Last week in Ohio, a sixth-grade student asked to use the bathroom while taking a state-administered standardized achievement test -- a reasonable request. The teacher, considering the strict rules and secrecy of the all-important test -- the sole basis of judgment and accountability of the whole year for the students, the teacher, the principal, and the school district -- refused.
The sixth-grader had an accident. (See story.)
Almost immediately, the press got wind of the incident and school officials apologized for the adolescent student's extreme public humiliation. A spokesman for the Ohio Department of Education said, "We want to maintain the integrity and security of all tests, but not at the expense of a student having an accident in a classroom. Educators need to use common sense."
This spokesman misses the point miserably. He throws the entirety of the blame on the teacher for not using sufficient common sense, which would seem logical to an outsider of the No Child Left Behind-inspired culture of high-stakes testing. After all, wouldn't any decent human being, let alone a teacher, know enough to let a child use the bathroom when he/she needed to?
I taught fourth grade, a major testing grade, in a New York City public school in the '03-'04 term, and I can attest that teachers are told over and over again by their supervisors that the sun of accountability rises and sets with the standardized achievement tests. Horror stories from veteran teachers circulated about state monitors catching a teacher in subtle violation of austere test-proctoring practices and duly invalidating the tests for the entire grade. This effectively took a hatchet to a school's reputation and opened the teacher up to career-threatening disciplinary action. Teachers at my school were told never to stand still, but to constantly, casually circulate. We were warned gravely and repeatedly not to speak or make hand gestures toward the students. We absolutely could not carry a pen or pencil in our hands during the testing period. Basically, teachers were scared stiff about the life-and-death test.
If the adults felt this way, you can imagine what was forced on the kids. I saw one teacher tell a class of nine- and ten-year-olds, "These test scores will go on your permanent record which will follow you for the rest of your life!" Several students in my class, as well as others around the school, vomited on the day of the test. One boy, Dennis, could not stop shaking. The monumental importance of their test performance had been so hammered into them -- for many, passing the test meant passing the grade, and failure insured being left back -- that going to school meant just one thing: test preparation.
The Ohio teacher who forced the student to urinate in class was not an unfeeling martinet, but rather was simply following the strict directions that supervisors had been feeding for months.
Does it really have to be this way? First of all, federal and state officials are crazy if they believe that they are receiving accurate assessments of students' abilities by scoring one test that is given to children in such a pressure-cooker environment. You can be sure that the tests of my students who threw up as they filled in their answer sheet bubbles were scored and counted, but tests said nothing about children's education. Secondly, and more importantly, the culture of high-stakes testing turns administrators and teachers into obsessed, ugly versions of themselves. The children are the voiceless, unwitting victims of this hijacking of their precious school days. Public schools should raise children up, but under this system of high-stakes testing, they are literally losing control of themselves. The incident in Ohio is not an exception.
The overblown emphasis of standardized testing all comes back to the No Child Left Behind Act. It has to change.
Fortunately, fixing the crisis of assessment in American public schools doesn't involve reinventing the wheel. It mainly involves diversity, rather than single-mindedness.
In his essay "Leaving No Child Behind: Overhauling NCLB," Monty Neill provides an alternate, three-branch model of assessment:
1. Classroom-based Information
Each teacher retains evidence of teaching and learning: assignments, student work, and the teacher's observations of the learning processes, strengths and weaknesses of the students. Teachers use a variety of methods and tools, including observations, student work, projects, essays, tests, presentations, and portfolios to summarize and evaluate the evidence of learning. These are the basis for teacher reports, qualitative and numerical, as to each student's progress in meeting state, district, or school standards as well as goals the teacher or student may have...
2. Limited Standardized Testing
Testing should be in literacy and numeracy and primarily be used as one means for checking on school level information. Marked discrepancies between test results and classroom-based information would be investigated...
3. School Quality Reviews
Independent, well-prepared teams would conduct reviews of every school at about five-year intervals, as is done in England, New Zealand, and the states of Rhode Island and now New York... The team prepares a report with recommendations, which is given to the school and is available to the public in summary and complete form.
Our administration and lawmakers should listen to Monty Neill! It was never inevitable that our public schools would be so tragically fixated on standardized testing -- that eight-year-olds would be vomiting and eleven-year-olds would be peeing on themselves in their classrooms. High-stakes testing is a quick and easy -- but flawed -- method of measuring accountability, yet America has found itself waist deep in its disenfranchising murk. Perhaps a sensational breaking point, like the Ohio child forced to pee in class, can give us the wakeup call we need to change the system. This is a solvable problem. The citizenry must demand the necessary changes.