Giving up the fight

When state mandated testing first appeared in our school, every single teacher on our staff was appalled.  We were a progressive, child centered school in an upper middle class Boston suburb.  Our school had been created by parents twenty years earlier because they were unhappy with the traditional schooling that had been leaving their children without a place to succeed.  We were a school where the visual arts were integrated throughout the curriculum, where children were encouraged to identify areas of interest and to investigate/create/inquire.  We were enormously popular in town; of the five elementary schools in the District, we were the most requested by parents who were looking to place their children.

We loved our school.  We were so proud of what we did every day.  We helped children to become thinkers, to ask good questions, to pursue the answers to interesting problems.  Kids loved coming to school; parents loved sending their kids to us. Our Principal was our leader, our guide, our constant supporter.

We were not “broken”.  We did not need to be “fixed” or “reformed” in any way.  As I recall, a full 98% of our students went on to four year colleges. We were awesome.

Nevertheless, when the Education Reform Act of 1993 went into effect in Massachusetts, we were caught up in the national desire to “fix our broken schools”.  For reasons which never quite made sense to us, our school was lumped in with poor urban districts where 50% of students dropped out before earning a diploma. It was bewildering at best and horrifying at worst.

We were successful by any measure, and yet they wanted us to change.

We were swept up in the testing craze, in spite of our desire to refuse.  Everyone had to be tested, it seemed, and everybody had to do well.  We had no choice, so we administered the tests.  I will never forget the first administration of the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System.  I was in a fourth grade classroom where the children had been taught to always ask questions, to make sure that they fully understood all directions before proceeding with any academic task. I remember a little girl raising her hand and asking me what one word meant on her math test.  She was pretty sure that she understood the meaning, but she wanted to double check.  “I’m sorry honey”, I said, “I can’t tell you that.”  She looked at me for a moment, her blue eyes clear and direct.  “I know”, she said calmly, “I don’t want the answer. I just want to make sure that I know what this one word means.”  I shifted a bit, then shook my head. “I can’t tell you that.”

That was my introduction to the utter stupidity of the testing. It never got better. Those first few years, our district scored in the top five in the state, but we were always lagging behind the more traditional schools in town.  We joked about being “The worst of the best.”

When the “No Child Left Behind” law came into effect, and the tests gained new importance, I did my best to hold onto what I believed was in the best interests of the children in our school.  Along with many of my colleagues, I began to work toward an end to the “one size fits all” tests. I wrote to the Department of Ed in my state and in Washington. I met with educational leaders here in Massachusetts.  I attended lectures and seminars.  I served on my local School Committee and advocated for an end to the single test requirement for receiving a High School Diploma.

And each time I was forced to administer the test, I spoke to the children about how much faith I had in them, how silly it all was, and how I knew that they were smart kids and good students without needing to put them through the testing.

But the years have gone on, and the testing has only gained in power and importance. Parents have begun to focus on test results rather than student satisfaction.  Our creative school went from being the most sought after in town to the least. We began to analyze test data every year.  We have frantically adjusted our curriculum to try to fix our areas of weakness. I remember the year when our fifth graders did poorly on the “open response” math questions.  Oh, they clearly understood the actual math concepts, but they were weak when it came to writing about those concepts.  And so as part of the fifth grade teaching team, I shifted the way I taught math, focusing more on “writing to explain” than on math calculations.

I’m sure you can predict the outcome: the scores improved on those writing questions, but the math calculation problems declined.

The years have gone by, and our school has changed right along with the educational philosophy of the nation.  We teach only what the “Curriculum Frameworks” tell us to teach.  We use the appropriate, official books and materials.  We practice test taking.  We use scoring rubrics that match the state tests.

Gone are the interesting questions, the creative projects, the asking of deep questions.

And through it all, I have remained as true as I could possibly remain to those beliefs that I once held so dear.  I have continued to work hard to encourage the children to be creative, to be inquisitive, to wonder about the world around them.  I have continued to think that it was important to make children feel comfortable in making guesses, in taking intellectual risks.  I have continued to have fun in my classroom, and I have continued to believe that one test on one day is not an adequate measure of the progress that my students make in one year with me.

But last Friday everything changed, and I am preparing to give up the fight.

Last Friday last year’s test scores came out.  Fully half of my class failed to achieve the coveted “Proficient label.”  Some of those children have learning disabilities.  Some are emotionally disturbed.  One is struggling to learn English.

But a lot of them are just happy, average American kids with no issues.  They showed me all year that they understand math, but they did poorly on the test.

What does it mean?  In reality, it means nothing.  They rushed, or they were hungry, or they got nervous or they made some mistakes.

Or they took my message to heart, and took the testing lightly.

It doesn’t matter.

I spent all day Friday in tears.

There will be repercussions for the failure of my math teaching.  I will be assigned a math coach.  I will have to answer to last year’s parents.  I will need to review each individual test item and try to identify what it was that I failed to teach.

And very soon, within a year or so, my salary will be directly linked to scores just like these.

And so I am giving up the fight.  I will give up all pretenses of trying to facilitate creativity.  I will no longer encourage children to ask me for help or clarification.  I won’t try to make math interesting or fun or intriguing.  Instead, I will drill, repeat, reteach, drill some more and make everyone correct every problem. I will use math rubrics and practice tests and I will no longer feel proud of what I do, or happy to be a part of my school, or satisfied with what it that I am able to give to children.

This is the saddest day of my 32 year career.


4 responses to this post.

  1. I will not hit ‘like’ on this post, even though it was beautiful written, because I don’t ‘like’ anything you’ve said here. The story you are telling is absolutely tragic. Your beautiful school, your wonderful students, your love of teaching…all destroyed by people who know nothing about children or education. My heart breaks. Please don’t let this take your joy and your love of teaching away.
    Take care of yourself. I took a year off after the system broke my heart. I’m back now and I feel stronger and more able to say, “No, I will not do that because it is wrong.”
    Don’t let the bastards crush your spirit!


    • Thank you, Heather! Where do you teach?
      I am doubly heart broken because my daughter is a teacher, new to the profession, and I am watching them crush her down, too.
      What is even more frustrating to me is that we work in a progressive, forward thinking district that does its best to support us. What must it be like in those “underperforming” districts?


  2. I know whereof you speak. Momma Bear has been a nurse for 40 years. She loves it but she periodically gets burned-out — not from taking care of patients, but from dealing with the non-medical bosses. So, periodically, she changes jobs within the health field. For the past dozen years she helped keep ICU babies alive. This year she’s working as a telephone triage nurse. She’s still a nurse and still helping people, but she’s felt forced to take a change in direction…at least for awhile.

    Just sayin’ it’s something to think about. I think you’re too good a teacher to lose completely. Talk it over with your loved ones. Even though they’re not all teachers, they might see a solution you hadn’t considered…


    • Thanks for the suggestions, Zorbear. I actually did do something similar seven years ago. I left special education (I was the Speech/language Clinician) and went into the classroom. Unfortunately because of the tight restrictions around our certifications, teachers have very few options within the field. I could change grade levels, but that would mean just the same issues with an entirely new curriculum to learn.
      I am in my last few years anyway. The question is, how many can I stand to do? The minute that I really feel that I am not making kids happy (test scores be damned), that when I will pack it in. sigh.


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