Kind of ashamed of myself

I have been part of the “state high stakes testing” system for 17 years.

That kinda makes me a little bit sick.

I remember the very first year of the “Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System”, not so fondly referred to as “MCAS”. Known by every child in the state as “Massachusetts Child Abuse System”.  I remember the very first year of this thing.  No one knew what to expect, but we were all uniformly skeptical.

Expect every child to show the same skills at the same level on the same day?  Seriously?  We scoffed at the very idea.   We were a school that had been created to meet the needs of students who did not fare well in traditional classrooms.  We were an arts integration school.  We believed that children should be taught to ask good questions, and then encouraged to find or create the answers to those questions.   Our first administration of the MCAS was a lesson in frustration.  Some of my colleagues and I planned to create and wear T shirts that said, “I’m sorry, honey. I can’t tell you.”   We based this idea on the fact that even though we had taught our students to ask questions, we weren’t supposed to answer them during the testing.

It drove us all crazy.

As did the unbelievably ridiculous test questions themselves.  I remember that in that first year, our fourth grade students were asked to compare and contrast the economic systems of Mesopotamia and Egypt in an essay.

Say, what?

Of course, over the past seventeen years, the whole idea of the MCAS, and high stakes testing in general, has changed significantly. Although we are still not allowed to answer the kids questions, we are at least now allowed to explain them to students with language based learning disabilities.  And the test questions have sort of simmered down too, making them more likely to be understood and answered by actual flesh and blood children.

But as the years have gone on, the importance and relative weight of the test scores has increased.

Now my students’ scores are being used to evaluate my district, my school, my grade level.  Now I understand that it is my responsibility to make sure that every kids improves every year in every subject.  Even the student in my class with the severe learning disabilities who has been absent 32 days out of 160; even she has to show improvement. In the very near future, their scores will determine my salary, my job security, my place in my school.

Today I gave the kids the first part of this year’s MCAS math test.  We have been prepping for weeks for this thing. We have gone over (and over and over and over) the right way to answer an open response question.  The right way to check your answer to make sure that it is reasonable. The right way to break apart a complex word problem to be sure that you answer and label every part.

Before the test, I reminded everyone to “Take your time!  Check and double check! Be thoughtful and be logical!”  I gave out the tests, then crossed my fingers.

Twenty minutes went by ( on an untimed test !) and one of my special needs students handed in his work.  I was aghast: this test should have taken two hours!!!!!!  I hissed at him, I shook my head, I frowned with every muscle in my face.  He still handed in his work. So naturally, the other “speedy” kids followed suit, and soon the thoughtful, careful kids were feeling the pressure to finish up so that we could go outside to recess.

As each child finished, handed in the test and reached for a good book to read, I became more and more agitated.  Had I taught them nothing?!!? What the hell were they thinking?!  Rushing through the test like this?  Really??!!

When it was over ( a mere hour and a half after it began), I sputtered and stomped and showed my complete displeasure with my class for “rushing”.  I gave them what-for, let me tell you.

Then I paused. I looked out at their sweet, innocent little faces.    I made myself catch my breath.

Eyes were downcast, chins were quivering, fingers were twisting.  One little girl raised her hand cautiously, as if afraid of my response. “Yes?”, I asked.  “So….” she began. “I can’t really slow myself down with math.  I mean, I know the answer and I know what to do, so I can’t really slow down.”  Another hand was raised.  I called on the boy who raised it. “I did my best, but I’m not that good at math. I just really love the book I’m reading. I wanted to read my book.”  He looked at me, his hazel eyes holding mine.  “I just really love to read.”

What was I supposed to say?

This is a school, right?  We are supposed to be encouraging them to read, to love book, to want to dive into good literature.

What was I supposed to say to them?  Should I have told them, “Listen, you guys! My livelihood depends on how well you do on this test!”  I couldn’t say that.   How about, “You should know that your education is all based on this one standardized test!”

I couldn’t do that, either.

I didn’t know what to say.   I guess I could have apologized, and explained that over the past seventeen years I have watched as public education has changed from wanting to inspire great thinking to wanting to inspire slow, thoughtful, rote answers.    I could have told them that my future depended on their test scores on this one test on this one sunny day.

I could have explained all of that and added in something about the corporate takeover of public education.

But I didn’t.

I was ashamed of myself.   A lot.

So instead, I took them outside, into a bright spring day, and watched them play together with joy and laughter.

What the hell is wrong with us in American education?


13 responses to this post.

  1. I had a situation once where one of my kids taking California’s STAR test had only been in my class one week before the test. How is that supposed to reflect my teaching? That year I had 40 students from start to finish, but only 20 at any given time. They were constantly coming back and forth from Mexico.

    Then flash forward to a “better” school district, and I had an upper middle class student recognize one of the stories on the STAR test as being pulled from a Highlights magazine. After the test she went into the classroom library and pulled it.
    So clearly, higher socio-economic kids exposed to rich learning environments are at an advantage. That has nothing to do with teacher quality or effort.


  2. Posted by 2old2tch on May 12, 2014 at 11:50 pm

    “What the hell is wrong with us in American education? ”

    I’m glad to hear about the MCAS warts. Those of us in the rest of the country have been told how wonderful Massachusetts is because of your wonderful test scores. Some day maybe someone will notice that training students to take tests and encouraging them to be lifelong learners are not the same thing.


  3. I always enjoy your informative posts about teaching in the public schools. As a college English instructor, I can say that the standardized testing is having a negative effect on students. Even those who venture to go to college are either not prepared or not willing to put in the effort to actually learn. They’ve been so conditioned to just get a good grade whether they learn or not. It’s sad and frustrating. Keep encouraging that reading. 🙂 Thank you!


    • Thank you Kat!! Your point about the negative effect of the testing is one that I keep trying to make, but I don’t have the first hand experience to back up my statements.

      I wish that more higher ed teachers would get into the discussion, so that the chorus of demands for more testing could be rebutted. I hear the same thing from friends in the business world; that young people in the past ten or so years have become less and less innovative and able to self motivate. We are down the rabbit hole, for sure…..


  4. You’re right. College and HS educators need to take more action. You may have already seen some news on the teachers at Garfield HS here in Seattle who have been vocal about their opposition to Common Core curriculum and standardized tests. I thought you might find this article interesting:


  5. Posted by Kat on May 26, 2014 at 11:04 pm

    I’ve heard of it! I will definitely check it out. Thank you. 🙂



    You may have seen this already…but I thought of you and your posts about testing when I read it this morning. 🙂


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