Yesterday afternoon, my 10-year-old daughter and I had a chat about state tests. We were doing yet another inane test prep packet, trying to use it to actually learn the math hidden inside the deliberately convoluted questions she was meant to answer, when the topic once again arose of "why do I have to take these?" In order to answer that question, I decided to give her a better sense of why I, as an educator, don't believe in high-stakes tests.
We started by traveling back to 1978, when I was her age. The state tests that were given in New Jersey then were not high-stakes. We didn't do practice tests and we certainly didn't do test prep. We were told, and I'd like to believe this, that the tests were for the school district to make sure that kids were "on track"; that we were learning what we were supposed to be learning for our grade level. As far as I know, they weren't used towards our grade (oh, that's right, we didn't get grades in elementary school back then) and they were used towards promotion in conjunction with numerous other factors (teacher knowledge of their students, anyone?). I don't recall hating the tests or freaking out about them because at no point did my principal or classroom teacher tell us that these tests could make or break our school.
While in graduate school in the early '90s, I watched testing take center stage. I taught high school, and although the power of state tests started shifting gears, my school received a "variance" because of our troubled population, but it was only a matter of time before that school -- with its historically under-served students -- had to administer the tests to "measure" its success just like all other schools.
Skipping forward to the early 2000s, as a university faculty member teaching teachers, I heard hours of stories from frustrated new (and veteran) teachers about "teaching to the test." A common refrain was a lamentation on how their big dreams of being inspirational teachers got snuffed out by a maniacal focus on getting kids ready to pass the state tests. While sharing tales, we reviewed the educational research that lambasted high-stakes testing (yes, there has not been any evidence to prove the worth of these tests) and read news articles about rampant cheating and fudged data by entire districts (oh yeah, the Texas "miracle"). We grappled with the question: How could the U.S. Department of Education really think that this testing push was a good idea?
In the ten or so years since those conversations, little has changed. No Child Left Behind and its inherent violence led to Race to the Top and the continued push for tests that can reduce a child, a teacher, a school and a district to a tidy little number that "educational leaders" can use to determine the fate of so many -- and we, as parents and educators, are supposed to embrace them. So many do and so many school leaders turn their schools into test prep factories to make sure they look good in the eyes of people who have no right to judge them.
After my history lesson, I told my daughter that from the first moment I began teaching, I knew that the tests were unjust and I despised them. My disgust with them has only grown with each passing year. We then discussed opting out -- my choice -- but due to additional circumstances (her fathers wishes), she will take the tests over the next two weeks. My advice to her: relax, answer what you can and know that they really don't matter. So tell me, what did you tell your kids as they skipped off to school on test day?