I faced a dilemma this week. By some act of fortune, a teacher friend of mine posted a link about opting out of standardized tests. That may or may not be it.
I have a daughter who is now a junior and she has already taken a battery of Nebraska State Assessments including Writing, Math and Science. The last one they are required to take is the Reading Test which was scheduled for this morning. My dilemma started years ago when I first learned of these standardized tests.
I remember, as a student, taking tests. We were never told why. I have to admit that I kind of enjoyed them because I was good at taking tests. I was out to prove something with my pencil as I filled in the little circles for hours upon end. I was a well-trained test taker. SRA, ASVAB, ACT, SAT, and so on. We took tests every year that gave us a % score of how were were doing overall and in various categories. One test even gave us an I.Q. rating, but I don’t know how accurate it was.
Then I became a teacher standing on the other side of the fence. Now I was behind the curtain of testing, but I was still in the dark. The first standardized test that bothered me was when I was in Humboldt. The superintendent told us that the school would be getting lots of money to pilot a test. Students would get nothing for spending two hours taking it. To me, that seemed like injustice. I suggested we use the money to buy the students pizza or something. We did, but the test was still an awful experience.
Then 2000 rolled around and No Child Left Behind was passed. Nebraska opted out of the national testing program and opted to create our own tests that would be more authentic. I learned how to write test questions during this phase of my career. However, despite being “behind the curtain,” I still had no idea what these tests meant. At Ashland-Greenwood, the English department (me and two other teachers) created assessments for our classes that were peer-reviewed. We spent hours and hours deliberating over how to ask questions. We created these common assessments that had to be scored by two teachers. It was soul-sucking work, but we did it.
As most of you probably know, our work was for naught because all of the local tests were thrown out a few years later and replaced by the Nebraska State Assessments in Reading, Writing, Math and Science. I think writing was the first one to be adopted, and then each year, a new one was added. Writing was always the big one for us. We would give 4th, 8th and 11th graders the writing prompt, and then the tests would be sent to an ESU to be scored. I was on the scoring panel a few times spending hours reading page after page of lifeless drivel.
But I went along with it. I never got an answer as to what exactly these tests meant, but now the scores were published in the paper and online. People could now see how various schools around Nebraska did on these tests. At Ashland-Greenwood, we were given accolades for getting our juniors up to 99% proficiency. I was proud of that accomplishment because I felt that I had a pretty big hand in getting us there. I was reverting to the testing monkey that I had been in elementary school. I loved the data and the raw numbers. I liked feeling good about my teaching and seeing results.
Fast forward to 2015. Now the test that was once created, given and graded in our fine state was being outsourced. The prompts were coming to us from far away, and the essays that were once graded by teachers from across Nebraska were now being graded by faceless college graduates in Minnesota. Testing has ramped up and now every grade-level is thinking about test prep. What are we doing to get our students ready for these tests?
After we outsourced the scoring, there was a major drop. Westside, my current school, dropped from the high 90s to the low 80s. Every school in Nebraska saw a similar drop, so there was a bit of a panic to improve.
During our training session this year, I opened the practice Reading Test. I read the first couple of questions, and I was stumped. I could see many answers as being correct. The poem that I was expected to read was poorly written, and the questions were ambiguous. I showed the questions to another teacher, and he felt the same way. So I finally said, “enough is enough.” In my mind, I could see my daughter taking this test and hating it. Her brain would be arguing with itself about which answer was correct and which wasn’t. She would wonder why they had to read such boring drivel. Instead of subjecting her to the test, I decided to write a letter.
I used the template on the opt out page, and added a few of my own reasons for opting out. The principal received the letter and told me that was fine, but the school would be “dinged” because my daughter wasn’t participating. I asked her what that meant, and it comes down to numbers. Apparently, if a student doesn’t take the test, the test will be scored as a 0 and it will count against the school.
But I still want to know what “dinged” means. So what if the score drops? Will we be punished or reprimanded if our score is too low? What exactly are the stakes of these high-stakes tests? Do students understand? Do teachers? Do administrators?
Again and again I have been met with the same mindset from teachers and administrators alike, “None of us like these tests, but…” and I just want to stop there. Stop the BUT and just say, “SO…” so we won’t be giving the test anymore. To me, that’s a simple solution to this test-happy institution. Just. Say. No.