Stop Making the Test the Main Thing

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The AP test results came out while our family was stranded at the end of our epic three-state, five national park camping trip. I sat in our disabled travel trailer waiting for news about the status of our broken axle and looked on Facebook. The AP Facebook groups that I follow were blowing up with commentary concerning individual teacher test results. After being assured of a bump in national scores, the individual laments didn’t appear to match the national results.

I was hesitant to use the slow campground wi-fi to look at my scores, only to be pleased with scores that matched what I expected. While four of my sixteen students did not receive a qualifying score (3 or better), I was not shocked and was still content with the knowledge that every single one of the sixteen students who took the test (and the eleven students who did not) learned a great deal in a single year of AP Literature and I am certain that they are all prepared for college.

However, that was not the story I was seeing across my Facebook feed.

It’s no secret that standardized testing has taken over the American education system. In every state in the Union, students as young as kindergarten are subjected to hours of sitting in a quiet room, forced to prove to the school, district, state, and US Department of Education that their teachers are effectively doing their job. And in every state in the Union, teachers, and administrators wait on pins and needles for those tests results to come back, wondering if the numbers are going to be high enough to keep their jobs and their schools open without state interference.

And it’s hurting all of us.

Early childhood students aren’t getting the outdoor playtime that they need; instead, they are inside doing drills and having literacy skills forced upon them before many of their brains are ready. This, despite the fact that study after study proves that free play and outdoor playtime actually increases student learning and retention of information. Instead of being encouraged to develop as readers, writers, and thinkers, adolescent students are being encouraged to read short pieces for information and analysis and write formulaic five-paragraph essays that might earn them a high score on a standardized test but will make their college professors cringe.

We are supposed to be encouraging little minds to be inquisitive and building off of a natural love of learning. We’re supposed to be teaching future citizens how to read for information, distinguish the truth from B.S., think for themselves, and coherently express those ideas once they have gone through the research and discovery process. After twelve years in our care and under our tutelage, they should be ready to face the world and be actively involved in making it a world they want to live in. Instead, we are so focused on making five-year-old children college-ready that by the time they reach their senior year of high school they have been trained to only focus on what they need to learn to make it to the next arbitrary marker placed in front of them by the multi-billion dollar test-taking machine.

I don’t believe that standardized testing is inherently bad. In fact, I believe it can be very helpful for a lot of reasons. When looking at trends over several years it can help point out schools and teachers that may be struggling, identify student populations that are being overlooked, and give us a general idea of how individual students are learning and developing. It can also help us identify when a student may be struggling academically, intellectually, or emotionally based on deviations from their performance trends. But we’ve allowed the powers that be to turn our focus from learning to testable outcomes that can be assessed through multiple-choice questions. 

I have always been my best as a teacher when I’ve stepped away from a test-prep program and have focused on educating the whole child. That doesn’t mean that I don’t prepare my students for the high stakes test that they are facing at the end of the year. As an AP English teacher, I have my students work on strategies for their essays, having them write multiple practice essays with opportunities for revision. We do practice multiple choice questions together to familiarize them with the types of reading and questions that will be on the exam. I loved my high school AP English teacher, but over 20 years ago, there was little focus on preparing for the exam. I know that the 3 I earned on the exam could have been higher if I had just been a little more familiar with what I would be expected to do. That being said, the lessons that I learned in my senior year of high school were far more important than the score I earned at the end, and for that, I will be forever thankful. I’ve tried to find a balance between those two extremes in my own classroom.

Every year I look at my instructional reports and analyze where I need to improve as a teacher. What are my kids not getting and what do I need to do a better job of teaching? Were there outliers in that particular group of students? What skills did they come in with and what do I need them to learn during their earlier high school years to help prepare them for my class and the high expectations of the course? How can I best communicate those needs to my colleagues?

And then I go back to the job of teaching.

We’re allowing the testing machine to rob our students of the pure joy of learning; we’re robbing ourselves of the joy of teaching and mentoring young lives. It’s hurting our profession. According to one NEA survey in 2014, nearly half of teachers have considered leaving the profession because of the pressures of standardized tests, a situation that has only gotten worse over the last five years.

I know that for many of my colleagues across the country, this is easier said than done. Many teachers face the very real threat of jobs being yanked away from them as test scores come out, schools face decreases in funding or being taken over by state authorities, and our students’ collegiate futures are often determined by a single score. But in my educational utopia, we would be given permission to stop spending the average of two or more weeks of test preparation so that we could get back to educating. We would stop being told that a creative teaching idea meant to encourage student engagement is a bad idea because it takes too much time away from test preparation. We would be allowed to focus on learning about the world around us and encourage our students to be engaged and informed citizens prepared to make their country and the world a better place.

A couple of months ago I got a Facebook message from a former student who I had as a sophomore more than ten years ago. She thanked me for spending a couple of weeks teaching them Night and then focusing several more weeks on a genocide research paper that opened her eyes to the world around her. She said that the things she learned during that unit have helped her put the news at the border and the experiences of people she has met in international travel into perspective. That unit was one of the most important lessons of her entire high school career.

That is why we teach. We don’t teach so that our students can pass a major test, we teach so that they are ready for the world. I’ve always believed that if we are doing our job well, they will not only be ready for life after twelve years of K-12 education, they will also be ready for the tests they sit through along the way.

It is time we insist that those in power allow us to once again make learning the main thing. Our nation’s future is depending on it.

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Sarah is a high school English teacher and yearbook adviser in the Houston area. When she's not lesson planning, grading, or revising yearbook pages, she enjoys biking, running, reading, writing, and camping with her family. She spends her "free" time writing about camping, faith, family, and occasionally politics on her personal blog Accepting the Unexpected Journey.

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