educationvirtual children by Scott Warnock

From the mouths of babes?: Colorado students refuse to be tested

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Part 10 (of 874) in an occasional series about how standardized tests are destroying education.

The Denver Post reported recently that thousands of high school students in Colorado refused to take standardized state tests. Activism? Test fatigue? Obstinancy? Whatever the case, I like that we’re hearing the student voice, which is often absent in the many conversations about testing.

In all the standardized testing chatter, we seldom get to hear from those who spend years running through the test gauntlet. (As someone who does a lot of talking with faculty around the country about teaching, I think this is generally a weak spot in education conversations: We talk about students but seldom get to hear from them.)

The students seem to have many reasons for their anger. A Colorado Public Radio story about the testing boycott said students refused to take state-mandated tests “as student anxiety about over-testing grows.” Maybe their actions, and many of them were seniors, were a result of sheer test weariness. Some students held up picket signs instead of taking the tests saying things like “education not standardization.” Some even did other things on test days, like collect food for the homeless. Some expressed frustration about being tested on subject matter that they haven’t been taught. I work with late teens and those in their early 20s a lot, and I marvel at how much more evolved these students are than I was at the same age. So I wonder if some are just sick of the two-dimensional pictures tests paint of not just them but their schools. For instance, here’s the schizophrenic state report about my local high school:

This school’s academic performance significantly lags in comparison to schools across the state. Additionally, its academic performance significantly lags in comparison to its peers. This school’s college and career readiness is about average when compared to schools across the state. Additionally, its college and career readiness is high when compared to its peers. This school’s graduation and post-secondary performance lags in comparison to schools across the state. Additionally, its graduation and post-secondary readiness is high when compared to its peers.

It appears terms like “significantly lags” are simply distilled of various numbers and scores. Keep in mind, this report and others like it costs millions and millions of dollars to produce, money that is NOT spent on your kids’ education. And what do you do with this report? Try to figure out if the “lags” and the “is high” language makes sense for what you want out of a school? I don’t know this summary paragraph, even with its helpful bolding, tells you much about the school or the many, many talented kids who go there.

The same thing, of course, happens to students themselves, Kids take a test and they become a number: A number that, in some cases, bars them from many, many opportunities. A number that can make life an even steeper uphill climb — and that additional challenge is usually laid on those who already don’t have it so good.

We want to know if our schools are doing what they’re supposed to be doing. We want to know if kids are learning. Somehow, though, we have been deceived into thinking that this knowing can be unlocked through a battery of tests. Tests do the irresponsible and I think kind of evil thing of allowing people to veil their criticism. You would be booed for criticizing kids and communities based on family income or race, but you can have a field day — man, you can get elected! — criticizing a school full of “those” kids.

Parents don’t like testing. School admins don’t like it. Teachers don’t like it. Kids — we know they hate it, and in Colorado some of them are doing something about it. I hope we hear more student voices through activism and sites like United Opt Out. Good for these Colorado students for organizing themselves. I wonder if the resistance will spread.

Scott Warnock is a writer and teacher who lives in South Jersey. He is a professor of English at Drexel University, where he directs the University Writing Program. Father of three and husband of one, Scott is on two local school boards and coaches all kinds of youth sports.

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7 Responses to “From the mouths of babes?: Colorado students refuse to be tested”

  1. Bravo! Bravo! Bravo!
    You already know my feelings on this Scott. I would love to see more of this from our local students and parents. It is hard to believe how little of our children’s education is about them these days. Educational policy is about what is best for adults, not children. Shame on us for allowing it.

  2. Do you really plan on writing 874 articles about standardized testing? Let’s get back to the good old basics reading, writing and arithmetic.

  3. As the likely only living person who LOVES standardized testing I can’t really comprehend the anxiety that builds when these tests loom (I’m institutionalized that way, I took my first standardized test in kindergarten.)
    But I also cannot really comprehend the need to spend so much time or money on testing in primary school. The ability to rock a timed test of multiple choice answers (even if timed writing is added) has done nothing for my post-high school life with the possible exception of getting me better technical training in the US military. (Military Occupational Specialty is assigned in part based on your scores from the Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery – yet another standardized test.)

    I think the US Educational system proved long ago that something better is needed. Perhaps cooperative learning at a younger age with team competition built in as Lego is encouraging. ;)

  4. I’m with AB – 874? Really? You can’t afford to lose any more readers so I would rethink that number.
    As for standardized tests – look what they did for you – entrance to the #1 school in the great state of NJ, better known as the 9th Ivy League school. More standardized tests and entrance into MA and PhD programs! Look at you – the poster child for testing!
    If we had to take them, today’s kids should too.
    A little stress and pressure never hurt anyone.
    Or they could stay home like in CO and just smoke dope and play video games on a Saturday morning instead of being at the school for those tests.

  5. And anyway – it’s all Obama’s fault!

  6. 874! YES! Keep them coming Scott. As a teacher, being forced to practice my career in a world of the Common Core, the Danielson Framework, Student Growth Objectives, Students Growth Percentiles, Value Added Models and the awful SCRIPTED lesson plans AND being told how to teach by Bill Gates, Eli Broad, Arne Duncan, not to mention the National Governors Association and the Pearson monopoly has been a nightmare. Don’t get me wrong. I love teaching. I love my students. I have often thought that without my career and all I have learned from it, I might be a much different person, much poorer in my understanding of human nature, the creative process, and the complexity surrounding every facet of learning and personal growth.
    I despise prepping my students to write formulaic five-paragraph essays, or getting them ready for PARCC. I don’t want to lose class time to administers tests of OBVIOUS DUBIOUS validity. (Check for yourself. Log on to the Pearson website and take a practice test for yourself. I have a feeling, many parents will be truly shocked at the ridiculous questions 9 and 10 year old students are expected to navigate and answer.) I am extremely upset that my student’s essays and my teaching will be judged and graded by Robo-Graders. Yes, a robot that can quickly assess and grade essays.
    Has teaching come to this? Yes, it has. And all the entities I mentioned have one thing in common – they represent a stunning move, in this vast and proudly diverse country, toward standardizing our students and teachers. Such depersonalization has disheartened many of us who consider the education of young people a sacred and deeply personal endeavor, something corporate reformers, who are clearly driven by the profit motive connected to privatization, disregard.
    AND, Scott mentioned his children’s high school that has been unfairly labeled as “significantly lagging in comparison to other schools in the state.” Well, I attended this school, as did my siblings. We are all college graduates. We are graduates of Harvard, Bucknell, Penn State, James Madison and Catholic University. We were prepared and excelled.
    Finally, I believe it is easier for those in power to scapegoat the public schools rather than address societal problems like poverty and segregation that are responsible for many of the complex problems in education.

    874 is a perfect number. Keep them coming. You are my hero!

  7. Apologies, it has taken me time to read this post. I typically run to the link when I get the notice, but we’ve been very busy catching up from parent /teacher conferences & all the trimmings that come with NoTvember (as my gang likes to call the month with many interruptions at school).
    I had the privilege of being invited to a “test of the test” at BCC recently. The Enterprise Business Center is equipped to have web access/bandwidth for more than 500 at the same time & we experienced only a taste of the frustration that our children will deal with in the spring. The Pearson site froze. Froze. The auditorium was PACKED with educators, parents, and reporters. All were trying to access the PARCC samples simultaneously and only a third of the group was able to access an actual test. (just to check, we were able to access the full web, including fb, just not pearson)
    Districts are being directed to start “caching” portions of the test so they can avoid the overload. HOW IS THIS GOOD? Won’t this be a criticism later? The overload? Can we imagine at all the OVERLOAD of a nationwide attempt to access the Pearson site in may? It sure wont be as tiny as 500+ folks in an auditorium. Also, only folks on actual laptops got even close, those using tablets, ipads, etc. couldn’t even get past the banner page of the site.
    Teachers are not able to answer students’ questions, only monitor the room in the testing environment. Whatever happened to the teacher writing their own test? When did we stop trusting (most) teachers to be testing their class on the material that was covered? The english portion of PARCC, shared on screen captures, is insane. It contains two stories in a window 4″ square. There are tabs at the top that need to be toggled in order to read & compare. The answer space to the right is the same sized 4″ box & asks students to synthesize their reading experience by citing examples from the text provided on the left. They need to scroll endlessly, toggle AND TYPE their answers within an extraordinarily short time period. THIS IS NOT A TEST OF THEIR ENGLISH PROWESS, it is a test of typing. I realize that our kids deal with technology every day, but i agree with Dawn (above), shame on us for allowing this to be policy.
    I left this event frustrated beyond imagination. i was interviewed for some NJEA webcast and all I could say was, “frustrated.” I emailed our Superintendent during the event, while i was waiting for the site to open, & told him i was organizing a “boycott the test” rally. The literature shared showed that opting out IS an option, contrary to what may be communicated at testing time. There is no NCLB backlash. The main thing is that there needs to be a location for the opt-out students to go. Some schools have forced students NOT taking the test to remain with the test takers and this is a less than ideal learning environment.
    I hope to be able to screen the movie, “Standardized” locally. I am with you Scott, I hope that more students stand up and say, “NO.” Although many tests are given throughout our lives, there is simply no reason to gauge our kids learning by an excessive number of standardized tests. Teaching to the test is totally upsetting. Teachers’ stability in their districts cant be tested by something that kids are almost expected to fail in the first few years. I am all scattered with this because I am so passionate about what I have already learned. The frustration for my twin 2019 grads is mounting. The state has a plan to deal with grading on classes until 2018. LUCKY, lucky us! 2019 has no plan. My hopes? My hope is that in 2019, the PARCC is nothing but a bad memory of an eradicated test, created by big business that was mistakenly being earned on the brains of our kids.

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