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Dear Senator Alexander:
I am a middle school English teacher for grades 6–8 at a small public school in the Hudson Valley. We’re a good school, no doubt about it. In 2010 my school was awarded Blue Ribbon status for the strength or our program and test scores. You would think that we would be in a great place in terms of the yearly testing that the NCLB and RTTP programs have required, but let me assure you that the truth is very different.
As I mentioned before, my school is quite small, and I am the only English teacher in the middle school. The students’ English education is my responsibility, and mine alone, something I take very seriously. Yet this mission is constantly being thwarted by federal testing mandates. A true English education would mean that kids get a great exposure to complicated, challenging, and interesting texts, yet the need to do test prep pushes me in exactly the opposite direction. Instead of classic literature, I am forced to give my students short essays, dozens and dozens of them, and then make them answer questions about them. My students hate this. They’d rather be learning poetry, or sailing with pirates, or crafting short stories, or strutting across Shakespeare’s stage. Yet NCLB has created just this, test preparation instead of a rich curriculum.
The critics may counter with, “No! That’s not how it’s supposed to be! You’re supposed to integrate the test prep within the curriculum!” True, there’s only a certain amount I can organically integrate test prep. After a point, I need to Xerox those hated essays and drop them on my kids’ desks. I estimate something like 10–20% of my year is engaged in test prep skills. This is the reality that NCLB has created. It’s made these tests so important that they dominate my curriculum like nothing else. Truly, was that the goal of NCLB?
Let us not forget that every student’s test score is also a measure of me. I am now evaluated by this one test, as if this is the very best way to know what I do in my classroom. How about that Shakespeare play I do every year? Sorry, that’s not on the test. What about the colonial era party, where every student makes a dish from the Revolutionary War period? Nope, not tested either. What about my journey through Ancient Greece through myths or leaping through space in my science fiction unit? Should I stop these? The testing regimen forced upon me seems to say that I should, because all that content doesn’t count anymore. My students and I are only measured by that score.
And what shall we do with the students who don’t do well, the ones who struggle? I can control, mostly, what happens in my classroom, but what about at home? I can’t force a kid who doesn’t study to put his nose to the grindstone. I can’t heal a child whose family life is chaotic, whose emotional turmoil prevents him or her from learning well. I can’t finance a family that’s stressed by poverty, who isn’t eating well and can’t focus. NCLB seems to insist that I employ god-like powers to fix these children so they do well on the yearly tests. It will even punish me with low evaluations if I don’t fix these children. How is this fair to my students or me? How is this even rational?
A testing moment I’ll never forget happened in the spring of 2013. One of my best students, let’s call him “Sam”, was taking the new Common Core tests for the first time. Sam was a student who wanted to do well, who always did well. His average for me was over 95 for three years straight. After the second day of testing, Sam came to me in tears. He pleaded for more time on the test because he hadn’t been able finish. My heart sank, because that was impossible. All I could do was say to this child, one who painstakingly wrote essay after essay for me, was “I’m sorry.”
If you want to use annual testing in a sane and meaningful way, you must take away its stigma. If you must test, give them in the beginning of the year and give teachers results in a timely manner to see what deficits that child has and help him/her. Right now we receive results about five months after they are given. It’s such a long period of time that the kids have already graduated to the next grade. What good is a test where you don’t get timely results? My tests evaluate what my students have learned and what I still need to teach them. The NCLB results come so far after the actual test that they are meaningless in terms of helping that child.
Even more importantly, you must remove the “high-stakes” part of the testing. Punishing kids, teachers, and schools for low test scores is damaging. It doesn’t help kids, or teachers, or schools. We are all trying our best to help children. We want to help kids no matter what his/her ability. Every child deserves our best efforts. Unfortunately teachers are now being punished for not being perfect. Who among us is that? Who among us can heal every wound? Who among us can lift up every single child? We do our best, of course, but that perfection is denied us. We are human. Yet NCLB demands my perfection, and my students and I will be punished because of low test scores. How is this ethical?
It needs to be said too that in my high-end public school I am shielded from many of these problems. Those who work in poverty-stricken or stressed neighborhoods are under much more stress from NCLB. These true heroes of education, those that spend their lives helping disadvantaged kids, are now failures because of low test scores. Their students too are punished. They must attend remedial class after class in this quixotic quest for high numbers, denying these needy kids art, music, and creative expression. How is this improving education? But of course, according to NCLB this enrichment is no longer important. It doesn’t measure a child’s musical ability, or verbal expression. Only test scores matter.
Please consider how damaging NCLB is to public education. It hurts rather than helps. It punishes children in poverty, stress, or those who struggle in a subject as well as their teachers. That said, if you truly want to design an effective education policy, please speak to teachers. We in the trenches of education are the experts in this matter, and we can help you. Too much education policy is designed by those who are not teachers, and this is one reason why it has gone so wrong. Listen to us. We speak the truth because we care very deeply about the children of America. So when we say high-stakes NCLB testing is destroying American education, we say this because that is the truth.