Teacher Testing Torture Addendum

Recently, I wrote a blog post about my experience giving the AIMS (Arizona’s Instrument to Measure Standards) this year.  I decided to expand upon those thoughts.


First, let me be very clear that I am not against tests or testing.  After all, teachers invented tests!  I utilize various forms of assessment in my classroom on a regular basis.  I use them to inform my teaching, to decide who needs to be pulled for small group re-teaching because they didn’t quite grasp the lesson, to see who already knows the material and needs enrichment, to plan future lessons, to reflect on which lessons were great and which need some adjustment.  I assess frequently to offer immediate feedback to my students on their learning and goals.  


I do not, however, see much value in one-time, high-stakes, narrow-gauge standardized tests.  I don’t even like to look at my new students’ test scores from previous years because they may have experienced major summer learning loss, or may have had incredible life experiences over the summer, or may have hit a developmental milestone or maturation.  My new students may have had a difficult year in their home lives, experiencing divorce, homelessness, or hunger.  I prefer to use my own assessment of my students as I begin our year together.  I create assessments that give me an accurate picture of where the student is right now, not one day last April.  


Unlike so many “reformers” who are not actual classroom teachers, I do not have faith in the data produced by one time, summative tests.  Not only are the data already outdated, but the test gives me no information on what a student may have gotten right or wrong. They show me no information on what gaps the student has in his learning and how I can effectively address those gaps.


I also hate to see precious, valuable classroom time given to test-prep.  I despise mindless preparation on how to spot the red herring dummy answer to someone else’s question.


In case you think maybe I’m being too dramatic, keep reading to see a few more real life examples of how testing torture affects even our youngest students.


A friend of mine has a son in my daughter’s kindergarten class.  He wrote a note to their fabulous teacher in honor of Teacher Appreciation week.  My friend, being a knowledgeable early childhood educator herself, does not edit her son’s thoughts or writing and encourages invented spelling.  He wrote to his teacher, “Thanks for giving me benchmark tests.”  My friend was heart-broken that that was what her son chose to be thankful for but that was what was on his mind!


A kindergarten teacher friend of mine was wrapping up her first year of teaching.  She was asking her students to reflect on the learning that occurred during their kindergarten year. One enthusiastic young man told her that he learned how to take benchmark tests.  Her new teacher heart broke so loudly I think I heard the reverberations from the other end of the city of Surprise.  


Something really frightened me in my own classroom this year.  In my fourteen years of classroom teaching, I’ve learned to capitalize on teachable moments.  If you’re not familiar with the term, it is when a teacher uses a moment in daily classroom life to teach a valuable lesson that does not appear on the lesson plan.  It usually comes in the form of classroom conversation, a question from a student, or a conversation overheard between students.


There came a moment in this school year where I ignored a possible teachable moment.  Why did I do it?  When I became the Arizona Teacher of the Year, my principal and I were discussing the challenges of the year ahead.  She warned me that my test scores were going to be scrutinized very closely this year because the Teacher of the Year is vulnerable by being the representative of all teachers in their state.  The pressure was on!  Especially because the great irony of being Teacher of the Year is that you are out the classroom a lot.  A LOT!    


So that day in the classroom where I let a teachable moment go by was a rare day that I was in the classroom a few days before AIMS testing was to begin.  My students were still struggling with identifying first, second, and third person points of view despite multiple whole and small group lessons, centers, and tutoring since early in the year.  It was a little frustrating, if I’m being honest.  I know I’m not alone – many 5th grade teachers know that this is a tough concept for kids to really grasp.  One of the text selections to analyze was from one of my read-alouds Wonder by R. J. Palacio.  One of my gifted students (who really already knew how to identify point of view) wanted to talk about point of view as in how we see things from different perspectives.  This is not assessed on the AIMS test, which is interesting because I think it is actually a much deeper topic.  I steered her back to identifying first, second, and third person points of view.



I’m not sure I will ever forgive myself, but I’ve turned my missed opportunity into a teachable moment for myself, and hopefully other teachers out there, too.  


Can you see the sense in reducing what a child experiences in a school year to a single number or score? I can’t. What happens in a classroom during the course of a year is so much deeper than what can be assessed on a test that can be graded by a machine.  Things that are not assessed on high stakes tests are the skills I try to instill most in my students: creativity, productivity, leadership, ability to collaborate with others, and communication.


I look forward to the time again where teachers will be free to teach, and students will be free to learn.  I look forward to embracing teachable moments and the insights they can bring to my students and me.  Those times will be back again; I’m confident of this.  What it will take is more of us classroom teachers sharing our stories with parents, our communities, and policy makers.  Here’s to the end of teacher testing torture!


1 thought on “Teacher Testing Torture Addendum”

  1. Great blog post and such an important topic. I really like your reflection and honesty about having to skip a “teachable moment” because I think that many teachers feel these heartaches in their classrooms. There is a great book by David Berliner called “Collateral Damage: How High Stakes Testing Corrupts America’s Schools.” It was an eye opening read. Dr. Berliner includes many stories from Arizona (his home state), so I couldn’t even make myself feel better by pretending that it’s happening somewhere else. Most thought provoking, he told a story about a child who was not allowed to go to the nurse while having an asthma attack during testing. I don’t know why that story stood out the most to me. I think it was because he began the story by talking about how this person was a great teacher who the little boy idolized. I really connected with how good people can get caught up in the high-stakes testing mess, harming kids without meaning to do so.

    To me, another great sadness of high-stakes testing is that the results are not necessarily reliable and may not even be valid (see Berliner’s book for more specific data about this). In education today, teacher attrition is high. I think that it’s sad when test scores discourage teachers. Two years ago, our school experienced really great gains on our AIMS tests. The next year, we dropped. Over that time between, I saw teachers working really hard and becoming better and better–so why would the test results be worse? I know that kids are variable, their home lives are variable, and the test itself is variable. But it was a crushing year to see teachers come back to school feeling discouraged about the test results because I had seen these same teachers pouring over data and making intentional teaching decisions the year before. I’m sad that test results can lead teachers to believe that they are “bad” teachers. These things decrease morale and steal away the joy of teaching. Worse, I fear that this climate of high-stakes testing creates additional attrition in the profession. When we know that it takes approximately 3-5 years to truly master teaching, it’s sad to see veteran teachers leaving the profession each year. We need to retain teachers in this field as though lives are at stake. Because lives ARE at stake….the lives of the kids.


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