Moving at the Speed of Creativity by Wesley Fryer

High Stakes Testing Must End in the USA

Today’s headline in USA Today, “For teachers, many ways and reasons to cheat on tests,” affirms many points made by Dr. David Berliner in April 2006 at Texas Tech University in his presentation, “Troubles for the NCLB Act: It may not be improving achievement and it corrupts the profession.” This article, like Dr. Berliner’s presentation five years ago, breaks my heart.

For teachers, many ways and reasons to cheat on tests

Consider this quotation from the article:

[Teacher assistant Johanna] Munoz resigned after the school district concluded that she cheated and recommended that the school board fire her. She denies giving her students any answers and says she was never alone with them in the classroom. “I have no clue why the kids said I helped them. I think one said it, then they all did,” says Munoz, 28, who was proctoring the test for the first time. She is now a day care worker.

Note the USA Today article begins with this example of a teacher assistant, yet the headline reads: “For TEACHERS.” It does not read, “FOR TEACHING ASSISTANTS.” That may not seem like a big deal, but articles like this are part of the ongoing, mainstream media tapestry which seeks to discredit teachers and the education profession as a whole. It’s disingenuous to publish a headline which cries, “Look at all these no-good, dishonest, cheating teachers” and then start the article with a story about a non-certified, non-college educated teaching assistant. I write this without bias against teaching assistants: I served as a teaching assistant myself for one year in the Lubbock schools in Texas. There’s a big difference between teaching assistants and teachers: It’s called certification.

The authors of this USA Today article, Jodi Upton, Denise Amos and Anne Ryman, even call Johanna Munoz “a teacher” later in the article, writing:

It’s “a fairly simple operation. All one has to do is lean close and whisper,” says Christine DiDonna, coordinator and school counselor at Groveland Elementary in Florida. She has helped conduct several investigations, including the one involving Munoz, the former teacher.

To be factual, that last sentence should read, “… including the one involving Munoz, the former teaching assistant.” Upton, Amos and Ryman got that fact wrong, in support of their misleading headline. USA Today editors should go on the record and acknowledge this misleading error.

As Dr Berliner explained via his research in 2006, high stakes testing inherently corrupts the teaching profession. Teaching assistants are not the only ones corrupted, teachers are as well. High stakes testing forces teachers to abdicate their roles as the coaches and educators of children, and instead become prison guard parrots reading the script provided by the state department of education. The USA Today article summarizes this situation by writing:

Teachers typically proctor their own students’ tests, especially in the early grades, to make students more comfortable. On test days, that means teachers must shut off the conditioned response to questions they get from students the rest of the year: “What do I do next?” or “What does this word mean?” When it comes to state tests, the only answer should be, “I can’t help you.”

Why have we tolerated this situation in our nation for so long? What is it going to take for us as parents, educators, and community members to rise up and demand change?

Upton, Amos and Ryman include stories of certified teachers who have been punished for helping students on high stakes tests in their article as well. Here is one example:

Robert Hamann, a veteran social studies teacher, had been volunteering to help students at Scarlet Oaks Career Center in the Cincinnati area. So he already knew the senior taking the graduation-mandatory writing test.

Confused by the test instructions, the student asked for help. He told her to use the strategies they had discussed, and she began to string together a written answer. With each halting sentence, she looked to him for approval and he told her to write it down.

“In a moment of trying to help this kid, I kind of lost myself,” Hamann says of the 2005 incident. “This was what we had been doing in review. … This kid is in 12th grade trying to pass a ninth-grade test. This is her last shot. So, you’re explaining, explaining, explaining, and I think I gave her too much information.”

Hamann reported himself immediately. He got no breaks: His teaching license was suspended for three months; he now works as an administrator in another Cincinnati-area school.

This situation is NOT isolated, and that supports Dr. Berliner’s point as well as mine: High stakes testing environments inherently corrupt teachers and the teaching profession. My extension to this is a natural one: This legislated situation is intolerable and must change.

My text notes from Dr. Berliner’s April 2006 presentation are still available. Unfortunately, it appears the Internet Archive deleted the audio podcast version I’d posted of the presentation. Thankfully the link to the enhanced podcast version of that original presentation on my own MobileMe website is still available. This enhanced podcast version is synchronized to Dr. Berliner’s originally shared slides.

Since YouTube, and I suspect Vimeo, are not friendly for .m4a enhanced podcast files, I used QuickTime Player 7 to convert this presentation to a QuickTime movie and uploaded it to Vimeo. I can’t upload it to YouTube since it’s 65 minutes long. Even though this presentation was shared FIVE years ago, it’s still extremely illuminating to help understand the NCLB agenda and the destructive effects it continues to have on our public schools, our classrooms, our teachers, and our students. I’ve shared this with the original title from the 2006 podcast: “High Stakes Testing is the Enemy.” Take an hour and listen to Dr. Berliner’s research findings. It may open your eyes a bit wider to the devastating harm which continues to be wrought by NCLB’s focus on high stakes testing in our schools.

High Stakes Testing is the Enemy from Wesley Fryer on Vimeo.

High stakes testing must end in our nation. As teachers and learners, we will (of course) continue to use ASSESSMENTS to measure student learning, but assessment should not equate to high stakes testing. The jury has been in for years on what effects high stakes testing has on our communities, and it’s bad news. It’s high time we create a political movement which will not only end high stakes testing, but also encourage a different vision of school reform than the anti-union, pro-charter, threaten-teachers-and-students-as-much-as-possible model which we’ve had since NCLB become law. Will the “Save Our Schools March & National Call to Action!” campaign help this political agenda coalesce? Ending high stakes testing is one of the organization’s guiding principles. Will groups like PURE (Building powerful public school parents and communities) help advance and define this agenda? I don’t know, but I’d like to be hopeful.

For more background on these issues, please read the following past posts:

Later this semester I’m going to finish removing non-Creative Commons Attribution-only images from the Book Brewer ebook I created back in December with my past blog posts in the “school reform” category. I hope to have that book published by summer, and am tentatively planning on titling it, “Reflections on School Reform: 2005 – 2010.” I’m not sure if sharing these ideas as a book will make a difference for the campaign we need to end high stakes testing in our schools and promote a constructive vision of school reform in our nation, but I hope it will make a difference in some small way.

I’m sick and tired of standing by and watching politicians destroy not only cultures of learning, curiosity and creativity in many schools, but also threaten to destroy the entire profession to which I’ve dedicated the majority of my professional career. Perhaps others feel the same?

If you know high school students who want to change the toxic culture of high stakes testing in our schools, encourage them to submit a 30 second public service announcement (PSA) for the Save Our Schools March. Their ideas shared via video might help mobilize an adult constituency which needs to get upset and take ACTION to end high stakes testing in our nation.

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5 responses to “High Stakes Testing Must End in the USA”

  1. Tracie Weisz Avatar

    Just today I had a discussion about our district writing assessment in which it was explained to me that students could collaborate initially when the topic was introduced, but once the writing began they were to work alone to see what they could do independently. In the real world, there is no reason in this day and age that anyone has to do anything without help or collaboration readily available – except take tests. High stakes testing sets up a very “un-teacher-like” situation for teachers and students. It is removed from practically any other experience in real life.

  2. Jacob Gonyea Avatar
    Jacob Gonyea

    I could not agree more with your view on this USA Today article. Teachers are consistently getting a bad rap and having to conduct high stakes testing are no exception. Last week, we held state testing in our school and I’m more than happy that we are done with that. The pressure on both the teachers and students to perform to standard and make AYP is so immense that many people are simply tuning out. We currently spend from August till the first of week of March every school year just teaching to the test. Whatever happened to just teaching the standards and helping students learn meaningful skills?

  3. Chris Ludwig Avatar

    I’ll piggyback on what Tracie said and argue that students -can- collaborate on high stakes tests through their use of social networks like Facebook and Twitter. In fact, it can be argued that their discussions of test items in their posts and tweets further invalidates any “standardized” testing since some students may have access to information that others do not prior to the test. Any reasonable person should therefore conclude that high stakes tests do not accurately measure individual students’ abilities in a uniform way since different students will have more or less advanced knowledge of specific test items shared on social networks. I’ve written about this idea here if you’re interested.

  4. Peidei Avatar

    Hi Jake. I agree with you. There is too much pressure to meet AYP. Now that the new Core standards will be implemented in 2012, what is next for educators? With such demands on teachers and students, where does learning happen? I do agree with assessing progress of students along the way and we should have benchmarks, but the way that NCLB was presented and practiced over the last 8 years has been a joke.

  5. SJU Student Avatar
    SJU Student

    I agree that the focus on HST has resulted in serious negative impacts to both teachers and students. But I also believe it is not enough for teachers to criticize the practice. The underlying push for accountability is not going to go away – nor should it. Just as in any other profession, the performance of teachers should be evaluated and poor performers should be let go. As a tool in this effort, HST does not work. Not only should teachers lay out the reasons for this, they should also acknowledge the importance of accountability and provide alternative means toward that end.