Tag Archives: high stakes testing

Bubble, Bubble, Toil & Trouble…


So…I’m weighing in. On the bubbles. And the #2 pencils.  My views on this exercise in futility are in line with Rachel’s (not much of a surprise, I know).  Two weeks of ISAT testing (the Illinois version of standardized tests, known as THE TEST in Chicago) is mind numbing, frustrating, exhausting.   But , in truth, I am growing a bit weary of the constant critique of standardized testing without an equivalent effort towards generating viable alternatives for measuring student learning and teacher accountability.

But I suppose we need to figure out what’s broke in order to fix it.  So here’s what I think about the bubbles.

THE TEST pisses me off.  Just so you know where I stand.

I’m praying my former students don’t read this, because my opinion doesn’t jive with my words…the words I began to utter roughly 2 years into teaching:

“This is important because it will be on THE TEST.”  

All eyes would turn toward me, albeit briefly, and a hush would fall over the room. And I would feel HORRIBLE, and I would think, “I have become a bad teacher.”  In truth,  I used THE TEST ploy more often than I care to admit.  I had learned that my students (and their parents) had been conditioned to believe that the ONLY things we learned that were important were those that were on THE TEST.  And sometimes, I wasn’t sure if the problem we were solving or what we were learning or working on together would actually be on THE TEST  But I said it anyway, because I knew, sadly,  that THE TEST would clothe the concept or skill with gravity and importance in my student’s eyes.

I had approached teaching with the idea that THE TESTwas not supposed to be the focus – authentic learning and teaching intermingled with social justice – that was the focus. I figured if I developed and effectively taught engaging and meaningful curriculum that covered the state learning standards (Yes, I kept a checklist), my kids would perform well on the state tests.  My own assessments (formal and informal) would tell me if the kids were getting what I was teaching.  Assessment is an integral component of instruction.


But then, the bean counters showed up, claiming to be able to NUMERICALLY QUANTIFY what my kids were learning and how well I was teaching (Ah, yes: ADDED VALUE) and whether my school was worth keeping open.  Okay, the bean counters were there when I started teaching in 2005,  but somehow, their voices grew LOUDER and their power and influence seemed much greater as the years passed.  I think it was because they were shouting at the top of their lungs:  ‘DATA DRIVEN INSTRUCTION!’ Which means many things to many people.

Over, time, It became impossible for me to shut them out.  Especially when the fate of our school (probation? closure?) was ruled by the counters, the beans (the data or test results) and how, exactly, they were counted (or construed).

Duncan Youngkids

So meeting after meeting, teachers and administrators pored over and disaggregated data (mind you, it was 6 months old). We were precise – we were going to use this data to increase profits – whoops – raise achievement by analyzing this data and build – whoops – target instruction for each and every widget – whoops – student.

I BEGAN TO HATE DATA. In truth, it doesn’t tell you a damn thing about the students, their real progress or their potential.  Generally, it never takes into account who these kids are or where they’ve been academically or emotionally.  In my experience, THE DATA overall lacks context.


But I succumbed to the pressure to “get my kids ready” for the state test by dutifully using the “interim assessments”  doled out by the district  which would ensure we would get our kids on track to do well on the test.  Never mind that these interim assessments were not, in educational parlance, “aligned” with what I had been teaching in my classroom.  The results of these assessments: more DATA.


In a flash, we were assessing kids monthly, sometimes weekly. Bell-ringer math tests that were reviewed by the administration to assess student recall of math facts.  Dragging students to the computer lab (which was almost never available otherwise) to complete ridiculous assessments:  long, contrived reading passages followed by multiple choice questions.  Practice, Practice, Practice.  My 8th grade boys one year figured out that if they answered the questions for a passage INCORRECTLY, the test ended.  And yes, they knew what they were doing. Suddenly, kids who were reading at or above grade level seemed barely literate. I was chastised (not by my students) for not emphasizing the importance of the so-called interim assessment. It was my job to sell it to them.

And all I kept thinking was just how smart and clever those guys were for thinking outside the bubble.


Standardized testing with high stakes (the fate of students, schools and teachers) is, in my view, preposterous and extravagant.  And yet, we continue to engage in this exercise year after year in our public schools, with a perplexing emphasis on those schools where student populations live in poverty and amidst life-threatening violence.

Yes, it is essential to know what our kids know and don’t know after a year of instruction (although ISAT tests were administered with roughly A THIRD of the school year remaining). Sure, it is important to objectively assess kids and examine the data in a timely fashion to see if they are learning  what we are teaching – and so we can figure out what to do when they are not learning.

BUT should a school’s future – a kid’s future – really ride on how well they perform on a multiple choice test on a given day?  How reliable is this data? How timely is this data?   What does this data tell teachers?  Administrators?  Especially after it is massaged by the bean counters and provided to teachers months later, and sometimes well into the following school year.  THIS TYPE OF DATA – FOR TEACHERS – IS OF LITTLE VALUE.


The most recent numbers I can find reveal that the U.S. spends about $1.7 billion every year on standardized testing. A lot of beans.  But the overall “costs” are actually much higher.  Last week, the Washington post published a piece that listed 13 ways high-stakes standardized tests hurt students (click here to read it). Here are my personal top five intangible costs of standardized tests:

  1. Loss of Instructional Time: Assessment and prep take time out of the learning day.  No way around it.  The minutes beforehand to get our kids to focus on the assessment and the minutes after to get them to regroup after intense concentration.  Valuable time.  I’m not talking about classroom assessments – I’m talking about the standardized test assessment practice to “gauge” levels of performance.  Oh – and generally, state assessments eat up at least a full week of instruction. No, I’m not kidding.  Even allowing restroom access is a big deal during state testing.  And as Rachel points out, our neediest kids who are pulled out for one-on-one time for learning and social/emotional support are neglected during these testing days (often because the specialist teachers who are pulling students out are proctoring tests).
  2. A Narrow Focus: As I mentioned above, my students had previously determined that if it wasn’t on the test, it wasn’t worth spending time on.  I did my best to dissuade them and worked to keep them curious, applauded their questions, and celebrated their learning successes – with the purpose of cultivating life-long learners.  Filling in bubbles is boring, after the initial adrenalin rush (kids are naturally competitive for the most part).  I think it is our job as educators to reward curiosity and awaken the imagination of our kids. An overemphasis on multiple choice tests requires our students to think in, rather than outside of, the box (or bubble).
  3. Increased Stress : The pressure on students is ENORMOUS.  They are carrying the weight of their own future (“Will I meet standards?  I better exceed standards!”) and often the fate of their schools and teachers. I’ve written about my kids who throw up, cry uncontrollably, or start a fight to get out of the testing room.  Anxiety is high because it should be.  The test matters.  And for kids who are living and surviving in high stress homes and neighborhoods, the test can be the straw that breaks the camel’s back.
  4. Internalized Failure:  NEWS ALERT:  NOT EVERY STUDENT WILL MEET STANDARDS BECAUSE OF THE NATURE OF THE TEST ITSELF.  In Illinois, the test is a combination of norm-referenced and criterion- referenced items (ISAT 2013 guide) which are used in a mysterious formula (guarded like the gold in Fort Knox) to determine whether students “meet” standards.  Norm-referenced tests are comparative (comparing the test taker to a group of peers) and thus a certain portion of students will fall at the lower end of the bell curve (failing to “meet” standards).  I’ve often wondered who this group of peers might be when testing inner-city kids. As Rachel noted, the test passages can be pretty white, with middle-class scenarios.  My favorite one had an illustration of a camper and a campfire and one of my students was concerned about why people were living in a bus in the forest.  I made a note of going over campers the following year when I was getting my students prepared for the test.  I have digressed.  My point is this: some students will always struggle and after failing to “meet” standards in 3rd and 4th grade, well, they give up. It takes a lot of coaxing and cajoling to get some kids to even fill in the bubbles on the test.  Kids who think they are academic failures are generally the kids we lose by the time they get to high school.  
  5. The Numbers Game: It takes a while for test scores to be calculated and calibrated.  Really?  Don’t let anyone kid you about the ease of standardized test scoring.  They don’t just run these scoring sheets through a machine and spit out the scores.  These beans are so important (in terms of education dollars) that districts spend months analyzing the outcomes and work to produce the best possible outcomes (eliminating test items, etc.).  Also, schools get points for kids who meet standards and extra points for kids who exceed standards.  Except, much of the time, administrators who are pressured heavily from above, push teachers to focus on the groups they can “move.”  If kids are certain to be below standards, they can be gently set to the side while we work on beefing up the scores of other kids.  This is not education.  This is not Social Justice.  It’s a racket.


Here’s an interesting pro/con standardized testing discussion to look at BOTH SIDES of the debate: Testing Arguments if you aren’t sure where you stand on the issue.  Me? You know where I stand. A system of bubbles is fraught with trouble.

I think it is time to turn the energy away from the debate and toward a solution: an authentic system of teaching and learning accountability developed at the school level.  Let’s stop trying to create widgets and, instead, work to foster thoughtful thinkers, mindful humans and world changers.

-Karen261755_10150290602379874_2436766_n - Version 2

It’s so frustrating


I have been working for the past few hours on a really long post about my feelings about standardized tests. It’s been cathartic, but I can’t imagine anyone will read it all the way through. And I’m only on my first point.

It’s so frustrating to have to explain with evidence why I so strongly despise standardized tests. Not that I don’t enjoy doing the research to justify my opinions. But I find that the students in front of me tell much better stories than the journalists at Newsweek.

My job these past two weeks has been to administer tests. Five a day. It is absolutely mind-numbing.

On the second day of administering the test, one of the third grade students said to me, “This is an abomination. That means disgrace.”

I don’t think this child will pass the test. Mostly because he doesn’t really see the purpose in taking the test seriously. To his face, I remind him how important this test is to his grades, his teacher, and our school. I can’t say I believe I changed his mind on the matter. Probably because those words ring false, even to me. The kid is pretty much too smart to do well on the test.

I watched several students in each grade have complete melt downs during the test. Tears streaming down ten year old cheeks as they fear that they do not have what it takes to answer the questions. Instead of trying and getting the answer wrong, they sit and take the failing grade of a blank paper.

Perhaps more heartbreaking is the eager child who looks to me with unguarded desperation for approval. “Did I do good on the test? Did I take my time? Did I do what I was supposed to do?” So eager to please me. Completely unsure of themselves without the gold star, the test score, the pat on the back. Because approval has always come from without, not within.

I think I’d rather have the student who had the audacity to look me in the face and tell me the test is an abomination. I hope I’m the kind of teacher who rewards such divergence of thought.

Meanwhile, all other instruction has ceased the past two weeks because my time has been spent administering tests. Which means that when my kindergartener, Anna, came up to me and asked, “You coming to get me today?” the first full sentence I’ve heard her say, I almost cried with the guilt of having to tell her, “No honey. Not for two weeks.”

In kindergarten time, two weeks means you may as well start over from the beginning. Two weeks is eternity.

I have a job. And most days I love it. But not on the testing days. Not on the days that I see the kids, the ones I’ve spent months trying to get to ask questions, to react to the world around them, to wonder why it matters that there was an Underground Railroad, that Rosa Parks wouldn’t sit down on a bus, that their city is so violent, that there are wars going on right now in other parts of the world… The kids I’m trying to encourage to THINK for themselves, spend two weeks trying to ascertain the answer that some test-taker has in mind for them to find.

On the test today one of my students said, “Ms. Swanson, is Abby a girl or a boy?” He was writing about a math test question and wasn’t sure of the pronoun to use when referring to Abby.

I felt that summed up the relevance of this test. And the hurdles my almost exclusively non-white students have to overcome to do well on them.

Abby is a girl, sweetie. I’m sorry I didn’t make a poster for the wall about the white names you may encounter while taking the test.

It’s simply exhausting. It’s so frustrating. And I’m really happy tomorrow is Friday and it’s almost over.

Just in time to prepare for the next round of testing.



What My Test Scores Don’t Measure

Today I spent some time looking back through my iPhoto ablums. Once I finally made it past the two thousand photos of my son’s first six months, I found myself looking through the photos, many many photos, of my students from two years ago.

It was a perfect year. As I scrolled, the first thing I noticed was the under the sea theme I used to decorate the room that year. Yes, I actually did things like that.


That was one of many costumes our classroom wore. We turned the room into Asia for our continent study, which culminated in a feast of sushi, samosas, and egg rolls. Business people I had never even met created powerpoints and movies to show students what it was like to live in various Asian countries. During our celebration I caught one of my students saying, “I don’t care what my mom says, when I grow up I’m moving to China!”


I wrote and received many, many DonorsChoose grants, for materials such as those you see above, as well as math manipulatives, and an entire set of percussion instruments and recorders. (I would post photos, but they all have students in them. Suffice it to say, they are JOYOUS as they play their recorders and rhythm sticks and as they use the cash register, shopping baskets, and plastic food items to practice subtracting money.)


Half way through the year when bullying became a problem, I presented the issue to the students, calling it what it was, and asked them to brainstorm ways to make our classroom a safe and nurturing environment. And so they did. On their own they created a system of “bully tickets” and arranged to have us discuss the issues on the tickets each Friday in a community meeting. They didn’t stop there, but initiated a school-wide campaign to end bullying, which admittedly mostly involved posters in the hallway and a petition signed by their friends.

If you’re feeling the but, then here it is. But, at the end of the year, my administration was unhappy. Despite it being my best year teaching, a year in which students loved to read, were excited about math, and showed up happy to learn, my test scores were not good. Only 60% of my students met their growth goals in reading. In my school, this counted as an unsatisfactory rating. You can imagine the conversation that ensued. I was devastated. How could I pour so much of myself into my work, into my students, into our classroom, and have it come back unsatisfactorily?

Fast forward a year. I knew that I had to prove myself. I couldn’t invest so much of myself in what I was doing, only to fail, even if the failure looked like low test scores. So I set aside the social studies and music units. I focused, quite doggedly, on pulling strategies groups. I became an expert in the standards of the test. I downloaded test prep booklets from Pinterest and Teachers Pay Teachers. I gave exit slips (quizzes) at the end of every lesson. I taught the students the exact vocabulary words they would need to know to do well on the test. I made three ring binders full of page after page of skill-based worksheets. In short, I did every single thing I was told to do.

I tried my best to make it all fun. I made games out of the test prep questions. We sang songs and chants to help us memorize our math facts. We created charts to measure and celebrate our academic progress. I scheduled parent nights to talk about preparing for the test, and formed great relationships with my students’ parents that I keep up to this day.

When the test results came back, they were incredible. Hang your resume on them good. My end of the year evaluation was exceptional. And I was proud. After all, I had earned it.

But it had taken a toll.

Student behavior in the classroom had been a struggle all year. We didn’t have time to do the unit-based learning, trading it in for skill-based instruction. The student ownership involved in creating and implementing a bullying campaign was traded in for sticker charts to measure progress on their weekly quizzes.

I would post pictures of the things that we did, but it turns out I don’t really have any pictures from last year. The one project-based unit we did was with my student teacher, and it had to wait until after our tests.

And it didn’t just take a toll on my students. It took a toll on me. There aren’t pictures of the fun things I did last year, either. Because I didn’t do a lot of fun things. And I didn’t write. My blog fell silent.

I was pregnant last year, and I took my blood glucose test the week before our final NWEA tests. The ones that determine 60% of my evaluation. I failed. So I took the three hour blood glucose test, during the day in between the reading test and the math test. Failed again. They diagnosed me with gestational diabetes. Funny, because I faithfully checked my blood sugar four times a day for the rest of my pregnancy, and my sugar levels never spiked again. It turns out stress can make your body have a hard time processing sugar. And apparently I was under enough stress to give myself gestational diabetes.

Tests aren’t going anywhere. And the expectations on teachers are growing. Change can be good. But as we make those changes, I beg policy-makers, unions, administrators, co-teachers, parents, and communities to count the cost of high stakes testing. Tests measure how well students do on tests. But there’s so much tests can’t measure.

Put in another way, was it worth trading my students’ joyous experiences of learning music and eating sushi for their satisfaction of achieving a numeric goal on a computer?

I think I was an effective teacher both years, it just depends on who is measuring.

countedcounts261755_10150290602379874_2436766_n-Rachel (in honor of testing season)