Testing Testimony

The U.S. Senate’s H.E.L.P. committee (Health, Education, Labor and Pensions) has been accepting testimony from around the country about No Child Left Behind and its focus on standardized testing with an eye to possibly enact some changes in the law.

The Badass Teacher’s Association has collected a good number of testimonials from teachers and has posted them on their blog.

The following is the testimonial sent in by Montclair resident Lynn Fedele:

My name is Lynn Fedele and I have been teaching English in New Jersey for 24 years. I am writing to address the problem of standardized testing and the problems it has created in our schools.

When we look to see how to measure student learning in schools, we are looking for an answer to a complex set of qualitative questions. How do we measure learning? How do we measure a child? How do we measure teachers? How do we measure student-teacher relationships and how these relationships impact learning? What type of learning is most valuable to our society at the present moment? In the future?

I believe these questions are crucially important to the health of our society and democracy, to the growth of our children. In my experience, these questions are not in any way accurately measured by standardized testing.

Standardized tests have become increasingly relied upon in recent years for information they do not measure, especially since the advent of No Child Left Behind. What might have begun as an attempt to discern how public schools perform has come with a host of unintended, negative consequences that have damaged many students’ classroom experiences, damages that are being exacerbated by the implementation of the Common Core State Standards, the impending PARCC assessments and the federal government’s Race to the Top program. Literacy is, of course, of incredibly important, but simply achieving literacy has replaced the broader and better goal of truly understanding literature and language. We have come to accept functionality as being good enough. Stories are now read for a small set of easily measurable skills, not for independent thinking and development, and most certainly not for enjoyment.

Where I teach, for the first many years, test prep was a small part of my teaching duties, and my life as an English teacher was an interesting mix of reading and writing both creatively and academically. There was time and space for students to explore their own ideas, to develop their own relationships to language and to literature. There was time to prepare for college and time for students to explore their creative interests and skills. I loved my classes and their variety; I loved my job.

Enter NCLB. The New Jersey High School Proficiency Assessment (HSPA), which had been an important exit test, suddenly became paramount. To ensure that students passed, my school eliminated electives for juniors and all had to take a full-year test prep class. For ten long, dull years, more than half my day was spent teaching this course. Instead of poetry, we read dull articles about mundane subjects designed not to be in any way controversial, and therefore holding no real interest for the students, much like the HSPA itself. Gone were personal reactions to stories and characters, replaced by formulaic searches for the textbook’s notion of theme and main idea. Instead of writing to explore and develop ideas, to express critical thinking, students wrote strict five paragraph essays summarizing what they had read or expressing their opinions of topics in which they had no real interest. Instead of taking classes in psychology, sociology, nutrition, astronomy, statistics, art, music, or a third year of a foreign language, students practiced bubble tests and wrote perfunctory essays. On the state exams in past years, sixteen-year-olds have been asked to write persuasively about stray cats and about postage stamps. I have never been able to truly understand what the students were meant to learn from these exercises beyond how to sit still and follow directions.

As the years progressed and NCLB engendered testing in more and more grades, I began to see a change in my high school students, and not for the better. My students who have grown up facing year after year of standardized tests are now afraid to think for themselves, are widely panicked about finding the “right” answer. They also now largely think in threes, as they have been drilled into finding three reasons to support their opinions in their five paragraph essays, and into writing a minimum of three examples in each detail paragraph. When I now ask them to describe something, they immediately list three adjectives, frequently synonyms. Additionally, as the state writing rubrics for all levels of the standardized tests put grammar and mechanics at the bottom, making them the least important aspects of writing, my high school students have close to no knowledge of how English functions. It wasn’t on the tests, so far too frequently, it just wasn’t taught. The overwhelming majority of my seniors this year cannot define the terms “subject” and “predicate,” never mind understand how a sentence functions to present meaning. Yet they all passed the HSPA.

Now that we are facing the prospect of the PARCC assessments, we are being told that there will be a vast improvement in the assessments, that the reading will be “relevant” and that these are not “bubble tests.” These claims are misleading and disingenuous. I have taken the sample PARCC assessment in high school Language Arts Literacy that is now available online. While the readings do involve actual literature as opposed to the stale reading selections of past tests, this does not give them relevancy. In the samples, the students are asked to compare two related works of literature from two very different historical eras and cultures. As the students are given absolutely no information regarding the historical context of the tests, the questions that pertain to how they differ—in particular the comparative essay assigned—are too obscure to answer with simple common sense, nor do the questions promote a clear understanding of what is written. If they do not know, for example, that the two texts are separated by close to 2,000 years and were produced in such incredibly different circumstances, understanding the themes of the texts is impossible. The fact that one selection is actually narrative and the other a lyric poem also adds to the difficulty of a simple comparison. Without the appropriate historical context, without properly studying, and without the time it takes to truly reflect upon what they have read, the students’ essays are bound to be filled with broad generalities and false assumptions. Many who advocate the PARCC say that these types of questions show “rigor,” but true rigor, truly asking students to apply themselves to challenges, does not mean they should be asked to do something that is next to impossible to do well, or even to do properly.

The informational texts are no better. Given excerpts of texts that are written beyond their grade level, students not only struggle with basic understanding and vocabulary but the historical context and
relevancy of the texts. These become an exercise in frustration and provide no opportunity for actual learning.

Additionally, while the PARCC assessments are not technically “bubble tests” as they are taken online as opposed to on paper with a Scantron sheet, much of the assessment is still multiple choice, but the questions utilize technological functions with which the students are unfamiliar. This means that opposed to generating their own ideas about the meaning and importance of a text as a whole or of portions of a text, they are still being guided to answer to somebody else’s idea of what is most important and what text means, even though literature is always, always open to interpretation, meaning that there is more than one right way to understand a narrative or poem. The questions that ask students to identify, select, and use the computer mouse to drag supporting information into a text box are also truly multiple choice questions. If they are selecting 2 out of 6 possible choices to find an answer, then that is multiple choice, regardless of whether they are filling in a bubble or clicking with a mouse.

On the whole, the students hate the testing and the preparation it entails, as do I. They are not learning to love reading or writing; on the contrary, for far too many of my students, these things have simply become a chore. They all become functionally literate—my school boasts an excellent passing rate on the HSPA—but only a very few now become true readers, capable of understanding complex texts on their own terms, and precious fewer ever express the desire to become writers.

As an educator with over 20 years’ experience in the New Jersey public schools and as a parent of two school-aged children, I urge you all to stop marching blindly toward increased levels of standardization and testing. Our children depend upon us to provide them with opportunities for learning and growth in a welcoming, nurturing atmosphere, one not weighed down by the stressors of preparing for the next test. Our children need to develop their intelligence, creativity and talents so that they can become life-long learners and people who can fully function in our diverse society, who can participate actively and effectively in our democracy. Our children are far more than numbers, and we owe them far more than high-stakes tests.


One thought on “Testing Testimony

  1. Thank you Lynn! This is really well said. I am also an English teacher in Montclair, at the middle school level, and I agree with everything you have cited here. Well done and thank you! (I’m also a parent of a MHS grad and a current junior. )


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