I’ve just finished another school year, and am settling in to the many chores I have for the summer, among the most pressing of which is preparing a new curriculum for next year, for you see, after 14 years of teaching tenth grade English, next year I will be teaching eleventh grade English–American literature. This happy state of affairs is due to the fact that three English teachers retired this year, allowing some shuffling. I’ve never been one of those teachers that must teach Senior English–British Literature–for ego reasons. In fact, I prefer the 10th and 11th grade curriculums, but I am delighted to be taking on an entirely new curriculum because I will no longer have to directly deal with one of the banes of modern education in Texas: the STAAR English test.
No longer will I have to drill my kids, wasting three months–minimum–out of each school year. I can do things with American literature–which I love–that I could not think of doing with the more eclectic tenth grade curriculum. It will be a great deal of extra work, but I accept it gladly.
Unfortunately, the effects of taking months away from kids every year of their schooling merely to pass a single test do not go away, and I’ll be dealing with it in 11th grade. To give you a reminder, a reminder people can’t get often enough, of what I, and the kids, have to face, I thought one more run at an article I wrote last May would be helpful. Keep in mind as you read that the problems about which I wrote last year are worsening each and every year:
Item: Parents of elementary school children–in the earliest grades–are discovering, to their horror, that their children are being ruthlessly drilled in passing mandatory, high stakes tests, to the point that in many places, and for much of the school year, they do little else.
Item: Test-producing companies, including the leading company–Pearson–preside over a multi-billion dollar a year industry, producing not only the tests, but study materials, practice tests, and a variety of other “services” that support the tests. Profit margins are soaring, at least in part because the companies produce different tests for each state, but draw on the same materials, personnel and processes, greatly reducing overall production costs. Standards like “Common Core” are very helpful in this regard.
Item: College professors are loudly complaining about poorly prepared students entering their universities. In response, universities have constructed remedial high school programs–essentially High School 2.0 on campus–that provide instruction college freshmen have somehow managed to miss, despite passing high stakes tests that allowed them to graduate from high school.
Item: What universities are not telling anyone is that unprepared students are a lucrative source of cash. They are forced to take remedial classes that do not count as college credit. Those classes, however, are charged at full tuition, often adding a year or more of classes that do not count toward an eventual degree, to a bachelor’s program. Many of these students will never graduate from college, but will take with them crushing student loan debt they are unprepared, by education or vocational training, to pay off.
Item: What universities are also not telling anyone is that they are admitting people who, in the past, would never have been admitted to college. As long as a prospective student has a pulse and a bank account solvent enough for a tuition check to clear, they’re college material. Disclaimer: obviously, not every college in America is so mercenary, but the trend is wide-spread and well-known.
Item: Many states have instituted what are generally known as “college preparation” mandates. The idea is that virtually everyone should go to college, and it is the job of K-12 education to prepare them all to attend college. Such mandates are usually accompanied by various readiness “standards” which, if taught, purport to prepare even those manifestly unfit for college, owing to a lack of necessary intellect, desire, interest, or motivation, to succeed in college.
Item: The “accountability” movement does not stop with mandatory, high stakes testing and all it entails. It also imposes a variety of other mandates on schools, in effect, grading schools and their non-student inhabitants based primarily on the students. For example, if “X” percentage of students are not in attendance each and every day, schools are in trouble. My school’s attendance target is 97%. Think about that: 97% each and every day. All it takes to fall below that number is a single student skipping school for just long enough.
In other words, if kids who don’t want to be in school are forced to stay there, learning nothing, disrupting classes, making it difficult for others to learn and teachers to teach, the school looks grand in at least some of its accountability ratings. Schools have a very real incentive to keep around kids harmful to their accountability ratings in test scores, and who, in past years, would have chosen to drop out and be forced to make a life for themselves in the real world.
If all of this, gentle readers, is disturbing to you, have a seat. You haven’t heard anything yet.
For the last several years, my colleagues and I, high school English teachers all, have noticed a very distressing trend. It is a trend that has been worsening each year, but seems now to have reached a peak. But before I explain that trend, perhaps I should provide a bit of background.
I have now been teaching high school English in Texas for 15 years. I have seen three separate mandatory, high stakes testing regimes: Texas Assessment of Academic Skills–TAAS, Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills–TAKS and now, State of Texas Assessment of Academic Readiness–STAAR. Each was touted as absolutely state of the art, as perfect as man could possibly make it. Each was supposed to perfectly reveal the fitness of each student to graduate from high school. Strangely, however, it somehow became necessary to replace each regime of testing with another, supposedly more perfect (how can one improve on perfection?), regime, hence TAKS and STAAR.
A few years back, the state legislature and testing industry and advocates went absolutely berserk and imposed the first STAAR regime: fifteen separate tests. When it quickly became obvious that these tests–the culmination of the fondest dreams of testing true believers–would force schools to do virtually nothing but test drill all year, and would take, conservatively, a month to administer, the political climate changed and parents quickly beat some sense into the heads of legislators, who were forced to beat a hasty retreat, leaving STAAR testing at a measly five tests at the high school level: English I (9th grade), English II (10th grade) U.S. history, algebra 1, and biology. These are the “End of Course” (EOC) tests. They aren’t given at the end of the school year, because the state couldn’t get results back in time before the end of the year. This forces schools to spend much of the year preparing for the EOC tests that aren’t EOC tests.
Consider this list of tests inflicted on grade school children in preparation for the high school EOC tests:
Grade 3: reading and math
Grade 4: reading, math and writing
Grade 5: reading, math and science
Grade 6: reading and math
Grade 7: reading, math and writing
Grade 8: reading, math, science and social studies
At least they don’t have to take STAAR tests in kindergarten, first and second grades! Not so fast buckaroo! During those important formative years, children are introduced to the wonders of test preparation and drills and “benchmark” tests, tests designed to give teachers and administrators some idea of how children will do on the actual STAAR tests. And there are benchmark tests for benchmark tests, in essence, tests that purport to show how children will do on tests that show how they’ll do on actual STAAR tests. Some benchmark and pre-benchmark tests are produced by school districts, but of course, testing companies produce a wide range of helpful–and expensive–benchmark tests and related study materials and services.
In Texas, the legislature, in a rare moment of sanity–or perhaps in a cynical act of constructing political cover–passed a law allowing school districts to give only two benchmark tests per year. School districts across the state simply ignored the law and continued giving as many benchmark tests as they pleased, from four to eight a year in many cases. They simply called the tests something else: “term tests,” or “summative instruments,” or “common assessments,” or any number of other deceptive bits of educationese. The Texas Education Agency (TEA–all huge, wasteful bureaucracies just love acronyms), aware of what is happening, ignores it, because it has a financial and political power interest in maintaining a huge testing bureaucracy. There are no criminal penalties for violating the law in any case.
Do you see it coming, gentle readers? Do you see the trend?
For the last several years, students entering the tenth grade have universally demonstrated a reasonably high level of proficiency at taking and passing mandatory, high stakes tests. However, they have huge gaps in their general knowledge, their writing abilities are limited, and their interest in and ability to read and understand even moderately demanding literature is virtually nonexistent. If we assume I am telling the truth, that I am able to recognize and quantify such things, and that I am not exaggerating, what is going on?
Think, gentle readers, about all I’ve told you thus far. For the first time in history, a generation of students is arriving in high school–in my school district that’s 10th through 12th grade–after being mercilessly drilled to pass mandatory, high stakes tests each and every year they’ve been in school. The single-minded focus of administrators, principals and teachers has been teaching enough students to pass the tests to maintain their accountability ratings at sufficiently high levels. This is, in essence, now the primary purpose of education.
I lose very nearly three months–fully one third–of each school year to test preparation. I have no choice. As a sophomore English teacher, I am one of a few primarily responsible for ensuring my students are prepared to score as well as possible on the STAAR English test, which takes place–I very much doubt state educrats get the irony–on April 1. Or perhaps they do get it, and that’s merely their good-natured way of telling teachers (we really do despise and mistrust each other) “up yours.”
What’s that you say? “So what? Tests are great!”
The question is not whether tests are of value. Clearly, they are, in proper circumstances and at proper times. The question is what a K-12 education should accomplish, not only in terms of knowledge gained–human beings are far more than read/write data storage devices–but in terms of inculcating kids with our shared culture and values, such as an appreciation for American democracy (the Constitution), our history and unique place in the world, free markets, individual freedom, patriotism and similar concepts. Important too is the cost. How much money are we willing to spend on a few tests that tell us virtually nothing other than how a student did on that very specific, very narrowly focused test on a single day? The answer, at the moment, is untold billions.
But that’s not the sum of the problem. Good teachers will tell you the most valuable commodity they have is time. There is so much wonderful, absolutely vital and necessary material to teach, and so little time. Particularly when one is teaching a skills class–and that’s what English is–time is immeasurably valuable. Everything kids learn in English, or don’t learn, transfers directly to everything they do in other disciplines, and to everything they will ever do.
Consider writing: there is no way to effectively teach writing that does not involve an enormous amount of correct, guided practice. This includes first drafts, second drafts, revisions and revisions of revisions. Good writers and teachers of writing know it’s impossible to produce a perfect first draft. They also know one never really finishes a piece of writing; they eventually abandon it in despair. At some point, it has to be done and one moves on to the next project. This is how human beings learn, by doing it wrong, and then doing it again and again, and each time, learning how, bit by bit, how to do it better.
Take three months–or more, and in the lower grades, often much more–out of a school year, out of a curriculum, and that is time that can never be recovered. That is time, development, the building of neural connections and abilities that will never occur. That’s skill in writing that will never be developed. Multiply that by kindergarten and nine years, and the current generation is hell on wheels at taking a very specific type of test, but hopelessly deficient in the kinds of abilities and knowledge that were once absolutely expected of every tenth grader.
In reading, the problem is as bad, or worse. Mandatory, high stakes tests require students to read short passages of articles or literature–400 to 500 words–and write little more than a paragraph in response, answering one narrow question and providing “textual evidence” to support their answer. In other words, they have to find a brief quote or two that supports their very brief answer about a very brief passage. The essays they must write are a single page long–three to five paragraphs, handwritten, no more than 300-400 words, if that. What college professor would think that kind of performance sufficient?
By the tenth grade, kids, most of whom aren’t voracious readers in the first place, are thoroughly conditioned to think of reading as 400-500 word excerpts, and have not the motivation, patience or attention span to read an actual book. Because so much of their curricula has been lost, they’ve been exposed to far too few books. They have no common, shared literary culture. The idioms, myths, common frames of reference that make a cohesive society possible are missing. If they or their parents understand that or not, they’re unlikely to understand how the testing craze has deprived them of an actual education. In many cases, they may not care.
My colleagues and I have noticed. We’ve produced a generation of kids primarily capable of taking a few very specific tests of a kind they will never, ever be required to take again. When they arrive at college, we’ve guaranteed that a great many of them will fail because they don’t have the knowledge, the intellectual flexibility, the ability to read and understand and reason and apply that flexibility to unfamiliar disciplines. The narrow skills they learned in producing data for state and federal educrats, in making it possible for them to build power bases and bureaucratic empires, and in producing windfall profits for test makers, are useless in college, and everywhere else.
College professors are right. Kids are unprepared, but it’s not the fault of high school teachers. They do what their employers, through their elected representatives, demand.
Would you like to hear one particularly horrible irony? Some states allow parents to opt their children out of mandatory testing. The horror is those kids still have to sit in the same classes that are being mercilessly drilled; they just don’t have to take the tests. Even though they don’t have to take the tests–and that’s a very good thing–they’re as deprived of a real education as the kids that do.
You can’t take that much time away from what human beings absolutely need to build bigger, better brains–genuine, competent, and time-consuming practice–without severe consequences. Watch closely, gentle readers. We’re going to begin to see those consequences everywhere in society–they’ve already begun–and it’s going to take awhile before people figure out what caused them. We may not survive as a nation.
You heard it here first. God help us.