Growing up, I always took standardized tests. Every year, our teachers would say, “Get a good night’s sleep and eat breakfast in the morning. You have a test tomorrow.” And that was it.
I happened to start my career in education right around the time when this approach to standardized testing completely shifted under the pressure of the No Child Left Behind Act.
As an educator for the past 16 years, I've seen a lot of bad things. When I taught in a Title I school in rural Louisiana where more than 90% of children lived below the federal poverty line, the principal kept a paddle on her wall and would use it to beat children. Corporal punishment was the school's main way of disciplining and guiding children, and there was no time for more proactive strategies like community and relationship building because we were supposed to be marching through the standards at a break-neck pace.
Working in schools in Houston, I saw classrooms with no books; the teachers had removed them and decided to teach reading through the use of test prep passages instead. The administration canceled science and social studies classes to do double blocks of reading and writing, since those were the only tested subjects in third grade.
I've taught in districts that mandated benchmark testing every two weeks in four subject areas, which meant I had too little time for teaching.
There is no doubt that No Child Left Behind has cast an ugly and dark shadow over our schools, our teachers, and our children.
And yet still I support the use of standardized testing.
Why is that?
The achievement gap is real.
No Child Left Behind mandated that every state test its children and that we break down the results by racial and socio-economic demographics. This data is incredibly helpful to us as a nation. It forces us to acknowledge that your zip code really does determine your destiny in this country.
In Austin, the city I live in, there is a very clear correlation: If you live in the more expensive parts of town, you are more likely to be white and you are more likely to have higher results on the state test. Without a standardized test, this gap would be much more difficult to see, quantify, and address.
The achievement gap is one of the most important civil rights issues of our time. We will never achieve the American promise of "liberty and justice for all" if we cannot ensure that all children develop basic mathematics and literacy skills.
Standardized tests help us see the achievement gap in an objective, quantifiable way. They help us see which children are reading below grade level and are not acquiring the foundational math skills needed to move into more complicated math. Closing the proficiency gap is not enough to close the much larger gap, but it is start. If we "opt out" of standardized testing, we opt out of getting the kind of objective data we need to hold ourselves accountable for ensuring success for all children.
The tests measure basic proficiency.
Of course any test will likely have one or two questions that seem silly and irrelevant or are culturally or geographically biased, but, in general, the third grade and sixth grade reading and math tests that I have worked to prepare children for over the course of the past 16 years are all things that they should be able to do. And they are all things that I would want my own children to be able to do.
I absolutely agree that these tests measure only a small sliver of what is necessary for success in college, the 21st century work place, and life as leaders in our families and communities, but it's a start. It's a non-negotiable. You aren't going to reach your fullest potential out in the world if you can't read a piece of text and understand what it means.
I care more about things like critical thinking, problem-solving, social and emotional intelligence, executive functioning, time management, integrity, and empathy, but I also want my students to be on par with their wealthier peers academically. Standardized tests help me keep my eye on that bar.
You do not have to resort to "drill and kill" to get good results on the state assessment.
The major problem with NCLB is not the tests themselves; it's the way districts have chosen to respond to the pressure of increasing student performance on the test.
As an educator, I have intentionally resisted the pressure and worked to buffer my students from it.
One year I worked at a school that started with 6th graders, the vast majority of whom lived below the federal poverty line. The school assigned me all of the most struggling readers. They put them into a single class. I had children who came in reading at a 1st grade level. Did I choose to resort to "drill and kill" to try and get them to pass the test nine months later? Absolutely not. Because that's not how children learn to read in the most efficient and effective way possible. Further, “drill and kill” does not create lifelong readers.
What did I do instead? I worked to teach them to fall in love with reading. I would give them a very brief strategy lesson, read to them, and then let them spend the bulk of their time reading books of their own choice (even comic books). I would then conference with each child to assess what strategies they were already using well and what I should teach them next.
When children fall in love with reading, they start reading all the time. They read while they wait in line, they read in the car or on the bus on the way home from school, they read under their covers at night when they are supposed to be sleeping. And the more they read, the higher their reading levels climb.
By the end of the year, every one of those 6th graders passed the state reading assessment. Nearly all of them came from homes impacted by poverty and were almost all children of color.
Other years I worked in a public Montessori program where students self-direct their learning. For example, I had a 7 and 8 year-old decide they wanted to study the Bermuda Triangle and share their knowledge with others by making a coloring book. In the middle of the process, they decided that they wanted to sell the coloring book in order to raise money for new classroom materials. They developed their project planning skills, emotional intelligence, persuasiveness, entrepreneurial abilities, and public speaking capacity through this project—all skills they will need for success in college and the 21st century workplace.
And both of those children passed the standardized reading and math tests by the end of 3rd grade. In fact, 100% of the children in my classroom passed both state assessments, regardless of their race, their parents’ income, or the kind of trauma that was present in their home lives.
We can provide a high-quality educational experience and ensure that children do well on standardized tests.
I was a classroom teacher for nine years and have worked hard to provide an enriching educational experience and ensure that my children pass the state test. My students have written and directed their own plays, read books they love, cooked food in class, planned their own field trips, run their own businesses, discussed issues in daily community meetings and problem-solving circles, constructed their own knowledge through the use of hands-on materials AND they have done well on standardized tests. It’s absolutely possible to do both.
First, you have to have a clear sense of what the outcomes are. What do we want children to master by the end of the year? It's not enough to read the standards; you have to really unpack them by analyzing various ways in which the standard will be tested and how children will have to transfer their learning.
Second, you have to have a clear sense—at all times—of where every single child is in relation to the end goal. This task is difficult in classrooms of 20 or 30 children or in middle schools when you have multiple classes (I've taught both) but it's not impossible. It takes an incredible tracking system and the commitment to maintain it.
Third, you have to let every child work at their own level. It's worth repeating: In order to help children maximize their growth, CHILDREN MUST WORK AT THEIR OWN LEVEL. If children are working on material that is too easy for them, you are holding them back from growing as much as they can and they will likely grow very bored. If children are working on material that is too hard for them, they will become frustrated and disengaged. If children work at their level, they will master concepts more quickly and make faster progress. The gaps will start to close.
And herein lies the problem. Our education system is modeled after factories with everyone doing the same thing at the same time in the same way. This model is flawed. It does not allow children to close their academic gaps efficiently or effectively.
Fourth, teachers need time and support to come together and analyze how it's going. They need to dissect what children are and are not mastering and retaining, and they need to generate next steps. I have never worked in a school that does this well.
Real reform is needed. We need to design schools that give children the opportunity to work at their individual levels and work on something until it is mastered (while keeping their innate curiosity and love of learning alive) and schools that support teachers to implement the continuous improvement cycle of assessing, analyzing, and acting so that they can strategically and systematically support children to close the achievement gap.
But opting out of the test isn't necessary in order to drive this kind of reform. In fact, we need the test to continue to provide objective data about how all of our children are doing—regardless of their race or class. Standardized tests help illuminate the achievement gap and push us to hold ourselves accountable for closing it.
Individual teachers, principals, and parents have more power than they realize to opt out of "drill and kill." The test itself is not the problem, teaching to the test is.