05/31/2012 09:59 pm ET | Updated Jul 31, 2012

The Big Snooze (High Stakes Testing and the Low Stakes Mentality)

I am amazed every spring at how tirelessly our administrators and our testing coordinator and our teachers (including me) convey to students to urgency with which we will be giving them the California Standards Tests.

These are high school students and so they know their scores don't affect them -- which, for teenagers, is a pretty good reason not to care.

I have, over the years, developed some arguments for why they should do their darndest to ace those tests:

-- I tell them, "Don't let those tests punk you!" To which, I suspect, they are thinking that I am, by saying that, trying to punk them. Or they are thinking that the test cannot punk them if they don't try.
-- I tell them to take pride in whatever they do, including any test anyone gives them for any reason. Some students buy that but I think more of them take pride in the oppositional posture they are able to express by not doing their best on these sometimes mind-numbing instruments.
-- I tell them that colleges look at our collective scores to see how good our school is and so when they apply for college it will help them if they've all done their best on these tests. I don't even know if there is any validity whatsoever to that statement, but one thing about high stakes testing is that it doesn't really promote honesty.
-- And if none of those reasons seem to be convincing my students then I just beg them:

"Please do your best," I say. "Please don't make me look bad."

That one is their favorite -- and why shouldn't it be? It empowers them as do few aspects of their education.

"I've worked really hard to teach you well; the least you can do is work hard to show the state what you've learned." And if they agree with my premise then they usually promise to hold up their end of things. I am at their mercy -- and in that regard standardized testing, at least at the high school level, turns the tables on educators; we want students to make us look good and therefore ought to think about all the ways that we alienate and dehumanized those students -- all the times we made a big group of them suffer for the actions of a few, all the times we've treated a child like a number or put a rule before the needs of a student.

Our test data measure the alienation and dehumanization quotient as much as anything else -- and we are sleepwalking if we don't realize it.

A colleague of mine who works as a home and hospital school teacher for those sick and disabled children who cannot make it to school, told me he is required to test all of his students, regardless of the severity of their illness or injury. In most cases, disabled students are given testing accommodations according to their individualized educational plans (IEPs) but he teaches one boy who was, just weeks ago, paralyzed in a car accident. With no IEP to indicate any accommodations, the teacher is required, by law, to place the CST answer sheet and testing booklets and a No. 2 pencil in front of the poor child and wait there. Since these tests have no time limits the teacher is supposed to carry on this cruel farce until the boy has a miraculous recovery and is able to hold and guide a pencil or until his IEP is written or until the boy's parents toss the teacher and the tests into the street or until the absurdity of these billion dollar testing requirements are mercifully rescinded.

Until then, here is what standardized testing looks like in person: a room full of students multiple-choosing with their No. 2s, some of them hard at work, others making a pattern out of the bubbles on their answer sheets, and still others with their heads down, either because they've finished quickly or because they've figured out how to make high stakes testing serve their low stakes ambitions. With no time limits on any of these tests, schools give a fixed time to finish each part but then must provide extra time for those who need it. So by purposely not finishing, students can avoid all their classes that day without worrying about a truant officer. Just complete some of the test, then take a nap and wait to be herded into the extra-time room where they can continue their nap and eventually finish the pattern on their answer sheet sometime toward the end of the school day.

No child left behind.

Race to the top.