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Lori Ungemah Headshot

My Privilege Can't Save Me -- or My Kids -- From High Stakes Testing

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Working in a Title I high school for ten years where the poverty level of the students exceeded 80%, we were forced to face many educational reform movements head on. Due to our students' low literacy and numeracy skills, we struggled to make Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP) for No Child Left Behind every year. Each January and June, the times when the New York State Regents Exams are administered, the school would work itself into a testing frenzy. Lists would be made of students taking the exams, students would be coded by race, special education and English Language Learner status so that we could focus our preparation efforts on the students who would get our school the most points towards AYP. It was not uncommon to hear our Jamaican Assistant Principal barking, "We need three Black kids in the senior class to pass so we can make AYP!" and we could get on the phones, call the students and their parents to remind them of their test date and time, call them again at 6 a.m. the day of the test to wake the students up, and then cheerlead them through the exam.

No, we would not give them answers (for those of you wondering).

You might remember being tested during your education experience, but have you ever sat through a three-hour exam with a student who has major test anxiety or who struggles just to read the questions? They get angry and flip out, or they get sad and start to cry -- a deluge of emotions begins to fill in the classroom and those emotions are contagious and spread to other students. It's the proctor's job to quietly talk those students off the ledge that inevitably leads to them walking out, giving up, and both the student and the school failing.

I remember a co-worker of mine sitting for four and a half hours with a student during her English Regents Exam. This student was a special education student who had multiple learning disabilities, therefore her testing modifications allowed her time and a half. Caroline, her English teacher, was called in because the student was hysterically crying and wanted to leave the exam. She went into the testing room and sat next to the student, quietly coaching her with encouraging statements like, "You know this, we did this in class..." until the student calmed down. Caroline sat with her for hours, nodded, smiled, gave her a thumbs up, made reassuring eye contact, and was there until the student finished the test. She passed. The student was both Hispanic (the NCLB race label), a senior and a special education student. Major score for student and school.

But test stress and anxiety didn't just exist in January and June, it was palpable year-round. From the moment the students walked into the school in ninth grade until the day before graduation, the Regents Exams loomed large. The curriculum narrowed for the tests and then it narrowed some more. After-school tutoring was provided by Kaplan, contracted through the Department of Education. Then the curriculum narrowed again: We were asked to use Kaplan materials in class coupled with other Regents prep books we already used. Every formative and summative assessment had to model a part of the Regents exam for your subject area. The school schedule changed to allow before school tutoring for the testing only. Testing became the norm and our hands were tied.

I fought testing at first -- maybe for the first year or so of my career. But eventually, I gave in; it was stronger than me and, quite honestly, I wanted my students to pass because I saw the joy and pride they felt when they were successful. I learned to be a test prep expert, and I am not exaggerating when I say that after 10 years of teaching, I could get a student who read at a 4th grade level to pass the high school English Regents exam. I was a cog in the machine of testing, BUT I always assumed this testing culture was because our school was filled poor Black and Brown students who entered high school below grade level, thus making our student population and therefore our school "at risk." It was just added to the many layers of racism and classism that I experienced through teaching this population. It sucked, but being poor and being discriminated against sucked, too. I became largely inured with it all.

I did not think this culture of testing could reach me, and my own children, in my white, upperclass neighborhood of Park Slope. I thought my race and class privilege could save my own children from an educational experience riddled with test preparation, test stress and testing as the curricular foundation. I thought my high-performing elementary school in a neighborhood I can barely afford to live in would somehow hover above all this mayhem, in the same way that we avoid the many other plagues that riddle the lives of the lower classes, and allow my own children an educational experience in which testing was secondary to learning.

And I realized what I hypocrite I am. As much as I talk about of one side of my mouth about educational equality, I was completely OK with my children living in a world without testing because of their race and class privilege.

But I am quickly learning that our privilege can't save us.

This past spring, on May 23, I received an email and then a letter from my daughter's elementary school's principal about a change in the school day schedule. It reads:

The new school schedule will involve changes to both our school hours and the structure of the Extended Day time. Next year our official school hours will be 8:20-2:40 p.m., Monday through Friday. On Tuesdays and Wednesday, we will invite some of our children to stay after school from 2:40-3:30 for targeted instruction in small groups. This will include all students in grades 3, 4 and 5, as well as selected students in grades 1 and 2. The focus for these sessions will be reading, writing and math, aligned to students' individual instructional needs.

As an educator, I immediately decoded this letter: This shift in schedule was about test preparation.

Yes, there was some blah, blah, blah-ing about small group instruction after school and preparing students to meet the Common Core State Standards, etc., but you can't play a player -- I knew what was being implicitly said. I asked other parents (non-educators) what they thought of the letter, but they were just frustrated by the early pick-up time (2:40?!). I showed the letter to teachers and professor friends who work in education and they all replied in a skinny second, "Testing."

This was all about testing.

And I know how this works: It begins with after-school tutoring, then the tutoring and test prep seeps into the day's curriculum and narrows it to a shadow of its old self, and soon the entire school experience is about testing and only testing. And this is at a high-performing elementary school in a neighborhood of ridiculously over-educated parents who own million dollar-plus apartments and brownstones. Many students enter at or above grade level, but it doesn't matter. High-stakes testing is everywhere now. EVERYWHERE. The only place to hide is in a private school.

I did not expect this for my own children.

I went to my first PTA meeting this past Tuesday because it was exclusively about high-stakes testing. The principal got up and told us very logically and eloquently about her personal journey with high-stakes testing. She defined what the term "high-stakes" means and how she has wrestled with it and its shape-shifting manifestations. She was very honest: she told us -- point blank -- that she gets a $10,000 bonus if the school test scores are good (I already knew this, but it was the first time I heard an administrator say it out loud). She emphasized that she is not against testing, nor against teachers being assessed, but to use state tests as the only means by which to assess students, teachers, principals, and schools is unethical. She told us that just this year it was mandated that the school's Comprehensive Educational Plan (CEP), a list of goals that drive the school during the academic year, be exclusively about test scores. She reassured us that she and the teachers at school see our children as whole people, not as test scores, but that they cannot do much to retaliate. The power is in the parents. The revolution has to start with us.

I left that meeting thrown, my mind reeling on many levels.

As I reflect on why I was so shocked that testing had found me, I recognize that I honestly believed that my children were immune to high-stakes testing given my race and class privilege, and as much as I consider myself an educator for social justice, I was okay with that. But we are not immune and our privilege can't save us. It is here, it is everywhere, and if you are in public schools, it seems you can't hide from it. We can only fight back.