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Virginia Journal of Education

Swept Away

Virginia’s students and educators struggle to stay afloat in a rolling tide of standardized tests.

By Tom Allen

One year, during Standards of Learning testing, one of Tracey Mercier’s 5th grade special education students “beamed with pride” when she shared the news that he had improved his ability from the mid 1st grade to a late 3rd grade reading level.

“Yet the next week, I wish you could have seen the angry and defeated tears flow or hear his pitiful sobbing when he found out he did not pass the 5th grade reading SOL test,” says Mercier, co-president of the Bristol Virginia Education Association and a passionate critic of the overuse of standardized tests. “It went beyond heartbreaking. He was defeated, and even asked me, ‘What’s the point of working so hard, if I’m just going to fail?’”

That’s the number of standardized tests Virginia students must take to meet state Standards of Learning requirements in grades 3-12. And that’s before the testing programs that many localities tack on, and before all the acronym tests, like PSAT, SAT, ACT, and AP. Teachers spend weeks drilling students in preparation for these mass exams and students frequently seize up with test anxiety—while testing companies such as Pearson reap windfall profits.

Our students are awash in tests—but are students well-served by the focus on high-stakes-exams?

Time We Can’t Get Back
Testing takes time. Preparing for testing takes time. Those hours have to come from somewhere, and many teachers are finding time spent preparing for and administering tests comes at the expense of instructional time.

“In one district in which I taught, we would test nearly weekly, which meant up to 20 percent of teaching time was lost to testing,” says Zoe Padron, president of the Albemarle Education Association and the gifted resource teacher at Western Albemarle High School. “In my current division, we lose nearly all of April to review and all of May to testing, which is close to two months of teaching time.”

Padron’s estimate is very much in line with what other teachers say they’re experiencing throughout the state. “While some think increasing testing has increased learning, students actually have less time to learn,” says Mercier. “I’d estimate that eight to ten weeks of instruction and learning are lost.”

Susan Motley, a retired Virginia Beach teacher, remembers a telling conversation with a colleague from a neighboring school division. “She told me that her elementary school, a school accredited with warning, tests for student progress every two weeks,” Motley says, “and explained that she prepares students for the assessment, then provides any needed remediation, and then begins preparing students for the next test. She plaintively asked me, ‘When am I supposed to teach?’”

Seeing such time slip away eats away at teachers. “It rips out my heart when a student gets excited about a classroom discussion, and wants to dig deeper,” says Mercier, “but we have to cut them off because we have to keep up with the pacing guide. We have to cover all the standards before the tests, which makes the curriculum shallow instead of deep.”

Is Testing Driving Instruction?
If you teach a grade level or subject in which students will face an SOL or AP test, the pressure to “teach to the test” can make it almost impossible for your teaching style not to be affected.

“We have an incredibly talented staff at my school and some really high-quality collaborative work going on,” says Padron. “But when it comes to classes that are assessed in a standardized test, they tend to focus on coverage and be more concerned with whether students know material and can produce it instead of understanding and synthesizing material, which are higher level thinking skills.”

Looming tests color lesson planning. “We work hard differentiating instruction, careful to not differentiate too much because that could ultimately hurt our students’ chances of passing the standardized tests,” says Mercier. “All this emphasis on personalized learning is a farce while there are standardized tests. If we can’t assess our students based on their learning styles, we’re doing them a disservice.”

Young people are too smart not to pick up on this, too. “Students are also more concerned about ‘right answers’ and have no tolerance for discussions where there are no ‘right answers’ or where answers need evidence to be in support of positions,” says Padron. “In my last division, we did everything we could all day long to avoid drill-and-kill, but ultimately that was what was asked of us, even when we knew that was bad teaching.”

Ultimately, educators can be left feeling like, “Students’ test scores sometimes seem more important than the students,” says Motley.

Stress Levels Ratcheting Up
The priority being given to test scores has changed the atmosphere in our schools for both students and educators. And the changes are not pretty.

In Mercier’s words, many schools have gone from being a “place of learning to a place of nightmarish anxiety.”

Padron knows what Mercier is talking about. “The number one thing I have seen change over time is student and educator stress,” she says. “I've taught K-12 now and I've seen it at every level. By high school, it's really an issue. Our students are anxious. They are worried all the time about their grades, whether their answers are right, what their scores are, if they get something wrong. The fear they have that they will not do well is real.”

She believes the stress accumulates over years of schooling. “It's that we constantly are judging children from a young age, measuring them, comparing them,” Padron says. “They already live under microscopes in their lives, but we are not making school a safe place when we start their testing practices as soon as kindergarten and first grade the way some schools—not my current division—do.”

Mercier has seen plenty of kids buckle under the pressure. “I cannot begin to tell you how many times my students with special needs cry, vomit, or completely shut down before or during SOL testing,” she says. “It blows my mind that they qualify for an individualized education plan, but they still have to take a standardized test. But here’s the thing—students without IEPs are crying, vomiting, or completely shutting down too.”

Faculty and staff members are having those kinds of conversations, as well. “I have been in schools where the fear of losing accreditation is there from day 1 through to day 182,” says Padron. “It's like some kind of buzzing in the air all year long and it never goes away. It makes everyone feel on edge.”

Testing has penetrated so deeply into some teachers’ psyches that they’re even sacrificing some very important personal considerations. “I know of around 10 teachers who have put off needed surgeries because they’re so afraid of their students not passing SOL tests,” Mercier says. “They’ll wait until the summer or spring break, sacrificing time with their own families so no classroom time is lost. Usually their prognosis becomes worse and recovery takes longer, stealing even more time from their families and themselves when they finally have the surgery. The pressure of testing is constantly on our minds.”

The payoff isn’t worth the pressure, in the minds of most teachers. “A test is a measure in a moment,” says Padron. “That's why when we go to the doctor's office. One blood pressure check does not determine if we have high blood pressure.”

Mercier says standardized tests don’t give an accurate sense of student progress. “I have no problem with high standards and appropriate assessments guiding instruction and learning,” she says, “but I have an enormous problem with students taking a one-shot test that is neither a valid nor reliable assessment of their growth. The high stakes associated with these tests have turned our children into test-takers instead of creative, critical, and collaborative thinkers. And these tests do not prepare our children for the real world, for the depth, breadth, and diversity of our global economy.”

VEA Action on Testing
The Association has been a leading proponent of right-sizing the way we test our students. VEA President Jim Livingston is one of three Association members currently serving on the state’s SOL Innovation Committee; lobbyists, both staff and members, are active at the General Assembly, letting legislators know about the need for change; members testify before GA education committees; local leaders stand before school boards and other governing bodies to speak out on testing; and the Association works to keep this issue on the public’s radar.

“At the end of the day, there should be fewer statewide standardized tests and we should be using multiple measures of assessment, like projects, portfolios, lab activities, and writing samples,” Livingston says. “And ongoing professional development to help teachers with best practices in assessment is a must, too.”

Allen is editor of the Virginia Journal of Education.


Standardized Testing Means Big Bucks Rolling into Test Company's Coffers

If you work for Pearson PLC, the world’s largest education company and a major purveyor of standardized tests, you should probably be expecting a nice holiday bonus later this year.

Our own Commonwealth, according to its Auditor of Public Accounts, paid Pearson some $22.5 million for its testing services in 2017. And that’s just a drop in the bucket: While it’s a global company, Pearson raked in half its $8 billion in sales through its North American education efforts in a recent year, according to Politico, in an article aptly titled “No Profit Left Behind.”

That’s an enormous amount of money for standardized tests, particularly when you consider that Education International, an affiliate of NEA, has been pointing to research that such testing “has failed to improve educational outcomes” and has been a major factor in “narrowing and simplifying curricula and undermining both teaching and learning.”

In Virginia, some half-billion public dollars have gone into Pearson’s pockets through the Standards of Learning assessment program. While most teachers support some form of testing, the amount of both tests and money spent on them bother many.

“It’s been very disheartening seeing tens of millions of dollars going annually to assessments, while school divisions delay repairing buildings, or cut personnel, classes, and budgets because they don’t have enough funding,” says Tracey Mercier, co-president of the Bristol Virginia Education Association and an elementary special education teacher. “You’d be surprised what cash-strapped school divisions could do with some of that testing money. It could go toward needs like smaller class sizes, aides on school buses, reliable Internet access, higher-quality food in our cafeterias, and so much more.”

Pearson, not surprisingly, has called for the expansion of K-12 testing programs and has spent millions lobbying and wooing school officials, according to the Center for Media and Democracy. Some of those kinds of activities led to an investigation by New York’s attorney general’s office, which resulted in Pearson paying a $7.7 million settlement there in 2013.

Educators also worry about Pearson’s growing influence on education policy, as Politico reports that the company helps create textbooks, administers teacher licensing exams, co-owns the company that administers the GED, and runs a network of online public schools.

“We’ve lost more than money,” says Mercier. “What truly makes people successful, can never be assessed by a standardized test: honesty, kindness, flexibility, empathy, humor, tenacity, motivation, and so many other characteristics that we value as civilized society. Why are we giving more tests than are required?”



The Case Against Crayons

By Catherine Malley

My box of new September crayons: Flawless, sharp-tipped, begging to escape their yellow and green striped Crayola box. Each color is perfectly placed in the spectrum: red, maroon, scarlet, brick red and my favorite, magenta. Magenta fell somewhere in the purples, but it was rarely returned to its identified space. At seven, I revered the fuchsia hue, utilizing it at every opportunity to color lips, tulips, and princess gowns.

Crayons are illegal today;

Classroom contraband, reeking of play.

Now my second grade students’ crayons maintain their sleek points most of the year. They are rarely used for any length of time. Crayons are illegal, especially when they are gloriously scattered under a desk just as the principal walks in to observe my classroom at guided reading time. I watch two ponytailed girls, one mahogany, one peach, scramble and take exquisite measures to lovingly return errant colors to the box. They roll the crayons in their palms, check for broken tips, set them in rainbow hues.  ROYGBIV, a mantra for the order of color: Red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo, violet – the progression as sacrosanct as the words of a prayer.

The careful placement of each color in the Crayola box takes too much time, is too engaging, enables the students to avoid decoding and reading comprehension. As the principal typed comments on her IPad, I knew the act of crayon spilling would have consequences.

Coloring rainbows makes little sense;

When standards-based tests demand recompense.

Daisies, sunflowers and a soft gray cat with a celestial blue collar. Panda bears and butterflies. My students can barely contain their excitement when given rare opportunities for free time—crayons, scissors, and folded paper are exponentially exciting. Soon enough, we’ll be back to searching for the main idea in a story, identifying the problem and solution and making inferences.

For those lessons, hands are kept still and quiet on top of their desks.

Instead, small child, put that crayon box away;

You won’t need sixty-four colors, just the color gray.

“Testing one, two, three” is the only goal;

All colors but gray will be leached from your soul.

There were six of us, growing up, and the deluxe box of 64 crayons was a treat. When they were brand new, sometimes my sisters and I inexplicably spent time dropping colors like burnt sienna and royal purple through the heating vents in the floor. Later, I would peer through the silver grill to see the preserved crayons—inert, untouched. A mystery: What drawings of oak trees, kangaroos, and king’s robes would never exist because these colors were abandoned?

What pictures drawn in forest green, sea green, and mountain meadow green lie dormant in my students’ imaginations? One child expresses his frustration by breaking crayons. Shards of red-orange and medium violet spray like flecks of mosaic glass around his chair. He strips off the paper, erases the identity of lavender or turquoise, leaves naked stubs piled like wax corpses in the recesses of his desk. It’s the only way he can access his crayons on a daily basis. By systematically destroying them, he protests the dearth of creativity in my classroom. The curriculum dictates that I pass out piles of copied papers, littered with multiple choice questions, assigned in preparation for standardized tests.

Pencils only please—graphite, the color of lead, is the single acceptable writing tool.

Metrics can’t be assigned to bright yellow suns;

Smiles can’t be measured, so crayons are shunned.

I sit in the principal’s office for my observation conference. She brings up the crayon incident. What were those children doing, anyway? It’s because of your lack of classroom management skills that students waste time in your class and have no accountability for their learning. I think back, remember the day it happened, remember watching in horror as 64 crayons tumbled to the floor, knowing the students would not get back on task quickly because for a brief moment, pleasure had escaped. The reverential act of collecting crayons was much more compelling for them than completing worksheets.

Small fingers, touching color, holding imagination in their fists. Dropping crayons, a last revolutionary act of childhood, a fervent cry for freedom.

There’s no grade for a child on the blue of their sky,

no percentage for joy in an orange butterfly.

At the end of the conference, my teaching is marked as Ineffective.

Malley, a member of the Virginia Beach Education Association, teaches pre-kindergarten at Arrowhead Elementary School.



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