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Posted at 06:00 AM ET, 05/10/2011

What a D.C. teacher told the chancellor about testing

This was written by a teacher in a Title 1 school in D.C. public schools and sent to Acting Chancellor Kaya Henderson’s Teachers Cabinet and to key members of the D.C. Public Schools administrative office. The teacher asked that I not use her name to protect her from any possible repercussions at her school. She wrote the following in response to a request made by Henderson to members of the Teachers Cabinet to offer suggestions about how the city’s schools could be improved.

The teacher’s email to Henderson:

I have been sitting on this email for a long time due to my worry that sharing my attitude towards standardized testing will jeopardize my standing in DCPS. But I feel like this is almost my last opportunity to share my thoughts on how we can really improve our schools with this excellent group, so I can’t let this opportunity go.

As I sit in my classroom past 6 p.m. on a Thursday and see my students participating in extra-curricular activities that truly inspire them, I realize that I have to send this email on their behalf because we can’t keep avoiding the issue of standardized testing and its negative impact on our schools. I think the DCPS community needs to critically evaluate the value of the DC-BAS [D.C.-Benchmark Assessment System, which is administered four times a year to students district-wide in grades 3-10] and if it is found wanting, consider ending its usage and using the money for more productive instructional improvements.

We have to first start by seeing if the DC-BAS aligns with our goals for our students. One of the primary goals I have heard repeated in our meetings is to prepare our students for their futures (college, high-paying jobs, life long learning, etc.). Where is the data for how well our students have improved in college matriculation and completion rates since we began using the DC-BAS and collecting this data to drive our instruction?

We have to take the DC-CAS [D.C. Comprehensive Assessment System, which is given to students near the end of each school year in a variety of grades and subects] to receive our federal funding, but we do not have to take the DC-BAS to do so.

We do not need to spend all of our planning and ‘extra’ instructional time obsessing over the data from the DC-BAS with the explicit goal of improving our test scores if we make the tests less high stakes for students and teachers.

Most schools in DCPS have failed to make AYP [annual yearly progress under No Child Left Behind] for many years in a row even with the data from the DC-BAS, and that is not from lack of effort. Our school has spent a high percentage of our morning meetings going over the data and analyzing it and then using it to develop school-wide initiatives, and yet we fail to meet AYP every year in a row by very large margins.

It is time to admit that the DC-BAS system is not working to help improve our students’ education even by its own limited metric (performance on the DC-CAS) and move to something that does.

The idea that a private company (whose only real interest is in making a profit) gets to write and score the test, write our textbooks and workbooks to align to the test, and virtually dictate our curriculum so that we can fail to jump through the AYP hoop for the 7th+ year in a row outrages me.

I get more outraged when the District’s administrative answer is to spend more time and money obsessing over this ‘data’ and holding teachers even more accountable for it. Not only that, we hire great Instructional Coaches who then get sandbagged with narrowing our curriculum and professional developments to drill our ever-larger cohort of tested students instead of actually getting to help us improve how well our students will do in college and the competitive job market. It is time to stop blaming the schools for the lack of achievement on these tests and seriously question the tests themselves.

We tell our kids that we expect the best from them, that we want to prepare them for college and then spend elementary, middle and 2 years of high school wasting their time and stressing them out on a lower-level test that most of them do not pass.

The most successful schools in our region do not obsess over DC-BAS style data at the high school level (the top performing private schools don’t even touch these toxic tests). If it works for the most successful schools, why can’t it work for ours as well?

By making these tests a larger and larger part of teachers’ and schools’ ‘accountability’ we are doing serious damage to our students’ chances of success upon leaving these institutions. It is time for our administrators to show some leadership instead of following ‘accountability’ status quo.

There are ways to measure student achievement that go beyond a low-level multiple choice test. We need to question the validity of the tests that are being given to our students. We need to think critically about what the test is asking and whether it aligns with our true goals for our students educations. If it doesn’t line up, then it is time to make a real change.

If we want to seriously talk curriculum and saving money, and if we truly want to light ‘fires in the mind’ of our students, then we have to truly challenge the idea that these tests have any bearing on what is actually being accomplished in the classroom.

We need to emphasize authentic assignments and project based learning and remove the pressure that comes with these exams so we can actually do it. We need to take a stand against this ever-enlarging system of accountability which has not improved our success in what truly matters - our students futures. The tests are taking precious time, money and creativity away from our students because the consequences of ignoring the tests become greater every year.

This is our chance to take some real leadership and make some real changes to what is going on. I know it isn’t going to happen anytime soon, those in power want to keep their money and the system that serves them well, but it would be hypocritical of me to sit back and talk ‘innovation’ and student improvement while really we are letting the status quo continue on and on and get worse and worse for the people that really matter: our students.

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