Say ‘no’ to standardized testing to improve outcomes, education

Collins Enlarge photo

Collins

I have some apologies to make.

A few years ago, I was charged with administering Colorado’s standardized test, C/TCAP, to a group of six students in Special Education. After three days of testing sessions, we came to the first math section. One student, a sophomore, “finished” his test in less than 10 minutes. Teachers are trained to actively proctor the test and to earnestly encourage our students to try their hardest, so I immediately asked him if he wanted to check his answers; to use the rest of the allotted time to revisit things he might have rushed through. I smiled my most sweetest, most caring, most teacher-y-est smile at him. He smiled back just as earnestly and said: “Do you really think I need to take an f–ing test to tell me how f–ing stupid I am?”

There is no way to answer that.

And by the end of the nine days of testing – that’s two school weeks – the students in this group were so frustrated and so exhausted that two of them got in a fist fight about who got to sit at a particular desk by the window.

If any of those kids or any kid that I’ve subjected to this particular humiliation happen to be reading this, please accept my sincere apology. I let some irrational attachment to earning a livelihood override my moral compass, and I am really, truly sorry.

And to Colorado taxpayers: I’d like to apologize to you, too. I have willingly and knowingly participated in a scheme of standardized testing that has cost you many, many millions of dollars for no tangible benefits to you, the state or the kids.

It’s not that all tests are bad; it’s that those tests are bad, and really expensive, too. I know which kids can’t read and write well. I can spend 30 minutes on the first day of class and figure that out with a very simple reading and writing task that costs taxpayers almost nothing and gives me immediate feedback. C/TCAP results take four months to process and millions of dollars to grade, millions more to record and assemble, and at the local district level, at least a million or so more to monitor.

But there’s more to it, Colorado taxpayers. The federal government has mandated C/TCAP or similar state tests since the Bush administration passed No Child Left Behind. The ostensible purpose of this legislation was to close the achievement gap between poor and wealthy students. That is a worthy and important goal, and our nation should invest serious time and money to this end. Unfortunately, the law invested almost no federal money; it simply mandated that states make it happen. It also resulted in a massive taxpayer-funded giveaway to testing corporations and high-priced educational consultants who repeat a tired, illogical and utterly false mantra that somehow it is teachers who make the ultimate difference in student outcomes.

If that sounds crazy, it’s because it is. The socio-economic status of a child’s parents is the single most accurate and independent predictor of a child’s scholastic and personal economic achievement, and everyone knows it. If teachers could magically change that, don’t you think we would have by now? If we, as a state and a nation, wanted to close the achievement gap, we should work toward ending poverty and not spend another penny on consultants or tests.

So this brings me to the last constituency to whom I owe an apology: my colleagues, principals and fellow teachers. Somehow, a state law commonly known as Senate Bill 191 was passed in 2010. This law requires that 50 percent of teachers’ and principals’ evaluations to be based on these bad, expensive tests.

Never mind that the tests don’t cover 60 percent of the teachers in Colorado, or that it’s very difficult to assign growth on these tests to any particular teacher. Never mind that C/TCAP tests old standards we don’t even teach anymore because we are required not to teach them by law and district mandate.

Never mind that Colorado changes standards like most of us change underwear or that educational trends promulgated by pricey “experts” change even more often than that. Never mind that the tests really just assess the kids’ willingness to comply and deal with boredom. They’ll still be 50 percent of an evaluation.

If by the end of 2014, teachers’ pretty randomly assigned test scores don’t show adequate growth – which hasn’t been defined thus far – teachers could loose tenure. Tenure, for the record, protects educators from random firing the way the Constitution protects citizens from random jailing: by ensuring due-process rights. Workers who don’t get due-process rights, like almost everyone in the private sector, should not begrudge workers who get job protections; they should fight to get those rights, too.

I promise, fellow educators, that I made calls and wrote to state legislators to stop this law. I even co-wrote an op-ed like this one and got a very stern talking-to by my former superintendent as a result. But I couldn’t stop 191 from passage. Sorry. I’m just not that important, and I’m only one person.

So here’s my humble offering to those I’ve wronged: Stick together. If lots of kids and parents dislike the culture of testing and refuse to participate, it will end. If taxpayers from the right and the left say no to this bonfire of money and energy, it will end.

If educators join together and say enough, it will end. It’s really up to us.

Elizabeth Collins teaches social studies at Durango High School. Reach her at ecollins@durangok12.co.us.