Our panel has unanimously selected the first winner, out of dozens of entries being read, for inclusion in the 2nd edition of Lifting the Curtain: The disgrace we call urban high school education. It’s a heartbreaking look, to all teachers, at how children pay the price for a focus on standardized testing at the expense of teaching. Monica S is a high school SPED teacher in New York. Her passage reflects a view I saw in almost all of the urban high schools I researched, interviewed and surveyed.
Monica S’s excellent submission follows this introduction.
The tragedy with standardized testing is the vicious self-fulfilling prophecy of failure when teaching to the test: the more you focus on the expected questions on the standardized test, the less you have time to teach the full curricula, and the less the children learn and understand the material they need – resulting in more failed tests and even more pressure on teachers to “…teach to the test.” The medicine makes the situation worse. You end up with an “education” based upon remembering facts and test-taking strategies, and not on ever understanding the material.
Our children’s education is only effective when good teachers help them understand the material, and is useless if we just drill them to remember steps and facts.
Most outside the classroom do see that a school “failure” means they did not show gains on all 36 factors required by the well-meaning legislation of No Child Left Behind. Miss just one of the 36, even if by just a few tenths of a percent, and the school can be relegated, or in extreme cases taken over. The penalties to the school are so great that the entire curricula gets pushed aside in a school-wide focus on test preparation. I sat in one assembly of teachers where the principal made the stakes very clear – “If we do not pull up results in all categories this year, half of you will not be returning next year.” Failing the state test creates a destructive cycle of dumbed-down courses that mean our children never receive the education teachers dearly want to give them, but are prevented from giving by the unintended consequences of the well-meaning NCLB mandates.
And please remember – the cause of the initial failure cannot be laid at the feet of any one thing. In “Lifting the Curtain,” eleven systematic failures (listing them is well beyond the scope of this brief introduction) combine to undermine today’s urban high school education. Teachers are the only visible target as a cause for that failure, but they don’t even make the top five in terms of major problems in education.
For non-teachers reading this, the key is AYP – annual yearly progress. Nine groups of students across four categories are evaluated. Here is the actual description (the reference to MCAS is the Massachusetts state test):
AYP is important because it measures progress of all groups of students. In the past, schools could appear to be providing a good education if the average scores were high. In reality, these averages often hid the fact that specific groups of students were not making academic progress. Today, if just one student group at a school does not meet an AYP goal, then the school does not make AYP for that year.In this way, schools are held accountable for making sure all groups of student make progress, even those who have been left behind in the past. Student groups include:
- All students in the school
- African American
- Native American
- Economically disadvantaged
- English language learners
- Students with disabilities
AYP determinations are based on four factors:
- Participation – At least 95% of students must participate in MCAS tests
- Performance or Improvement – Based on students’ scores on MCAS tests
- Attendance (for elementary & middle schools) – at least 92% annual attendance rates or 1% improvement in attendance
- Graduation rate for high schools – A graduation rate of at least 65% or show improvement
What sets Monica S’s submission apart was how well it shows how teaching-to-the-test dominates the entire school – it disrupts teaching, takes teachers out of the classroom, creates endless meetings, ties up and wastes budgets and resources, and ends up making the situation far worse for our children. She even mentions one of my favorite examples of inept mandates by career bureaucrats at DoE – the useless “Core Standard Whiteboard Posting” that sucks yet another 2-3 minutes away from teaching, in every class.
Monica S has been teaching for 25 years. The majority of her experience is in middle school resource room/remedial reading and writing. She also taught at the high school level for three years. Monica is National Board Certified in Exceptionality.
Failing State Tests, Failing Our Students
Our school did not make the mandated annual yearly progress. Of the 36 different categories of mandated “improvement” required, a school can “fail” if it misses any by as little as tenths of a percent. The result for us is that everything we do in our school this year is now focused upon getting children to pass this year’s test.
Our community is struggling economically. Drugs and dysfunction, even homelessness, are commonplace. We have high teacher turnover and low school funding. State testing doesn’t address any of these issues that also directly impact school performance.
So our school has come up with the finances for professional development from “experts” on the common core standards. We are paying for coaches for our principals, and mentors for newly hired teachers. We pay for substitute teachers (taking us out of the classroom) so we can be trained on how to implement the new teacher evaluation system. Yet our students are using twenty year old text books and outdated technology.
We have added grade level meetings, subject area meetings, CARE team meetings, leadership team meetings, and more parent meetings to our weekly staff and IEP meetings.
I arrive at work at 6:30 a.m. to enter grades from papers I corrected the night before. I am praying the one copier in the building will work this morning. I am writing down the common core standards for today’s lesson on the old shower wall “white board” when Joey stops by. He asks if he can come in after school for extra help on a reading assignment. It was the third time in two weeks I had to say, “I’m sorry, but not today. I have a meeting.”
A few tenths we missed by in our scores mean we cannot teach this year, we just do test preparation. Failing the state test forces us to fail our students.