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.

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