Thursday, March 21, 2013

An Open Letter to Teachers in an Age of High Stakes Testing

This is an open letter to teachers everywhere, but especially here in Texas, the home of the Standardized Test. It is republished here by permission of the author, who wishes to remain anonymous.

Teachers: I’m on your side, I feel your pain, and I am one of you, but having a child who struggles in school has helped me see an entirely different side of things. Please listen with an open mind.

Yesterday evening my fifth grade 11 year old son, let's call him Hank, told me that you said something along the lines of "You'll wish you'd paid attention when you fail the STAAR test and are back in 5th grade again next year!" then looked pointedly at him and two other students. His cheeks reddened as he told me this. He frequently complains about more than one of his teachers being speechless with rage after benchmark or common assessment scores are returned and, in his words, "Everyone fails." He’s also reported more than one teacher refusing to speak to the class after seeing scores.

These near daily reports deeply worry me on many counts . . .

First, I blame myself, and then Hank because obviously, Hank is so frustrating/difficult/non-compliant/slow that as a last resort his teachers feel he must be threatened into working. As I believe you know and care about Hank, you probably have also seen that threatening him does little good. He doesn't understand grading very well or have much respect for it. Having taught in the area where you work with a high percentage of students from poverty for almost all of my teaching career, I'd venture to guess that threatening doesn't work on any but the students you have who are already scared witless of the test. (If anyone throws up on test day, think about that moment when you said "if you fail this, you fail 5th grade,” which we both know is not completely true). The other side of the high-poverty coin is that probably no one else will say anything to you about trying to threaten children into performance, and if they do, they will sound crazy and no one will listen to them. But just because no one says anything doesn't mean it’s the right thing to do.

With as much emphasis on "the test" as I have observed from daily reports from Hank, not just about math, but widespread, I wonder how long it will be before he and others like him, give up on school as they know it?

This is a real concern for me when I consider Hank. I am a lifelong fan of education, but not like this---not when it's all about one test. That's not education. This situation is far from your fault, and I want you to know that if Hank fails the all-powerful test, it will not be your fault or failure, if he can't progress fast enough or won't pay attention long enough, etc. etc., I won't blame you. Take that responsibility off your own shoulders. The system is broken.

Hank has been failing math from time to time most of the year though he has worked at it consistently and by all measures has improved consistently because of your tutelage. So I want to ask you to think about something: What if grades reflected effort and progress and were not tied to the all-powerful test? What if you knew you wouldn't be blamed if a student passed 5th grade math, but failed "the test"? Would that change how you see grading? I was a high school teacher. If I had graded my level high school juniors and seniors according to how the College Board would have evaluated their work, they almost all would have failed. They didn't have the educational background, motivation, or love for my subject that would have allowed them to "pass" by those standards. My level student’s grades were based on effort and progress. I was lucky to have administrators early on who taught me that when 1/2 my class failed, that meant I failed. Now there is an external guide to help the teacher who wants the help to "fail" anyone who "needs to fail," but in my mind, when a student is failing, so is a teacher. My son went to the "lowest performing elementary school in math," so maybe that's why he fails. Well, that's not good enough for me. He's one little boy, not a failing elementary school. It is my job to care for him, but what about all the other students who attended that same elementary school? Each day we will "fail" that school via those pupils. This is feeding the children poison and expecting the elementary school to die. Did you ever keep doing anything you failed at consistently for 9 months? What if there were no way to fail but instead we just kept trying until we achieved success, no matter how long it took? Wouldn’t that be more like real life?

I see the work Hank brings home from school, and I am amazed at the quantity of output, none of which bears any relationship to real life. I understand that the curriculum you have to work with probably does not include much real-world relating, but what about that---the real world, that is? How do you think Hank's motivation (and others like him, for he can't be the only one) would change if any of his most dreaded subject related to the real world and how that math can (and indeed must) be used every day by real people?

Dear Teacher, this is not your fault, but I’m afraid it is your problem. I depend on you, and so does Hank, to inspire him or at least to avoid killing his motivation, to take care of him, and ultimately, to care about him more than about that test.


David Dutrow said...

Great open letter to teachers and admins alike, Amy. Love the personal, non-preachy tone. That's exactly what was needed concerning this subject.

Teaching at a private school, we don't give state tests, but I think the miasma of test threats lurks over every school, whether the tests are standardized or not. Let's find a way to help students learn and assess that learning, not the hot mess that is standardized testing.

Unknown said...

I don't know Amy, I feel like the parent contradicts his or herself. At first the parent says it won't be your fault or your failure, but then a paragraph later it is not your fault. I think until a parent or any school employee has been in the situation where robot/review test reviewing is forced upon you from someone above it is not fair to judge. I cannot describe easily how it feels to be made to give endless practice/testing reviews and spend days on end prepping for the test. I have taught in three states and four school districts and only one of those schools did not drill and kill. It IS a broken system. One that I will avoid in the future.

Unknown said...

Sorry, correction-I felt that the tone in the latter paragraph was more along the lines of it is your problem and your fault.

I also thought to add I've always been outspoken with my administrators about my feelings towards the drill and kill and I've always been shut down/lectured/scrutinized for it. I believe the most recent lecture I received describe testing as a part of life and kids better get used to it. :(

Amy Mayer said...

@TeachDMD Thanks so much for your comment. I am a huge fan of public education, but I certainly understand the allure of private schools lately. Man it's tough!

Amy Mayer said...

@Daliene Hey Sweets! So great to hear from you! Yes, I see what you mean. It's such a tough spot to be in for parents AND teachers. It's like you completely understand where the teacher is coming from . . . people WILL be breathing down her neck if those scores don't come through, yet you feel for the child and the parent too. Our legislators have got to do better by teachers, parents, AND students. Ultimately, any blame lies there.

P.S. Love your pic. Sassy!

Karen Amador said...

I think kids in "high performing" schools are suffering under this broken system as well. I include those who struggle and are included in frequent small group tutorials, as well as those who might perform well on most classroom tasks.. The message to many thanks to the "rigor" encountered in the benchmarks is that math is hard, tricky and they are not good at it. So long any interest or inclination to pursue one of those often talked about STEM paths. We are sacrificing so much at the altar of "accountability." I thank this parent for the letter. I hope more parents will step up and demand change. When the teachers ask for an end to the way things are, we are looked at like we are trying to get out of doing our jobs. We love our students. We want them to learn everything they possibly can. It breaks my heart that the ones who have so far to go, and who work so hard to try to get there leave feeling like they never measure up. Shame on us Texas. We can do better than this.