Imagine your first day at a new school. You are surrounded by new faces and new teachers and are navigating a new building. What are you concerned about? Making new friends? Liking your new teachers?
When they enter our school each fall, our sixth-graders write about their hopes and fears for middle school. This year, 35 percent said their greatest fear was failing the state tests. At one of the most socially difficult times of their lives, over a third of our children have more anxiety about standardized tests than any other issue.
What has happened?
We—the teachers of a public secondary school in New York City—are writing because we wish you to join us in asking this question about what’s happening in our schools. We ask you to consider our experiences and the experiences of our students in a world where schools face more standardized tests and increasing pressures related to their outcomes than ever before.
This year in our school, as in schools across the country, we have seen the number of standardized tests we are required to administer grow sharply, from 25 to more than 50 (in grades 6-10). In the next six weeks alone, each of our sixth-graders will be required to take 18 days of tests: 3 days of state English tests, 3 days of state math tests, 4 days of new city English and math benchmark tests, and 8 days of new English, math, social studies and science city tests to evaluate teacher performance. Additionally, students who are learning English must spend 2-3 more days taking the NYSESLAT test for English Language Learners—a total of 21 days in just the next few weeks.
Consider your own education. Yes, high-school students have always faced college entrance and graduation exams. But as elementary or middle-school students prior to No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top, you likely had no more than a few days of standardized testing every spring (if that). For today’s students, however, these standardized tests have become a centerpiece of their educational experience. Time spent on these tests is time not spent on learning or teaching. The centrality of testing should be shocking, but instead is somehow accepted as commonplace.
One teacher at our school asked her seventh-graders how they felt about the tests. The word “scared” came up multiple times, as did the word “hate.”
“I feel nervous,” said one, “because you think you’re not going to pass.” Another protested, “I don’t think tests show our learning, and they don’t show our growth.” A third stated, “It makes it more possible to fail.”
If this seems overly dramatic, consider that in New York City, 70 percent of students are labeled “failing.” This is not, as many believe, a function of low performance, but a deliberate decision by the state to increase the number of students labeled “failing” in a move that has created more pressure on teachers and schools, and public support for new—untested—reform initiatives. We question the collateral consequences of such a mechanism for educational change.
Let us be clear at the outset: as a staff, we are not opposed to all standardized tests and believe that, used sparingly, such tests can provide useful feedback to schools, teachers and possibly students. We are instead concerned about their vast and increasing number and—just as disconcerting—outsized influence. The tests are no longer about feedback. The stakes attached to them now commonly include school funding and evaluation and closure, teacher pay and evaluation and firings, and of course student promotion and self-perception. It should come as no surprise that many schools have chosen to focus more and more of the school year on what is often called “test prep.”
Consider the case of two of our U.S. history teachers who sought to engage students in a case study about Fred Korematsu and the ways in which the rights of U.S. citizens have been suspended in times of war. At the last minute, worried about the impending Regents Exam, these teachers felt compelled to drop this important, in-depth investigation that would tap into student passions and diversity. Instead, they made the difficult decision to “cover” a broad and sanitized survey of U.S. foreign policy from the Monroe Doctrine to the Cold War.
As it turns out, the thematic essay on last year’s U.S. History Regents test was on American foreign policy, and the vast majority of our students passed the test. Did we make the right decision?
What does it mean to “test-prep” students as a means for teaching them to read and write? It means to teach without context or commitment, without personal connection or application. It means to teach using excerpted writing passages and scripted questions. David Coleman, architect of the Common Core standards that serve as the basis for the latest tests, shared his opinion that “as you grow up in this world you realize people really don’t give a sh*t about what you feel or what you think.” A curriculum based on standardized tests implies that our students’ lives, our lives, and the vibrant lives of our communities just don’t seem to matter.
In contrast, as teachers we recognize every day that there is no true curriculum without students’ lives, engagement and voices.
One of the central characteristics of our school has been that all content and skills are embedded in real-world curricula. We have a common understanding that students produce better work when they believe it is meaningful, when academic work spills into the world and back again. Our students make presentations to elementary-school students about bullying and to hospital institutional review boards about medical research proposals. They work with the Metropolitan Transit Authority on bus engine design, and with the Queens Memory Project on interviewing and preserving immigrants’ stories in Queens.
They may spend weeks on a single case study, developing nuanced understandings of complex problems. In this work, they are evaluated by school-based assessments that, in contrast to standardized tests, take the shape of diverse projects and presentations. Standards, including the Common Core, are a central part of our curriculum work, but they are only one of many considerations embedded in the work our students do.
As external pressure increases to sacrifice curriculum for the sake of “test prep,” all of us have been forced to make difficult decisions. We often hear policymakers tell us that a strong curriculum will result in strong test scores. This is simply not true. Standardized tests are, by definition, tests removed from student engagement and context; they require a particular kind of teaching that is antithetical to what most of us believe education should be. Many of us as teachers think of test prep as unprofessional and unethical. All of us believe curriculum should never begin or end with standardized tests.
This year, we took a stand on this point by subverting the evaluation of our teachers based on standardized tests. A new mandate in New York City—a direct result of Race to the Top—requires each teacher to be evaluated by two standardized tests, most of us for at least one subject we don’t teach (the city recommended that schools evaluate their music teachers, for example, based on English and math scores). It also dramatically increased the number of tests and used tests that had never been piloted. We found this untenable.
When the city asked us to choose two standardized tests for each teacher as part of her or his evaluation, we all agreed to assign ourselves the same tests wherever possible. For one of the tests, all of our middle-school teachers will be evaluated on the state English test for all of our students. The result: students will take the minimum number of new tests, and teachers will all receive the same score. If our students fail, all of us will fail together. In this decision, we affirm our belief that we are a teaching community that collaborates and shares curricula, not a collection of individual good or bad teachers. We will not have our entire school community bound to a barrage of tests.
It is a small but important act of resistance.
So how might all of us, as citizens with a stake in our schools, resist the narrowing of curriculum and students’ lives? First, it is clear to us that our elected officials must hear from more than principals and teachers that creating new tests and tying more consequences to those tests cannot be the core of any education reform plan.
Second, some of us are also supportive of the Opt-Out movement that is growing across the country, wherein parents have creatively removed their children from standardized testing. In doing so, they refuse districts and states the data with which to evaluate students, teachers and schools based on standardized tests.
Some of us are more ambivalent about this movement. But we all know that to move forward, we must do more than say no to a system in which we do not believe. We seek systems where assessments can be effective at supporting students, systems where assessments are valid, reliable and fair. Based on our experiences, we have come to believe that these systems must be built through the work of individual schools, not through large-scale standardized tests.
We suggest that policymakers begin by moving resources away from standardized test creation and toward supporting the development of quality assessments in schools. Perhaps they might create incentives for schools to design their own school-based assessments, or encourage schools to move toward performance- and project-based assessment practices shared strategically among schools (see, for example, the New York Performance Standards Consortium of schools).
We cannot emphasize enough that any school’s capacity to develop is profoundly related to the allocation of school resources. Our school invests in lower student-teacher ratios, increased hours of teacher collaboration each week, and a week of paid curriculum development before the school year begins. Each year we struggle to find this funding, and we have often fallen short of our goal.
This week, as our school enters another season of testing, our sixth- and eighth-grade teachers have chosen to read to students a principal’s letter that one parent posted online: “We are concerned that these tests do not always assess all of what it is that make each of you special and unique … the scores you get will tell you something, but they will not tell you everything. There are many ways of being smart.”
Our students spontaneously cheered. That they could be seen as individuals with interests and friends and dreams—not just as a set of numbers—deeply resonated with them.
At the end of the day, we hope students see their educations not only as a means to graduate, jumpstart their careers or get into college, but as a means to investigate, interact with and innovate in a rapidly changing world. As John Dewey reminds us, “Education is not preparation for life, but life itself.” We believe in a curriculum that is rich and personal—that is, for the living. To treat curriculum and schools otherwise is to demean education, reducing it to no more than training or indoctrination in a world that needs people to be so much more.
This op-ed was jointly written by the entire faculty of P.S. 167 – The Metropolitan Expeditionary Learning School: John Atorino, Jen Avellino, Robin Baumgarten, Tarin Baxter, Sarah Bever, Randi Bivona, Yazmin Brigido, Matthew Brownstein, Dan Cassagne, Lesley Crawford, Christine DiLapi, Emily Edwards, Alyson Emmett, Amelia Eshleman, Ari Feldman, Eric Fergen, Mica Fidler, Shayna Garrison, Melissa Glantz, Hannah Goodman Brenman, Ilana Gutman, Paco Hanlon, Ambar Hernandez, Adam King, Court King, Rebecca Kleinbart, Allison Maxfield, Kara Melley, Hillary Mills, Sybille Moss, Adreina Nuñez, Evan O’Connell, Seyi Okuneye, Leslie Pinto, Erick Roa, Elyse Rosenberg, Hilary Rosenfield, Matthew Satriano, Kimberly Scher, Abigail Sewall, Laura Shectman, Eric Shieh, Joshua Stein, Michael Stern, Sara Ston, Thea Taylor, Kimron Thomas, Ali Wexler, Brooke Winter-DiGirolamo, Claire Wolff and Jenna-Lyn Zaino.