data these tests generate-they are so inappropriately hard, they tell me nothing of use.  Besides, I have a whole Individual Education Plan that tells me exactly what my kids need to work on. 

But still, every single week, here I am giving yet another absolutely disgusting test.  My kids bang their heads on desks, they cry, they whine, they give up and say “I’m done” in front of a blank answer sheet.  They fidget, they act out, they get in trouble just to get out of going to yet another class where they feel stupid. 

I feel dirty when I come home.  I wonder, “Should I start to boycott administering these tests?”  But I don’t have tenure.  Everyone tells me to lay low, to take the bold moves in three years when I've earned tenure.

Three years…how can I do this evil to children for three more years?

My school was already destabilized as a receiving school after Mayor Emanuel’s vicious school closings-undergoing massive changes in enrollment and staffing last year.  The neighborhood around us suffers from disinvestment, foreclosure, unemployment, crime, and poverty deeply impacting our students’ readiness to learn.  And instead of wrapping our kids in love and successes, we batter them with cruel, impossible tests. 

I think about how all this bogus data is going to be used to “prove” our school is failing.  Testing is so wildly out of control in my school because we are “on probation”-like so many other schools in low-income, African-American communities-and somehow this justifies these disgusting interventions.  We have a phenomenal staff and school leadership, but instead of being allowed to create a beautiful place of learning, we are forced to do wrong by these kids.  We are the hammer driving the nail into the coffin of this little school.  We are giving them the very information they may someday use to destroy us.

Anyone who says high-stakes testing and the Common Core don’t matter, you are wrong.  These policies are destroying my school.  They are destroying my profession.  They are destroying the bond between teacher and student.  The testing madness needs to stop.  Now.