A Public Sphere for Poetry, Politics, and Nature
Our vice-principal called the English Department into her office.
“Congratulations. You made A. Y. P.!”
Translation: my department passed the Common Core Test, the newest of a decade long series of high stakes annual tests. Indeed, we did well.
But we said nothing. We just stood there. Our vice-principal was confused. “Why aren’t you guys dancing in the streets?”
I can’t really speak for my colleagues, but, in my case, the answer is both systemic and personal.
To begin with, I was surprised. I didn’t expect my kids to do that well. When faced with a choice between light and dark, I always side with darkness. Without going into details about the minutia of Common Core testing, my kids needed to improve by about thirty points. I thought it possible, but unlikely. If there is one factor that figures high in its negative impact upon testing in particular, and schooling in general, it’s poverty. My students are poor and black, when they aren’t poor and immigrant. I have one white student out of 150 high schoolers. My kids suffer all the trauma associated with being inner city poor.
Every year, without exception, I have to remind kids to begin a sentence with a capital, and end with a period, question mark, exclamation mark, something, anything. (I rarely even broach the mysteries of the parentheses.) A few of my students can barely speak English.
What put my scores over the top was that I managed to get many kids out of the lowest category. I couldn’t have been more surprised. But it wasn’t a pleasant surprised. It was more of a relief. Later, I said to a buddy, “Thank God we got that off our backs. Now all we’ve got to deal with it poverty, racism, violence and mental illness.”
I could say, of the folks who made up these tests, what Nick says of Tom and Daisy in The Great Gatsby. “They were careless people, Tom and Daisy — they smashed up things and creatures and then retreated back into their money or their vast carelessness or whatever it was that kept them together, and let other people clean up the mess they had made.”
There are three problems I associate with the folks who create such tests as The Common Core test.
First, they have a hard time imagining the consequences upon the actual classroom. This is a result of the fact that many of these folks, perhaps most, have little or no experience in the classroom. Consider four of the folks largely responsible for The Common Core. David Coleman, the developer of Common Core, has no time in the classroom, and no teacher training. John King, the Commissioner Of Education for New York City, has three years of teaching experience, and no teacher training. Arne Duncan, the Secretary Of Education, has no experience teaching, and no teacher training. Michelle Rhee, the founder of Students First, and the infamous former chancellor for the Waschington, D. C., school dsitrict, has three years in the classroom, and five weeks of teach training. This gives a total of six years in the classroom, and five weeks of teacher training. None of these folks would qualify for tenure in my school district.
The second problem is that no one is likely to report to these folks that which is negative. Why? In a rigidly hierarchical system, and certainly education is rigidly hierarchical, it merits one almost nothing to report accurately, to the next highest level, that which is negative. As anecdotal evidence, I offer the fact that, of the hundreds, indeed thousands, of reading programs implemented in public schools alone, I know of not one—I’ve not read of one—that has ever reported itself as a failure. But, if every such program was such a great success, why don’t our public schools glow in the dark?
The third problem is that our leaders do not experience the everyday consequences of their decisions.
But those of us in the classroom certainly experience the consequences.
I used to think that standardization was the symptom of a much larger problem, which is the overwhelming and corrosive effect of positivism. I still think that. But on a workaday level, standardized testing is not a symptom of a problem. It is the problem. And it’s not just a problem in this school district or that. It’s a national problem. In many schools, perhaps most schools, as the high stakes test nears, everything comes to a halt. And by “everything”, I mean instruction. In my experience, there isn’t just one standardized test. There are several, sometimes dozens. Practice tests, benchmark tests, various assessments. I once had to interrupt a week-long test in order to give a day-long test. One year, I lost thirty-plus instructional days to testing. This year, on every work day, from April until the end of the first week in May, regular instruction gave way – every day, mind you – to either giving a test or reviewing for the next test.
I once was asked, by a student teacher, “How many tests do these kids take?”
So I turned to a kid, who said, “I’ve taken four.”
The student teacher repeated, more or less to herself, “Four tests this quarter.”
“No, ma’am,” the kid said. “You don’t get it. I mean four tests today— so far!”
One of the unintended consequences of such vast amounts of testing is that, when The Big State Test comes around, the high stakes test upon which district accreditation and jobs depend, the students often experience it as just the latest of several dozen tests. This is compounded by a pervasive and unfortunate notion. Since the test is about the district and the teacher, students commonly feel they have almost no stake in the outcome.
When I think of folks I love, standardization is not what comes to mind. That said, I’m not opposed to standardized testing. I am simply opposed to standardized testing as it is currently imposed.
Not long ago, a student teacher asked me, “What is the greatest change you’ve seen in the last 10 or 15 years?” My answer surprised me as much as it surprised her. I answered with a question. “When did testing become morally ambiguous?”
I pray that I’m not some inner city Cassandra. I suppose, since I’m a Jesuit-educated Roman Catholic, I could live with being typed the Devil’s Advocate. But I would like to frame all this in one last question. Feel free to think of this question as this unit’s pop quiz. I ask you, as Billy Kwan asks when quoting Tolstoy in The Year of Living Dangerously, “What, then, must we do?”
By John Samuel Tieman