It was a month before the “testing window” and the principal called a meeting for all the teachers who had a high-stakes test associated with their classes. I was teaching U.S. History, which had a state-mandated End-Of-Course Test. This was in late March of 2014, the last year of the EOCTs, before the new Milestones tests were rolled out.
The principal reminded us of the importance of testing to the school and the importance of the procedures designed to ensure the validity of the results. The notorious cheating scandal in neighboring Atlanta Public Schools had broken five years earlier, and the trials of several teachers and administrators would not be concluded until a year later. The relaxed culture in which professionals were expected to do their jobs had been replaced by one in which teachers were treated as suspects. The first year of the EOCTs, I had administered the tests to my own students, in our classroom. This year, students would be herded into computer labs for testing, and their teachers would be held in another part of the building.
Then the principal turned to the subject of test-preparation. “I want you to take a close look at each one of your students,” he said, “and divide them into three categories.
“One group will be the kids who could pass this test today, no problem, and no additional help on your part.
“The next group will be the kids who will never pass this test, no matter what kind of help or support we give them.
“Then the kids in the middle – the ones who might pass the test with a little extra work, and a little more attention on your part ….
“For the next month, I want you to focus your attention on those kids in the middle, because this school needs about half-a-dozen more students to pass their tests this year than passed last year.”
I looked around the room. Could I have heard right? Did he just ask us to ignore perhaps two-thirds of our students for a month so that the numbers could come out right for the school?
If anyone else in the room felt as extremely uncomfortable with this order as I did, I could not read it on their faces. I don’t know if anyone else could read it on mine.
But it was at that moment that I realized my time as a public school teacher – 12-plus years at that point – needed to come to an end. I loved being a teacher, and I could see a future as a teacher in some other setting. But when public schools are more interested in data collection than in the welfare of students – all of their students – there is really no role left for me to play that I am interested in playing.
It is with a touch of personal sadness that I see the testing window roll around each year. But even more so, it is with concern and alarm that I hear stories of time – valuable learning time – spent on practice with multiple choice questions, drilling on the superficial knowledge required to recognize the correct answer. The human capacity for learning is so much greater. The expectations of our schools should be so much greater.
In both 2015 and 2016, technological glitches prevented the new Milestones tests from being counted. This meant that the hours of anxiety suffered by students, and the inconvenience of being shuffled around, waiting in uncomfortable chairs for computers that don’t work, was all for nothing. But even more significantly – whether or not these tests even produce useable data, they continue to have a corrupting influence on instruction, and a debilitating effect upon learning.
We must cultivate learning and individual achievement in all students. We cannot waste the youth of a generation by focusing on the narrow skill set required to pass a standardized test, while ignoring the vast potential of human ability.
Regular readers of this blog will have noticed that this is the first post in a very long time, and that it is in fact recycled from two years ago. For those who enjoyed my posts for the four years I added regularly to this site, I apologize for disappearing without notice, and I want to thank you for your attention and feedback. I am not finished with writing about education, but I am going to continue my break from this site at least a little while longer.
I wanted to place this particular post at the top of the page, because whenever someone asks me why I am no longer a teacher – a job I still proudly say I loved – this episode that day in the cafeteria is the story I tell. And when asked what I think of education in the United States in the 21st century, I say as I did in this post that the human capacity for learning is so much greater than is being developed in schools today. The expectations of our schools should be so much greater.
I look forward to continuing the conversation in the near future, whether in this forum or another.