High Stakes Standardized Testing Sent Me to Jail & Saved My Teaching Soul

High Stakes Standardized Testing Sent Me to Jail & Saved My Teaching Soul

    Last April (2014) I poured myself into a narrative that I titled, “My High Stakes Testing Story.”  Within it I described the struggles that I encountered with testing and my 3rd grader at home. Then, I related events from the high school I taught at, which had morphed from a beacon of learning to a den of despair because of the burdensome emphasis on tests attached to unknown chimerical numbers that students were supposed to ascend to. I explained how I chose to return to the reason why I entered the profession almost 18 years ago: students. When I learned last spring of yet another standardized test that the district bought in order to gather student scores to represent 35% of my composite educator rating, I told my students to choose their favorite lettered bubbles, color them, and take a nap. My students complied. I was on the brink of leaving the profession entirely, and began applying for non teaching jobs all over the country.  In June 2014, the Ohio Department of Education (ODE) published my teacher rating on their website as “skilled” for seekers to view.  Apparently, my students had met “average” expectations on their test in April.  I have no idea how. I never saw the results. Students never saw the results. I have no idea what the expectation was. At that point,  I was already committed, with a laser-like focus, on fleeing the asylum that had disguised itself as education and accountability.

Meanwhile, around the end of the school year, a rare opening occurred at the juvenile county detention facility school. Ohio has not figured out how to tie test scores to teachers who work at detention facilities (although they are trying to), and the curriculum is not driven by tests because county facilities serve multiple school districts, and the student population changes daily. Instead, there is a general curriculum based on state and district scope and sequences. After an application process, I was offered a position. For twenty percent less money per school year, I accepted an instructional placement at the county juvenile detention center in order to stay in a profession that I cherish. Now, each school day, I walk through sheriff security scan number one, swipe my ID card for the first door, go through sheriff security scan two, get “buzzed” through two more locked doors, and finally swipe my ID card one more time for access to the school part of the facility.

Concrete white block, by concrete white block, working with detained young men has rebuilt and renewed my vehemence for teaching. However, a persistent weight remains on my heart because the utopian conditions for my teaching are partially the result of the scarcity of research based, intelligently designed, properly funded, fully accessible schools in our nation. It is unfortunate for our country’s children that the most consistent place for an education, replete with all of the services and educational opportunities that students need, is in a detention facility.

What makes working at this juvenile detention facility so idealistic?

  • On site medical and mental health services for students every day
  • Physical Education class for an hour each school day
  • Every student is fed
  • Every student is clothed and warm
  • Every student gets plenty of sleep
  • Every student is escorted to school on time each day
  • Students are free from non prescribed chemical influences
  • Role models that they can relate to surround students
  • A full time volunteer coordinator is on site
  • Full time social workers are on site
  • Full time activity coordinators are on site
  • Full time 24 hour housekeeping staff (it is the cleanest place I have ever worked)
  • Staff and students feel safe because of the high security and 24 hour detention officers present
  • Class size does not rise above 18 students
  • Campus administration not only trusts the teachers to navigate their instruction along the most beneficial course for the students, but they support any endeavors the staff presents that may help children
  • Educators are trusted (This has been foreign to me for a while, so I have to reiterate.)
  • A state of the art classroom with a smartboard, whiteboard, laptop, chromebooks, projector, WiFi, desk phone, and always-available supplies for students and teachers

What if this was how all schools were in underprivileged urban areas? Would there even need to be a juvenile detention center? Would states need to continue to spend four times more on incarceration versus education? Could that spending trend actually be reversed?

Many people give me an odd glance of sorts when I tell them where I teach. They have no idea how much these young men inspire me with their potential and the positive possibilities. They are, scientifically and legally speaking, still children, and their adolescent brains are malleable. If they are with me long enough to chip away at their walls built upon blocks of self doubt, tragedy, fear, addiction, and systems that usually fail them, then their curiosity, creativity, social skills, and confidence can be rebuilt. THAT is what school should be about! (Notice there is nothing about high stakes standardized tests in “My Ultimate School.”) If all urban schools were like mine,  educators all over could be gathering blocks mistakenly labeled as “poorly performing,” “academic emergency,” and “failure,” and begin building steps, instead of walls, to a better future for these students, and for all of us.

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Humans of New York Jan. 20, 2015

“Who’s influenced you the most in your life?”

“My principal, Ms. Lopez.”

“How has she influenced you?”

“When we get in trouble, she doesn’t suspend us. She calls us to her office and explains to us how society was built down around us. And she tells us that each time somebody fails out of school, a new jail cell gets built. And one time she made every student stand up, one at a time, and she told each one of us that we matter.”

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Guest Blogger: Today’s Selma

From the mouth of a babe (Alright. He’s really a teen.)

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     There have always been challenges for young African American males in our country. Although we have a President who is biracial and considered the first African American President of the United States, there is still de facto segregation in our schools and neighborhoods. With all of the progress that has been made, thanks to the sacrifices of people who joined the Civil Rights Movement and participated in civil disobedience and acts of protest over fifty years ago, some of the struggles underprivileged or non-white young people encounter make the movement of the past feel closer to today than it should. As Martin Luther King, Jr. and others were accosted with violent acts and threats, the goal of securing individual liberties for people of color with a chance at self-determination may have seemed distant. With every step that those leaders took, whether it was the first, second, or third time from Selma to Montgomery, their goal of voting rights for all qualified citizens was always in sight. As a 15 year old, I realize that I will also be taking many steps and may even have to repeat some of the same routes in my life before I get it right, but I have learned that each small step leads to a bigger step and more goals, and my future is always in sight.

    Sadly, just as geography and race led to oppression, violence, and even death during the marches of 1965, geography and socioeconomic circumstances today can provoke tragic endings. I am fortunate enough to live in a diverse middle class suburb next to Cleveland, Ohio. Haunting my comfortable existence is the fact that a young boy, named Tamir Rice, was shot outside of a Cleveland recreation center by a police officer, and bled to death on the ground. His self determination had not even had a chance to begin. That is just one story of many with similar horrible endings, as the people in Ferguson, New York, and other cities across America know all too well.

     I know that as a teen male who appears African American, I am held to different standards. The first appearance I make to people who do not know me gives an impression that I feel like I have no control over.There is a perception that African American males are prone to foolishness. Yet, I can determine a lot of what happens next. My behavior and choices are directed by how I was raised and the community that surrounds me. Showing respect in order to earn it, courtesy, celebrating academic as well as athletic accomplishments, and speaking with confidence and self assurance are qualities that currently help me defy stereotypes, and should lead me to a promising future. I have the ability to determine positive next steps for myself.

    Just twenty or thirty minutes away from where I live, young African American males, who look a lot like me, do not necessarily have the same circumstances that I do. The police presence in areas of poverty restricts individual liberties as often as it protects them. Education is uncertain. Schools are treated like solutions to homes without heat, electricity, food, or access to medical care,and as mental health providers rather than as a step to a goal that can lead to more goals. In my school, house, and world I have art, music, parks, and recreation at my disposal to enrich, encourage, and inspire me. That access should not be a privilege. I feel safe the majority of the time and do not worry about my basic needs being met. That security provides me with liberties that should belong to everyone.

     I think Martin Luther King, Jr. believed that the indignities and injustices of poverty were preventing self determination for people trapped in it. Before his assassination he seemed to understand that poverty is not only harmful to the poor, but that income inequalities hurt all of us. In a TED Talk, Richard Wilkinson explained that we can improve the quality of life for everyone in developed nations by reducing economic inequality. Although I am not sure where all my steps will take me, I would like to build on my experiences, keep developing my leadership skills in my community, and find a way to reduce income gaps in our country. When our economics are more equal, our liberty will be too. 

In Response to the Ohio Department of Education’s “Information on Student Participation in State Tests:” An open letter to the Ohio Department of Education, State Board of Education, and Ohio Legislators

February 5, 2015

Dear Ohio Department of Education, State Board of Education, and Ohio Legislators:

Recently I submitted an open “opt-out” letter to my district administrators and school board members through a blog post titled My Sons and Their Teachers Deserve Better. Apparently my words resonated with others because within ten days it received approximately 15,000 views. I freely allowed others to use parts of the letter that were relevant to their situations for submission to their schools and districts. This letter was a result of culminating frustration with high stakes standardized testing personally and professionally as described in My High Stakes Testing Story. Today a two-page document published by the Ohio Department of Education (ODE) dated February 4, 2015 and titled “Information on Student Participation in Tests” was digitally shared with me. The creation and need for such a document implies that there may have been an inundation of inquiries by individuals who are actively organized and invested in education in our state. Unfortunately, upon review of the document, it appears to be a combination of facts, propaganda, and fear mongering. The purpose of this letter is to clarify the intent of my prior letter, and to address the February 4th publication by the ODE.

 

The beginning of this ODE document contains some accuracy, such as the fact that Ohio does not have an “opt-out” procedure or form. It failed to note that Ohio does not have a law against refusing the test though either. According to the U.S Constitution which supersedes state laws, specifically the 14th Amendment, I am protected by my rights to religious/spiritual freedom in regard to parental control over one’s child. Parental rights are broadly protected by Supreme Court decisions (Meyer and Pierce), especially in the area of education. The Supreme Court has repeatedly held that parents possess the “fundamental right” to “direct the upbringing and education of their children.” The ODE document also correctly indicates that possible consequences for Ohio’s children in third grade who do not take the test include the risk of not being promoted to fourth grade. Also, high school students who do not take the tests or ones that do take it and do not obtain certain scores may not be eligible for diplomas. Yet, the document neglected to inform readers that Ohio did not have to choose to be one of the approximately 20 states to link high stakes to tests. This harmful, punitive option was an ill-fated decision that Ohio legislators and the Department of Education will have to concede to eventually, even if its original intentions were genuine.

 

Clearly, the semantics used for the process of “opting out” are irrelevant. As a parent I have the right to refuse to allow my children to participate in activities that are physically and emotionally harmful, particularly when the activities being protested have not provided any data or evidence that my children’s participation will be beneficial. Thus far, high stakes standardized tests in our state have failed to meet mathematical standards for test validity. According to Dr. Randy Hoover (2014) “Test validity is only meaningful in terms of how the test is used and what it is used for.  In other words, test validity is a formal examination to determine the degree to which a test is appropriate and accurate in serving what it is used for. Formal examination reveals that the assumption of Ohio’s tests being valid is false.”  The tests this year are new as schools transition to teaching Common Core, according to the ODE. Therefore, data to support test validity through adherence to mathematical standards and to the criteria for psychometric validity is nonexistent. I do not want my child to be a guinea pig in this experiment.

 

The ostensibly threatening nature of the second part of the ODE document, which seems intent on inspiring consternation among families like mine that are considering utilizing their rights in our democracy to direct their children’s education, is latent with details that lack evidence to support them. Previous results of state standardized tests in Ohio have only produced evidence that how students perform on those tests is directly and statistically significantly correlated to factors beyond a school or educator’s control. In fact, the results of these tests emphatically prove that socioeconomic status, environment, emotional stability, food security, and health are the major determining factors of how students will perform on standardized state tests. Therefore, results from the tests that are used to determine the effectiveness of districts, schools, and educators in Ohio, or are used  to assign an “A-F” rating are really reflecting the income and education levels of families in the community that the students are from, not necessarily the efforts of school systems. The claim that these tests are part of an authentic accountability process for school systems and their educators is ludicrous and it is unethical to continue to purport this information to the public as credible.

 

Yet all of this testing does portray pseudo accountability, as educators across the state are well aware. With this in mind, the ODE “Information on Student Participation in Tests” document offers the following: “A district may have additional consequences for students. For example, a district may include the state’s end-of-course test score in a student’s grade instead of a final exam. Students attending a nonpublic school may have different testing requirements.” I suppose one might conclude that the state never wants to bypass an opportunity to promote the mostly unaccountable nonpublic charter schools in the state. One might also surmise that the state would like to offer suggestions to districts in the event that schools would like to unite with them as they blackmail families into participating in state testing. To assist with this, the ODE recommends districts raise the stakes even higher, and include state tests as part of a student’s overall grade in a course. Even though evidence from research is plentiful and conclusive that classroom teacher created assessments are the most accurate and authentic measurements of student achievement, this endorsement of further detriment to students through high stakes standardized testing is shamelessly asserted. However, it is commendable that there were no false claims in the document to imply that high stakes standardized testing has in any way assisted with closing achievement gaps, because it indisputably has only widened those gaps.

 

As a result of the release of this document February 4th, 2015, that states districts may want to request refusals in writing, I wish to make my intentions and permissions completely unambiguous. I refuse (instead of opt-out) to allow my 4th grader to take any more standardized tests. These high stakes standardized tests have increased educational disparities and inequities including contributing to the school-to-prison pipeline and sustaining generational poverty.  I REFUSE to allow my child to be part of a system that promotes and perpetuates social injustice for ANY of our country’s children, but especially the most vulnerable. I trust his educated and experienced teacher to monitor his growth and progress ALL year long, and I am insulted when his education is reduced to numbers on isolated tests not generated by his classroom teachers. I am exercising my rights under the 14th amendment, under precedents set in court cases cited within this letter and within my notice to my district, and as a citizen in a country that is by definition governed through the consent of the people. Scare tactics and threats are usually the tools of a totalitarian regime when it is challenged, or tools utilized by individuals who feel cornered. Those methods will not work on families in Ohio like mine who are protecting our youngest citizens from emotional and physical stressors. The education and development of our children as contributing citizens is too vitally important to our country and the sustainability of our democracy for us to halt the movement to end high stakes standardized testing.

 

The text of the “Information” document on February 4th, 2015 is indicative of possible concerns that the ODE may have or may be hearing from individuals in the state. Please persist in exploring these concerns as they are presented and consider formulating educational policies that are intelligently designed, supported by research, and done in conjunction with educators and parents. Our children, educators, and the future of our state deserve better than what is currently being promulgated. I believe many other parents and individuals involved in education would express the same sentiment.

 

In the words of Margaret Mead, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed, citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.”  I am just one parent, one teacher, one citizen, but there is a formidable, thoughtful, and committed group of citizens inspiring me. Do not doubt that fact.

 

Sincerely,

Melissa Marini Švigelj-Smith

Berea, Ohio

The High Cost of High Stakes Testing (Spoiler Alert! It Hurts Students with Disadvantages the Most!)

The High Cost of High Stakes Standardized Testing

(Spoiler Alert! It Hurts Students with Disadvantages the Most!)

 

I have a dear friend who values my input on matters in his personal life, then becomes flushed with gratitude after I offer meager scraps of wisdom rooted in experience, which then prompts him to inquire as to how he could ever repay my acts of friendship. I have to remind him that people are not commodities and that not every interaction requires a cost and benefit analysis or exchange. He’s a financial analyst in the healthcare industry, so this fact is not always as evident to him as it may be to someone who has spent 17 years in education, and even longer as a parent. Apparently this tidbit of information that I shared with my friend has not been obvious to those formulating education policy either. If students were not viewed as profit potential, or as indistinguishable data, then the research that conclusively demonstrates that 80% of a student’s academic performance is linked to factors beyond school walls such as environment, family, health, and socioeconomic status would actually be utilized to implement effective societal and educational reform. Doing something productive with regard to the issues that impact a student’s educational advantages or disadvantages, would be much more beneficial than adding more lard to the already obese test company profits. More tests and pseudo accountability are not going to address a single one of the family or societal factors currently affecting student academic performance.

In order to provide a more comprehensive portrayal of what our country is now spending on testing, the American Federation of Teachers published a study in 2013 of two mid-size urban districts with the pseudonyms “Midwestern School District” and “Eastern School District.” The costs of testing ranged from $200-$1100 per student based on the grade level of the student. Hours spent on testing and test preparation ranged from 65-165 hours across the two districts based on grade level, as well.

What has been lost as a result of testing absorbing dollars and  time? Physical education, the arts, and recess have been reduced or eliminated, especially in schools serving underprivileged or special needs students because the curriculum becomes hyper focused on trying to cram test knowledge into students who arrive grade levels behind their middle and upper class peers. Countries with the highest performing students have an approach to education that is exactly the opposite of what we are doing in the United States because there is a bountiful amount of research that reveals children are better students if they have physical activity, exposure to the arts, and when their most basic needs are being met.

In order to maximize academic opportunities, students need to be well rested, well fed, feel safe, and have stability in their lives. Unfortunately, for the first time in fifty years, over half of the children in our public schools meet the criteria for free or reduced lunch, which means they are from low income households that fall within federal poverty guidelines. Educators have always known that it is harder to engage hungry students in learning, and researchers have had evidence for over a decade that food insecurity impairs reading and math development in children. Can we use high stakes standardized tests to feed these hungry children who come from homes with food insecurity? Can we use high stakes standardized tests to eradicate poverty, violence, police mistrust, or feelings of hopelessness? Will high stakes testing assist our students suffering from a  lack of exposure to early childhood literacy development or improve the social skills of a generation growing up dependent on electronics? Have high stakes standardized tests and promises of merit pay inspired our brightest high school graduates to flood the education colleges with admissions applications, or assisted at all with retaining the 40-50% of teachers who enter the profession then leave within five years? Are current educators pleading for positions in “low performing” schools to serve students who possess performance potential not yet reached, where they need additional resources and the best educators the most?  There is one answer to all of those questions: NO.

Worse yet, high stakes standardized testing has negatively impacted students of color, students from disadvantaged socioeconomic environments, English Language Learners, and students with disabilities. I have witnessed and possess evidence of schools removing children from their enrollment lists because a student does not have a history of performing well on tests. I have also seen schools retain students on their rosters because there is a potential for the student to perform well on a high stakes standardized test, even if the student requires accommodations and services that cannot be provided by that specific school. I have serviced students that have become entangled in the school to prison pipeline partly because they are viewed as liabilities that may drag down building test scores. The focus on what is best for students is lost when schools and their staffs are forced to chase chimerical numbers that will determine the effectiveness of their school and possibly their salaries.

The idea of merit pay for educators is a concept fraught with illogical fallacies, not surprisingly concocted by capitalists hoping to profit off of children under the guise of education reform. These capitalists also seem to have convinced politicians to support nonsensical policies, or they have enough discretionary funds to ensure that research and evidence play no role in decision making when it is time to produce or enforce education legislation. I am not even going to waste time inserting a link here about the lack of correlation between improved instruction, student learning, and merit pay. Could anyone who enters the teaching profession possibly be monetarily motivated  by an average starting salary of a little over $36,000 per year? Individuals do not enter education to build tangible wealth, but we are not the martyrs that we were once historically portrayed as either. As professionals with degrees and advanced educations, we deserve salaries that are commensurate with our skills and knowledge. We enter the profession consciously sacrificing material reward for the personal fulfillment that accompanies teaching. However, we also have families that we love and that rely on us for their support. If a consistent salary is contingent in any way on high stakes standardized test scores that actually reflect a child’s upbringing rather than the effectiveness of the teacher, how could any individual choose to risk their livelihood and the ability to support their family in order to work at a school with students who have  challenges and are predicted to perform poorly on standardized tests? This leaves students who need the best educators the most at risk for a continued pattern of teacher attrition and high staff turnover rates, which exacerbates the struggles that already exist. High stakes standardized testing contributes to the perpetuation of educational inequities entrenched in high poverty areas. They do nothing resolve them.

Due to the erroneous and morally egregious high stakes associated with standardized testing such as the ability to graduate from high school, grade retention, or linking teacher evaluations to scores, we have punished the most vulnerable members of our society. How did our country arrive at a point at which OUR CHILDREN could be viewed as potential liabilities? Stakeholders may need to be reminded that we are judged by how we treat our weakest and most powerless citizens. I have great hope for the future if education reform is intelligently designed and research based. However, the prospect of generations yet to come examining our current educational structure should provoke tremendous trepidation among those who helped create this quandary.

In 1954 Chief Justice Earl Warren stated with regard to Brown v. Board of Education   “In these days, it is doubtful that any child may reasonably be expected to succeed in life if he is denied the opportunities of an education. Such an opportunity, where the state has undertaken to provide it, is a right that must be made available on equal terms.” High stakes standardized testing has completely failed to create equal terms. Instead it has  intensified educational disparities. It is unfathomable that a statement made sixty-plus years ago concerning school segregation, is still so completely relevant in 2015.