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A Somber Meditation on the “High Holy Days of Testing”

By .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address) on April 15, 2013

Schools throughout our country have entered a most special time of the academic year. An air of solemnity, severity, stricture, sobriety, and “something of profoundly great import going on” is palpable and permeating.   Why is this time different from all other times in the school year? For the vast majority of K-12 public schools throughout the land, we have begun the most important “high holy days of testing”. High stakes testing has begun in earnest and those stakes are much higher than ever before (as is evident from recent noteworthy events). The next few weeks will see well-heeled routines discarded, any sense of new content or learning put on hold, and rigor replace vigor in every facet of the school day. 

This week’s deluge of testing, as has been the case for most years since NCLB and Race to the Top made sure that standardized testing occupied a primary spot in school accountability, comes after a lengthy preparation period. Almost a Lenten-like vigil accompanies the weeks (and even months) that lead up to actual tests.  And the tradition of “giving up” things certainly occurs as well. Schools sacrifice many different “niceties” to ready themselves for testing.   Some of the things that need to be curtailed or denied might be recess, creative expression, “fun”, higher order thinking activities, social emotional growth, service-learning, the arts, civic educational opportunities and a promotion of student voice.

This vigil for the “high holy days of testing” will also include the requisite (and highly ritualized!) preparations. All bulletin boards must be shrouded. All books or classroom resources that might give an unfair advantage must be removed. Any computers or other electronic devices need to be disabled. Every potentially distracting form of stimulation (including children’s displayed artwork) has to be expunged. And we will begin hearing the almost mantric expressions in the days leading up to tests: “Get a good night’s sleep”. “Eat a healthy breakfast”. “Don’t stress”. “You can do it”.

I do not mean to be flippant, overly hyperbolic or disrespectful with the above reflections.  However, as a member of The National School Climate Center, the distressing and rapid proliferation of a highly-charged test culture is altogether too real and its deleterious effects altogether too present.  After collaborating on school climate improvement methods  with school communities since the beginning of an academic year, I have literally been asked NOT to come in to the building for at least a month before testing begins. And substantive, important student led work around promoting Upstander behavior needs to be curtailed or cut out completely so that increased time can be given to test prep  The underpinnings of that decision seems to be: “that school climate stuff is nice; but we need to get our grades up, or else!”  The fear of heightened accountability seemingly trumps all other school community concerns.  And, there’s a strong message we deliver to students that we have set our priorities, not on their social/emotional development, intellectual curiosity, civic engagement or participants as co-learners in their education, but on their ability to “perform” for us.

It seems that in the very polarizing arena of school reform, there are very clearly demarcated “lines in the sand”.  Unfortunately, the battle cry (and always with the caveat that it’s “all for the good of the kids”) becomes: “either you are with us or you are against us”. Grossly overemphasized high stakes testing apparently tried to address accountability without looking at anything else.  This “one trick pony”  made a lot of test prep companies a huge amount of money, demoralized many teachers (by putting their names in national newspapers next to their students’ grades) and, perhaps most unfortunately, limited the voice of students in just how we can best accommodate their learning needs.

It’s not a time to abandon our quest for accountability.  Indeed, there are school leaders promoting rational and good accountability methods by emphasizing a more balanced view of what testing is (and is not!).  I was fortunate to attend a powerful youth-directed, youth-planned, and youth-led event this past weekend.  One of the invited guests who was there to listen and learn as well as to share comments was Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers. She has addressed, over and over again, just how detrimental a narrow view of testing can be.  So it was so refreshing to hear her (so very early on a beautiful Saturday morning!) make a plea for guaranteeing a “seat at the table” for students in determining just how we can best shape what a quality education needs to be. And she was extremely clear that “attending to the whole child, including socially and emotionally, is REAL accountability”.

How do we ensure that “the way we do school” in the future (hopefully, in the near future!) does not merely use standardized test scores to determine our efforts?  How do we start to re-define what true accountability needs to be?  And how do we begin the very, very necessary process of deflating the gross importance assigned to “the high holy days of testing”?  Let’s begin this week by realizing that standardized test results only help us measure a very, very narrow and limited segment of what goes on in a school. And, let’s remember that we need to integrate crucial social and emotional learning with academic instruction. 

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