It’s Time To Slay The High-Stakes Testing Beast

Slay the Testing Beast

We’ve booted out CCSS — but it wasn’t the biggest beast in the room. We still have high-stakes testing, the vicious monster that is labeling, categorizing, and killing our children’s love of learning.

Yes, it is time to slay the beast!

You’ve all read the stories in the news:

  • Ethan Rediske, a child dying in Florida, was forced by his state to take its standardized test, the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test (FCAT).
  • The Moyers, Oklahoma children whose parents were killed, but who would have been required to take the test the next week anyway by the Oklahoma State Department of Education. That is, until Moyers superintendent Donna Dudley put her foot down on Facebook.

But what about the children facing the testing beast whom you don’t hear about on the news?

What about the child whose sister was murdered in northeast Oklahoma City on March 30 — the day before the education rally?

Hannah* started out on the wrong foot in my seventh grade class two years ago. She was loud, unfocused, habitually tardy, and disrespectful. She had not passed the reading section of her Oklahoma Core Curriculum Test the previous year, so she spent time in both my Focus Reading and Language Arts classes.

After a few months of working with Hannah and her mother, she made a turnaround. Hannah became a model student. When other students weren’t listening, she’d hush them. She’d be the first one to offer answers, and the first one to volunteer to help with classroom tasks and errands, such as handing out papers or running a note to the office. She would volunteer enthusiastically to read outloud in class, and showed marked improvement in her fluency. She was the first person to offer to help other struggling students in class.

I was blessed to have 15-year-old Hannah return to my Language Arts class this past school year. She started out with a STAR reading grade equivalent of 5.8, at least a year’s growth over her scores from the previous September. By March 6, she had increased her reading level to 6.3 — a 53 point improvement on the STAR scaled score.

But then everything changed.

I was completely unaware of this change on Monday, March 31, when I attended the Oklahoma Education Funding Rally at the state capitol with my own children and a teacher from my school.

After the rally, we stood for 30 minutes in an amorphous crowd of educators waiting for buses to take them back to their vehicles at Remington Park. We decided it would be faster to walk.

In retrospect, our decision to walk was probably not very bright. But it seemed like a good idea at the time.

My two children, my friend, and I walked to the Subway at NE 23rd and Kelley Avenue, ate lunch, and then headed over to Eastern Avenue, where we began our trek north.

That’s when we ran into the crime scene where police officers were still sweeping the parking lot for evidence.  We caught a bus just north of the scene and I went home to read the news about what had happened the night before.

The next day, Hannah was in her desk, but she was not her usual self. She put her head down, and disengaged from class.

Normally, I would have insisted that she sit up, shake off the cobwebs, and get with the program. This time, however, I had a sense that something wasn’t right, that I shouldn’t bother her.

I found out the next day from one of my colleagues (who heard from her students) that it was Hannah’s pregnant sister who had been gunned down Sunday night. The baby’s father was the brother of a student in one of my other classes.

From that day forward, Hannah stopped trying. She missed several days of school. She did not participate when she did attend, even though I tried gently to get her back on track. Her STAR reading test on April 18 showed a 4.8 grade equivalent. She had lost 184 points on her scaled score.

High-stakes testing was not the biggest monster in Hannah’s life. Nonetheless, it will be the one that keeps her out of electives next year, that holds her back from graduating, and possibly prevents her from getting a decent-paying job.

Hannah has been through more than many adults could handle. Has she not already been through enough? Must we heap a label of failure on her head, too?

Instead of feeding her to the testing beast while she, and the multitude of other students with stories like hers, are battling the other monsters in their lives, let’s find ways to nurture them and help them through these unimaginably terrible times in their lives.

The view from the ivory tower

I hate to even think this, but some people might say we’d waste our time an effort on these children: Clearly, they are too far gone if they’re already making babies and getting murdered in a fight.

For many advantaged people, high-stakes testing separates the deserving poor from the undeserving poor and becomes a policy mechanism to preserve social status more than a policy to improve our schools. High-stakes testing subtly fits the mindset of this growing demographic and thus makes it easier for this policy to gain purchase in our contemporary society, according to A Short History of High-Stakes Testing by Sharon L. Nichols, an associate professor of Educational Psychology at the University of Texas at San Antonio, and David C. Berliner, Regents Professor of Education at Arizona State University.

I’ve heard people say this before: I was able to pull myself up by my bootstraps; my family was poor, but I turned out just fine; I lost a family member, but I still graduated.

But what those people fail to consider is that many children in high poverty areas have no hope. They see parents giving in to drug addiction monsters, low-wage job monsters, and physical/mental/emotional abuse beasts. This is a far cry from the middle class, good paying job, drug-free, nuclear family environment in which many of our policy leaders grew up.

These children deserve to have hope just as much as we deserve hope.

Restoring Hope for Our Children

To restore the hope of these children, we must slay the high-stakes testing monster that labels them as failures:

If we assume that the goal of accountability should be better education, the test-and-punish approach must be replaced by a support-and-improve model. A new approach should ensure that students get what they really need: 1) curriculum, teaching, and assessment focused on meaningful learning, 2) adequate resources that are spent wisely, and 3) professional capacity, so that teachers and school leaders develop the knowledge and skills they need to teach much more challenging content in much more effective ways, according to It’s Time for a New Accountability in American Education.

Each child is a blessing, a valuable human being who deserves to be nurtured, to be given the care and consideration we would all want for our own children.

Don’t be fooled. Any of our children can choose to go down the wrong path. The difference between the children in these stories and our own children is us. Our children have parents who have their acts together, who go to work, who nurture, lead and guide them. We must nurture, lead and guide the lost children among us, too.

Testing is not the way. Testing devalues all of us.

Our policy makers might say these stories I am telling you are all anecdotes, just stories that don’t have any real meaning, unlike statistics.

The thing is, our children are NOT STATISTICS. They are human beings, and they all have stories. I have stories. You have stories. Our children have stories. It is my job as a teacher to listen to their stories, to teach them how to tell their stories, and how to listen to each others’ stories. (Even if some of our education leaders think that the “real world” don’t give a s*** about what our children think.)

We should listen to our childrens’ stories, even those children who are daily slain, bit-by-bit, by the poverty, drug and abuse beasts. We should listen to the stories of our nation’s children and enact policies to help all of our children become the adults they are meant to be, to ensure that there is a caring adult in the lives of children, enough food in their bellies, and HOPE in their hearts so that they can grow up to be productive, thinking, contributing adults.

High-stakes testing will not accomplish this. The high-stakes testing beast sorts children into categories — losers and winners — and punishes the children, teachers, schools, and communities that have the most need. We must slay this monster.

However, high stakes testing is not a beast we can take down at the local or even state level.  Our policy makers bred this monster at the national level and we must hunt it down where it lives. We must divorce high-stakes testing outcome mandates from federal monies and invest in meaningful learning, adequate school and community resources, and teacher education and growth.

*Hannah is not her real name.

About the author 

Michelle Boyd Waters, M.Ed.

I am a secondary English Language Arts teacher, a University of Oklahoma student working on my doctorate in Instructional Leadership and Academic Curriculum with an concentration in English Education and co-Editor of the Oklahoma English Journal. I am constantly seeking ways to amplify students' voices and choices.

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