When I first heard of President George W. Bush’s plan for testing all students in grades three through eight, I laughed.
I teach in Texas. We’ve been testing those students — and second graders, too — for years. No child has been left behind in Texas; they’ve all been lab rats in the state’s experiment with high-stakes testing.
If anyone had tried to convince me 10 years ago how drastically high-stakes testing would change my teaching, I would have laughed. No health education? Worksheets instead of writing journals? No staging of mock campaigns — complete with voter registration and staffing polling booths — to teach about national elections? No way.
Yes, I would have laughed. Except it isn’t funny anymore. These are precisely the changes I’ve been asked to make in my fifth-grade classroom since our district began equating success with scores on Texas’s standardized tests.
I had taught in elementary schools in Milwaukee, Phoenix, and Minneapolis before moving to Texas in 1993, so annual testing was nothing new. Each of those districts gave the Iowa Tests of Basic Skills (ITBS); two also gave locally-mandated standardized tests.
For years, I set aside a day or two of pretest preparation: “Make sure you fill in the whole circle and that your marks are dark and shiny … If you make a mistake, be sure to erase everything completely.” Add two or three days of actual testing and it would all be over for the year. My kids always did well, so I didn’t pay too much attention to the test.
This was the routine — until I came to Texas.
I was hired to teach fifth grade at a large, semi-urban elementary school and placed on a team with five other experienced teachers. At the beginning of the school year, my colleagues spoke often of TAAS (the Texas Assessment of Academic Skills). I responded as I had in previous years. I ignored it. Springtime was test time. It was only August and I had kids to teach.
Teach I did, just as I always had. I required lots of out-of-class reading and held lots of in-class discussions. For a unit on the Colonies, I had the students do simulations to better understand the concept of being “colonized.” We also made dipped candles, using methods from that era. I taught fractions with Hershey bars and decimals with M&Ms. To tie in the study of pre-Columbian South America with the mathematical concept of place value, my students made quipus, an ancient Peruvian accounting device made of colored and knotted cords. And in the spring, my students took the tests.
On the ITBS, my Texas class’s grade level equivalents were all in the sixth grade range — a full year above their grade level. Individual scores were in the average to above-average range.
And then there was the TAAS. Kids failed. Lots of them. Both in reading and math. How had these children, the same children who had done so well on the ITBS, done so miserably on TAAS?
It was my first rude awakening to how TAAS would undermine my teaching and distort my students’ learning.
And now Bush wants to bring “The Texas Miracle” to the entire country. The miracle is that anyone is still learning in Texas.
LESSONS FROM TAAS
Now that the TAAS is going national, what might teachers across the country face if standards a la Texas become law?
Lesson Number One: High-stakes Testing is King.
In Texas, TAAS is the law and the Texas Education Agency (TEA) is an unelected monarch. My fellow teachers had been saying all along that TAAS was different. So what? It was also a Texas test, and I was still naive enough to believe that a national assessment would be taken more seriously than a local test. (The TAAS test does not allow for comparisons with school systems in other states. And the state no longer requires the ITBS, a national test, beyond second grade.)
The TAAS is administered in an atmosphere of cloak-and-dagger secrecy. No make-up testing is permitted. Teachers must sign an oath before giving the tests. The pages of each subtest are sealed, to be opened only by the student taking that test — although we teachers may assist them if necessary. Teachers are prohibited from answering questions the students may have on anything beyond the test-taking directions.
Stories circulate of teachers having their careers ruined because they answered the wrong question at the wrong time. (It leads one to paranoid wonderings: Is this new student teacher, who arrived in my classroom two weeks before the test, really a plant from the TEA?)
Lesson Number Two: High-stakes testing will take over your teaching.
Because TAAS is king, one can’t question the time taken away from actually teaching. TAAS is untimed; therefore it can take two full days to administer both TAAS and the TAAS practice tests given periodically through the year. If you give three practice tests, you lose six days of instruction.
In addition, we are required to do daily TAAS practice in math and reading, focusing instruction on those objectives that were most troublesome for our students in previous years.
Every nine weeks, we pre-test and post-test every student on the TAAS objectives that will be tested and provide targeted instruction based on the results. Further, our principal exhorts us to emphasize those areas where our scores are below the district average — even if 80% of our students have mastered that particular objective. We, like the children of Garrison Keillor’s Lake Wobegon, are not permitted to be “below average.”
It’s not just the time given over to TAAS that bothers me. It’s also the way TAAS has distorted what I teach.
Because of TAAS, each teacher has a huge binder with the “standards” for each subject. These are not your typical curriculum guides, but rather rigid scripts that tell teachers how long the lesson should take, what to read, what to say. If it is not in the standards, we are not to teach it.
As part of U.S. history for my fifth graders, I used to teach about what happened in the Americas before Columbus arrived. I spent several weeks teaching about the cultures of Native America – which included the Aztec, Maya, and Inca civilizations. No longer. It’s not in the fifth-grade standards. Now it’s in the fourth grade, but the standards concentrate on the Spanish Conquistadors and talk mainly of Cortez, Coronado, and Pizarro.
In short, I no longer teach a curriculum. I teach test-preparation.
Lesson Number Three: Do what the tests demand or lose your job.
Three years after I started teaching in Texas, my school got a new principal. And TAAS changed my life.
For the first time in my career, my teaching methods were called into question. Not because of parent complaints, not because my students’ report card grades were low, not because students were reading way below grade-level, not because the middle school was complaining my kids were unprepared for sixth grade.
Rather, it was because my TAAS scores — particularly, my math scores — were lower than the other teachers’ scores, and because my students lost points on their scores from fourth grade to fifth grade.
I was summoned to the conference room and presented with alphabetical lists of my students’ scores, with negative scores highlighted in yellow. A “math specialist” was placed in my room four days a week with one main goal: to teach me how to teach to the 13 TAAS objectives.
The message was clear: raise my scores or lose my job.
I needed my job. So I learned to play the TAAS game. This year, all my students passed the reading portion of the test and all but one of the students I had all year passed the math. But in exchange for that “success,” I have watched my teaching deteriorate. I have also watched my entire school be transformed into little more than a well-oiled test-taking machine.
Lesson Number Four: High-stakes tests are scholastic Darwinism.
In order to boost TAAS scores, my school offers after-school tutoring in math and reading. But the tutoring has limited slots. It is not offered to every student, only to those most likely to pass the test. (Students qualify based on their previous year’s scores and the practice tests given during the year.)
In what amounts to educational triage, we screen for those students whose scores are closest to the 70 they need to pass.
Teachers, however, know without even looking at the test scores who is likely to pass. In the ultimate application of “labeling” students, teachers receive a class set of color-coded labels. Blue is for students who’ve excelled in previous years; green is if everything’s OK; yellow is if scores are passing perilously close to 70; gray is if the student might slip below 70 or who have passed one year but failed another. And red, which in any language means “danger,” is for kids who have failed a particular test for two years.
We are told to concentrate on the yellow and gray kids, the ones who are considered in the “strike zone.” (I’m not making this up; it actually uses that term on the labels.)
The “red-zone” kids don’t get any extra resources but are left to flounder.
If this isn’t scholastic Darwinism, what is?
This year, only one of my students that I had all year failed the math test. She was a “red-zone” kid who was not offered tutoring. I hope her mother sues.
Lesson Number Five: High-stakes testing corrupts even well-meaning reforms.
The TEA has taken some enlightened stands, at least in theory. For example, in order for a school to earn an acceptable or higher rating for their test results, scores must meet the 70% pass rate not only for all scores, but for all subgroups: Anglo, African-American, Native-American, Latino, Asian-American, special education, economically disadvantaged. Theoretically, a school cannot miseducate poor students, special-needs students, or students of color and be considered successful. Also, the test is untimed. Further, students may have the math test read to them, so that a student with a reading disability would not be hindered in demonstrating their proficiency in math.
In addition, the test is translated into Spanish for Spanish-speaking students, so there can be a more precise measure of how students with limited English proficiency are learning compared to their English-only peers.
But here’s how a good thing can go bad.
I am a bilingual teacher and have been for my entire career. My Texas classrooms have typically featured a majority of English speakers, a handful of bilingual students whose primary language of instruction is English, and a few students whose primary language of instruction is Spanish.
Because the Texas Education Agency mandated that TAAS be translated and that Spanish speakers take the test, our district created a new position: the Language Support Teacher (LST). This person provides additional Spanish-language instruction to all students who take the TAAS in Spanish, acting like a Spanish-language reading resource teacher. This was good news.
The bad news is that the district did not hire new teachers to fill these positions. It merely reassigned all the English as a Second Language (ESL) teachers to the new LST posts. The classroom teacher then became responsible for ESL instruction. Pullout ESL instruction was limited to those students whose first language was something other than Spanish.
Any competent ESL teacher will verify that the placement of ESL students should not be made by grade level but by level of language proficiency. Not all fourth graders have the same level of English speaking, reading, or writing ability.
In other words, we have gutted our ESL program and sacrificed our students’ acquisition of English — a critical educational objective, because our bilingual program extends only through the fifth grade — for the test.
After years of teaching, I find myself in a 2001 educational odyssey, trapped into teaching to the test. My district offers me little alternative.
One of the reasons I remain at my school is that I love the families in my neighborhood. I have taught siblings and cousins — five members of one family. I am invited to birthday parties, weddings, high school graduations, and quinceñeras (celebrations for 15-year-old young women).
The kids always know where to find me after school, and even after they’ve gone on to middle or high school, they come to visit.
They’ll often note, “Wow, this place looks small,” or, “You didn’t have this computer when we were here!” or “Were the chairs always this color?”
Then, after telling me about their classes and families, they reminisce. “Do you still make gingerbread cookies with the kindergartners?” they’ll ask. “Do you still make candles?” “Do you still do that colonies thing?”
This year, my answer to all the above was no.
I have changed as a teacher. I no longer cook in class. Our research projects grow not out of our interests, but out of district mandates. I don’t read novels that help my students better understand U.S. History
What will my students from this year say to me when they come back to visit: “Do you still do those ‘Step Up to TAAS’ worksheets?”