March 24, 2015

Voice Cover Story: Toxic Testing

Voice: March 2015


Toxic Testing

The words of frustration expressed by Linda Hicks echo through public schools everywhere like the bells that begin and end each day.

“As an educator, I believe standardized testing has dismantled the art of teaching,” said Hicks, fourth-grade teacher at Nottingham Elementary School in the Oxford Area School District, Chester County.

Other teachers say the same thing, only with different words. It all boils down to one common theme: Educators feel they have been made into robots “teaching to the test.’’ 

Creativity and innovation in the classroom – long the hallmarks of good teaching – are being compromised, educators say, by having to devote the bulk of their time and resources preparing students for the almighty tests mandated by the federal and state governments.

Districts have a hyper-focus on testing numbers, which are tied to assessments, funding, and public perception of schools.

“Our entire district has become focused on data,” said Karen Rosenberg, a teacher at Hancock Elementary in Norristown Area School District, Montgomery County. 

In a November 2014 National Education Association survey, 45 percent of teachers surveyed said they would consider leaving their profession because of standardized testing. Nearly three-quarters of teachers reported feeling moderate to extreme pressure from school and district administrators to improve test scores.

"Our educators work in an environment of toxic testing," said PSEA President Michael J. Crossey. "Testing has polluted our public schools and severely handcuffed teachers."

Focused only on the test
Pennsylvania has done its share to apply testing pressure at the state level, particularly with the Pennsylvania System of School Assessment exams, commonly known as the PSSAs. More recently, the commonwealth has linked the PSSAs to a new teacher evaluation system, and enacted the Keystone Exams for high school graduation.

But perhaps the heaviest hand came from the federal government with the testing requirements under the No Child Left Behind Act, a George W. Bush administration program that was the 2002 renewal of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act 

NCLB, bipartisan legislation headed by then President Bush and the late Sen. Ted Kennedy, D-Mass., more than doubled the number of high-stakes tests in reading and math. Students in kindergarten through grade 12 are now required to take 14 federally mandated tests, compared to the six required prior.

The increase in testing demands has had a negative impact on the teaching profession.

“Young teachers are bailing after a few years because of the pressure, and people like me, with 25 to 30 years of experience, can’t wait to get out,” said Ashley Goff, sixth-grade teacher at Blue Ridge Middle School in Blue Ridge School District, Susquehanna County. “It’s so sad. The kids deserve better than this.”

Many educators feel deflated.

“The joy of teaching and learning has been diminished by the undue pressure for scores that these tests create,” said Cynthia Russo, a third- and fourth-grade reading specialist at Delta-Peach Bottom Elementary School in the South Eastern School District, York County.

There is a phrase among teachers commonly used to describe the additional testing requirements: “Teaching a mile wide and an inch deep.” 

“The system is setting children and public education up for failure,” said Lisa Beck, fourth-grade teacher at West End Elementary School in Crawford Central School District, Crawford County. “Standardized testing has drastically changed education in the past five to 10 years. Sadly, we are now focused on the test and only the test.”

Stress on students
The PSSA exams are administered to students in grades three through eight in language arts and math each year. They are also administered in science to fourth- and eighth-grade students. After completing the three subjects, high schools students are required to take a Keystone Exam in each.

With high-stakes standardized tests given to students as young as 9 and 10 years old, the weight of such responsibility can be difficult for them to grasp. Some students don’t understand the magnitude of the tests, no matter how many times they are told, and will just fill in bubbles as though they are coloring a puzzle. Other students find the pressure to be too much.

“Some of them panic they will not do well and their impending, imagined poor performance may somehow affect their success in life as a whole,” Hicks said. “Some of them cry. Many of them are learning to hate school already in fourth grade.”

The tests place added stress on students with disabilities and students who are at risk. 

Kristie Beatty has worked most of her career at the high school level with students in need of emotional support or those in an alternative education setting, and currently is at Landisville Middle School in the Hempfield School District, Lancaster County.

She has seen the effect these tests can have on her students, who are dealing not only with their learning disabilities, but many outside factors that influence their daily education.

“I’ve seen this put a lot of stress on our students because they want to do well, and they want to please whomever they think they need to please by doing well on the test,” Beatty said.

A problem she often sees is in the context of test questions. Her students don’t have the life experiences to give them the background information they need to understand them. She believes if the test questions were presented with more relatable text, they would be less intimidating.

Stifling a generation
Increased testing means more test preparation, leaving less time for innovative lessons in the classroom.

“We do little more than gather data and teach to the test anymore,” said Scott Kelly, eighth-grade math teacher at Haverford Middle School in The School District of Haverford Township, Delaware County.

Educators like Rosenberg are frustrated with the idea of teaching to the test. The unique learning styles of different students – those idiosyncrasies that set us apart from one another in the “real world” – are lost when the focus is getting all students on the same level for testing purposes.

“Collectively, we don’t take into account individual interests or differences anymore. We don’t have big discussions or group projects,” Rosenberg said. “We’re just racing along on the skills hamster wheel, trying to cover everything (on the test).”

She believes the focus on testing will have repercussions on the next generation.

“Something has got to give or we will be raising a generation of children who don’t have a passion for learning and problem solving and being creative, as they should or could,’’ Rosenberg said. “But they sure will be able to fill out a bubble.” 

Testing success > content knowledge
Another problem many educators find is that instead of focusing on the testing content, they are focused on teaching students how to succeed on tests. 

“There is more emphasis placed on teaching test-taking strategies and the academic vocabulary my students need to know to process the test than the actual content students should be learning,” Hicks said.

In addition, many of the concepts students need to be able to understand and excel on the tests are above what students can comprehend. This is frustrating for many educators. For example, the vocabulary in the directions and questions on math tests is frequently above the student’s reading level.

“It is difficult to teach to standards that cause the students to become frustrated and discouraged because they do not understand what is being presented,” Russo said. 

In order for students to do well on a test, they need to understand the vocabulary being used and they need to be able to comprehend test questions. If they don’t know what they are being asked, students can’t answer the question. Teaching them content before knowing how to understand the question asking about the content is akin to putting the cart before the horse.

“I see the value in standards and assessing students to see how they are progressing; however, what is currently being expected of our students is quite often developmentally beyond what is reasonable and appropriate,” Russo said.

Many educators worry this frustration will impact the students far beyond test day.

“Developmentally inappropriate concepts and skills are being forced on our youngest and most vulnerable learners, possibly turning them away from the love of lifelong learning, as singing and play time and art projects are taken away in favor of making more time for skills, for testing, for test practice, for data gathering,” Rosenberg said.

Russo noted: “It is unreasonable to place so much emphasis on one measure of a student’s progress. Children can demonstrate their learning in so many more ways than on a written test. The academic growth of a child is only one part of the child’s overall growth.”

Teachable moments lost
Part of the stress on teachers is the ever-changing standards they are expected to teach. In 2010, Pennsylvania adopted the model Common Core standards for math and English language arts, as developed by the National Governors Association and Council of Chief State School Officers.

Since then, the Pennsylvania Department of Education has worked to more closely align the national standards with Pennsylvania’s specific needs. In 2012, a draft of modified standards was issued, known as the Pennsylvania Common Core. Under Chapter 4 regulations that became final and effective in March 2014, the standards are known as the PA Core Standards.

All of these changes in standards only meant more work for teachers. Curriculum needed to be revised, and materials needed to be updated. Teachers had to sit through hours of training. And this was all before the real work began – preparing students to be proficient on the PSSAs and Keystone Exams.

If preparing students was the only obstacle for educators, the challenge would be focused. But on top of these increased demands, which are also tied to their evaluations, teachers are trying to maintain a well-rounded education for their children.

“Teachers are forced to teach to the test,” Beck said. “Children are being programmed to answer test-like questions and not think for themselves.”

Many educators, like Hicks, believe the ingenuity of teaching in the moment is gone. The idea of a “teachable moment” no longer exists.

A waste of resources
Time and money are being sacrificed as testing demands increase.

Teacher in-service training is focused on improving test scores. There is little to no time for innovative thinking or brainstorming as a team of educators working for what’s best for their students.

Another concern is the money spent on these tests. With the school funding crisis in Pennsylvania, these monetary resources could be much better allocated. The spending goes far beyond what meets the eye.

There is money spent on training teachers on the new standards and how to administer new tests. In order for the curriculum to align with the new standards, materials such as new textbooks are needed. There are technology costs, record-keeping costs, and those associated with student remediation.

In addition to the monetary resources, the time spent on training, preparing students, and administering exams is huge.

Educators like Rosenberg believe the time associated with  tests takes away from the well-rounded education she and her colleagues are dedicated to bring to their students. 

“There doesn’t seem to be learning for the sake of learning anymore,” she said. “Everything is skill-based, tethered to a measureable objective to be actively assessed on a daily basis. Little content is taught; even less creativity is going on.”

Perseverance for student success
While many educators feel the pressure when it comes to standardized testing, they continue to do everything in their power to make the best experience possible for their students.

“Students receive a well-rounded education, with a twist,” Beatty said. “We are just focusing on specific things we know are going to be tested.”

Hicks attempts to adhere to the best practices she has learned from her many years in the classroom. “I’m having to inject moments of flavor to what my students are learning to keep them interested in school,” she said, even if she often feels as if she is doing something wrong. “My students continue to thrive and do well because I have secretly allowed them moments of fun and exploration.” 

Feedback from her students lets Hicks know she is most definitely not doing anything wrong.

“My students come back and express their gratitude for what they took from my classroom,” Hicks said. “Not one parent or student has ever expressed their gratitude for standardized tests.”  


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