I have just returned from Washington, DC, and the Occupy the DOE rally. Cassie Wallace, our second-year math teacher, was my impetus to go. She posted on our Teaching/Learning email conference back in February:
In case anyone is interested in protesting in DC with me at the end of March… Occupy the DOE in protest of high-stakes testing! Love, Cassie
Tess Mandell (also in her second year of teaching math) joined Cassie for the eight-hour drive from Boston to DC. How could I not join these young teachers, who were taking it upon themselves to make such an extraordinary effort to go? (Particularly given their workload and the stress of the first few years of teaching.) So, I signed up and found myself as part of the teach-in. I was happy to make some remarks (included in this post, below.)
This rally was different than anti-war rallies from the ’60s and ’70s – even though the Socialist Worker’s Party was still in attendance. This Occupy rally was as much for social media as it was for the people who attended. Everyone spoke to the camera! (Click here for live streaming of Occupy!) We were about 50 people strong and from all parts of the country: parents, grandparents, teachers, principals, health professionals, concerned citizens- all protesting the suffocating and all-consuming role that high stakes testing is playing in our culture.
As various participants did “mic check”, which is the Occupy way of allowing anyone to speak, I noticed one woman with very curious hair and clothing. I was impressed with how articulately she spoke about the damaging effects of high-stakes testing in her classroom and I approached her. I asked where she was from and she said she couldn’t tell me for fear of losing her job. “That’s why I’m in a wig and a costume so no one can recognize me.” Have we truly come to this?
Another woman from Miami spoke about the role that parents in that district are taking to opt out of testing that they deem harmful to their children.
Speaker after speaker shared how parents and students were organizing to protest the negative effects of high-stakes testing. While I know the numbers were small in DC this weekend, I do believe these voices will gain power and force throughout the country.
So many of us feel disempowered to change the status quo. We watch numbly as education reform becomes synonymous with huge corporations like Pierson making more and more money from test prep materials and tests. However, I feel more empowered by this weekend of Occupy the DOE, and mostly because of young teachers like Tess and Cassie. They are asking the right questions about how the union can become more involved and active in these discussions, and how we can figure out better ways to work together towards solutions.
Also check out previous for the documentary: “Teach: Teachers Are Talking. Is the Nation Listening?”
MY REMARKS FROM THE TEACH-IN:
My opposition to high stakes testing goes back a long time – to 1998 when MCAS (Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System) was first introduced. Don’t misunderstand me: I am not opposed to tests. And of course, I’m an advocate of high standards. What educator isn’t? We don’t go into teaching to ensure students reach low standards. That’s absurd! So I object to how discussions of high-stakes tests get juxtaposed to opposition of high standards. I am FOR high standards and I’m AGAINST high stakes tests. And that makes good sense to me.
I’m against high stakes testing as a sole determinant for graduation. My solution is quite simple: Have the tests be part of the picture for graduation along with portfolios and exhibitions of mastery, research papers, and other performances. Remember what the “S” in MCAS stands for—we were told by the state that we would get a SYSTEM for assessments, not just tests!
MCAS currently is not the most pernicious test in the country, but what schools have become as a result of MCAS is very troubling. Our engineering curriculum must align completely with the test. There is no longer room for deep exploration of projects or for allowing student interest to help determine the length of time spent on projects. We now teach a semester-long course (we are semesterized) that ONLY includes that which is tested. There isn’t time for more. Too many schools now offer double English/double math and little social studies, art or other subjects NOT tested. Teachers push their students through curriculum that they know will be on the test. All of the research on student motivation and engagement is ignored. If students are not included as co-constructors of knowledge why should they feel as though school has real intrinsic value to them? Curriculum has become synonymous with passing tests. This is a very limited view of what school can and should be. The social costs are high: higher drop-out rates, more violence in our communities, fewer students prepared for life after high school, whether college or career.
But how can I encourage my students to opt out when a high score of 4 (on a 1-4 rubric) is tied to free tuition at our state colleges and university (John and Abigail Adams Scholarship)? In my darkest moments I say, if we just eliminated the arts all of our students could score a 4 on these tests. But then we’d have no students at Julliard or Purchase or CalArts and no students dancing with Alvin Ailey (we have three) or acting in local theatres or playing in ensembles or orchestras or designing shoes or working in galleries. But this has been the solution for many low income schools: Eliminate arts.
Our solution has been to focus less on getting everyone to 4 and to just get our students to pass. With the new methods for calculating school success with student growth percentiles, we will soon be deemed a failing school because our students’ scores don’t increase enough. We have created a system where success is determined by only one score card and by passing through the smallest eye of the needle. Divergent thinking, multiple ways of determining and measuring success are slowly being obliterated. This is a world that scares me.
I don’t want students or teachers or parents to confuse tests with success. And I don’t want us to settle for schools devoid of music, art, dance/movement and theatre. Good schools have well-stocked libraries and trained librarians where regular discussions about books and literature (not excerpts) occur on a regular basis. Good schools are messy places where students are deeply engaged in topics of interest to them and where they demonstrate mastery in different ways. I just watched my students create movies of polynomial functions found in nature.
I understand the need for measurement and comparison, for knowing whether students in Mississippi and Massachusetts are learning as much as students in Montana or Maine. But must the only point of comparison be a test score?
We have now built up a multi-billion-dollar testing industry complete with its own set of police. When stakes are so high, cheating becomes rampant and thus the security forces are discharged to be sure that no teacher (now renamed “proctors”) read the test directions with inflections different from one another. The testing police now enter the school (renamed the testing site) to check that backpacks are correctly placed on the floor in front of the room. Any deviance could be a sign of testing mismanagement or cheating. In addition, the testing police check to see that no non-certified personnel walk into testing rooms, and that no teacher looks at the exams before the appointed time (or looks at the exams after the test). This of course means that the teacher is never able to work with the student she taught who took the test and may have misunderstood a problem. There is no value added from this type of testing situation to improve teaching or learning.
My MCAS police this year was an attractive woman from my district office, but I had misunderstood the directive. I had thought she was there to help me calm down my jittery students, to escort students to the bathroom, or even to distribute pencils. But, no, she was there for none of these helpful purposes. She had been given a long checklist for which she had to ensure compliance. The checklist items ranged from reviewing the proctor schedule (something I could have emailed the district office ahead of time) to ensuring that there were appropriate signs saying “Do not disturb: testing area” in the appropriate locations. Her mandate was a “gotcha” directive, not one to be helpful. When I protested to my district officials, I was sent a long directive from the state about the need for ensuring testing compliance and quality. Evidently too many tests were invalidated the year before because of lack of compliance. How could I possibly want to endanger my students’ results? So, you see how it all gets turned around? You are bad or anti-student if you protest. High stakes tests become the norm and we all will rally around this way of educating our students.
I, for one, protest and I am grateful for all of you at Occupy the DOE who do the same.