Thursday, May 17, 2012

Ssshhhh! Testing in Progress

This is a guest post by a DCPS teacher who wishes to remain anonymous due to fears of reprisal by administrators.

"Ssshhhh! Testing in Progress" 

These signs hang on every classroom door and throughout the hallways of the elementary school where I teach. Bulletin boards throughout the building are plastered with test-taking tips, countdown to testing days, and even testing-themed poetry. Teachers are feverishly reviewing the pages and pages of rules, regulations, and routines that will serve as a survival guide for the next two weeks. Administrators walk around inquiring about the happenings in each classroom, wanting to know how each lesson will contribute to the students' achievement on the upcoming standardized tests. Flyers are sent home describing the stress that will ensue in the following weeks and how we will cover up this anguish with a makeshift “spirit week.” Pajama day, crazy sock day, class color day. I momentarily found myself reminiscing about the days of high school homecoming, but this is no homecoming. Our school has become a den of bubble-sheet masters, nervous teachers, and strangers with clipboards, taking notes on every move made and the potential breaches of test security. 

I’m not sure what's worse, the testing itself or the preparation and anxiety built up beforehand. As I sat through a DC-CAS pep rally, the magnitude of this testing madness hit me like a freight train. This is what children are getting pumped up for? This is what teachers have been “working towards all year”? This is the “pinnacle” of our teaching? I felt like I was in some creepy twilight zone as I watched other teachers and administrators chant and watched the confused students cheer. To see the students get excited about their potential success on the test was not the point of contention for me. The fact that the students are subject to poorly-conceived, low-quality tests and used as pawns to determine educational funding, as well as the fate of their teachers, is not something worth cheering about. 

Other than the pep rally, teachers spent the week prior to the testing in meetings being lectured on the importance of test security, the protocols that would be our bible for the next two weeks, and on just exactly what would happen to us if these rules were not followed. The plans outlined what would happen from the moment the students entered the classroom until the last test was signed back into our testing coordinator. We were instructed to go over the plans, ask any questions we had and be prepared in the weeks to come. Due to the fact that our school was under scrutiny for previous allegations of cheating, we were warned that any negligence in conforming our classrooms and ourselves to these guidelines would result in an investigation and strict consequences.

I planned lessons throughout the meetings and graded papers in the background, only contributing my thoughts in areas which I found to be egregiously unreasonable or unjust. For example, lined paper for scrap paper, smiling at students (this is what they say is “coaching”), and allowing students to stand and stretch during testing would absolutely not be tolerated. As I listened to these rules, I pictured my bubbly bunch of eight year olds' faces. Then, the real bomb was dropped: Absolutely no bathroom breaks during testing unless the child was showing physical signs of distress. In addition, we also needed to prevent multiple bathroom trips by determining how badly each child had to use the restroom. Well, any teacher knows that once one student has “an emergency,” they all have emergencies. How am I to be the judge of the content of each child's bladder? To this I was told it would be easier to deal with angry parents of a child who had wet themselves, than to have to explain the situation to the monitors from central offices. 

I decided that I'd be escorted out by authorities before I let nervous eight year old test-takers wet themselves on my watch. Are we that afraid of losing our jobs that we relinquish our humanity? Are we that desperate to prove that we are not cheating on these  McTests that we deny children their basic needs? This is the “pinnacle” of insanity. This is the “pinnacle” of what an era of high-stakes testing is doing to our children and to our educators. 

As testing was underway I became more and more irritated with not only the rules, but the fact that teachers’ discretion was being undermined by outsiders claiming to be experts on data, but not on children. Who are these people moving chairs from place to place around my room to see my test administration from multiple angles? Why are these strangers writing pages of notes on the condition of my classroom and my position in the room? The thought crossed my mind of just throwing the pile of test booklets in the air and screaming of its insanity, but what good would that do? I wouldn’t be allowed to finish the year with my students who had to put their science projects on the back burner for the two-week testing period. I would never get to see how they turned out if I was punished for breaching test security. I had already been scolded for allowing children to read books after they finished the test, as well as for allowing them to go to the bathroom. I decided to not push any further.   

After being stalked throughout the building for two weeks in order to ensure that I would not change any test answers and spied on from just beyond my classroom door, my anxiety and disgust became overwhelming. After being witness to little children crying with anxiety and acting out in resistance and being forced to sit for hours completing endless assessments that they would most likely never see the results of, my faith in public education was diminishing. Why are teachers subject to this level of disrespect and distrust? Why are students subject to this much of a loss of real learning  time?

Every day, more and more evidence comes out that challenges the reliability and validity of test results and demonstrates the unfairness of using these results to evaluate teachers. But I will comply with the rules and regulations--if for nothing else than to see my students' science projects and to see how much more they will accomplish this year; I am committed to my students and their learning even as I am opposed to the insane high-stakes testing regime that has been imposed on them. I will not, however, allow my students or myself to be de-humanized in the process.

How much longer can we allow our schools to feed the high-stakes testing machine rather than feed students’ imperative to learn? How much longer can we let testing replace teaching and learning? And how much longer can we remain silent throughout it all?