It’s Time to Tell the Truth About Standardized Tests

Many of you know that we are a homeschooling family.  Others of you know that we are also advocates for public education.  I don’t often use this platform to talk about education issues, but today, I have a few things to say. 

I want to be up front about my credentials.  I’ve never been a full-time classroom teacher.  I do not have a degree in education.  I’ve worked in four different school districts in three different states in a variety of capacities, but none that has given me the unique and valuable perspective our classroom teachers can bring to the table.  The largest credential I bring to the table is that of parent. 

And I have to tell you, when it comes to the future of education and our children, I think that more than qualifies me (and all of you other parents) for a seat at the table in this discussion.  In fact, I think part of the reason we are where we stand today is that at some point, we allowed ourselves to believe the opposite. 

Yesterday, the news broke that eleven teachers in Atlanta were convicted of racketeering in a cheating scandal. The teachers and administrators had changed test answers on state standardized testing to improve the outcomes of district test results in order to boost the district’s overall rating, to keep their jobs and also for personal gain (as some performance based bonuses were tied to test results). 

I’m not going to condone the actions of these teachers and administrators. I don’t think there is any doubt that their actions were unethical. It’s disheartening that this scandal (which apparently was larger than the eleven people convicted) was able to take hold in such a wide-spread manner before coming to light or someone stopping it. So please hear me when I say that I don’t believe this should happen without consequence. 

But I think we need to drop the bullshit and be honest about the toxic environment that is leading to this kind of poor decision making. This is NOT an isolated incident. This is happening in other places around the country and has been for a very long time. When I was just 21 years old and fresh out of college, I got a full-time substitute job at a middle school in Austin, Texas. The year was 2000, and the formula for tying public school funding to standardized test results in Texas was being touted as a national model by then presidential candidate George W. Bush.  The Texas model was the front-runner of what would become the federal No Child Left Behind policy.   Behind the scenes in my Texas school, many teachers already loathed the policy, and there was ample gossip about the ways schools all over the state “cheated” to increase the scores on the tests. While these teachers were not erasing answers like the teachers in Georgia (at least not that I know of, everything I heard was rumor), they were doing things like throwing out test sheets of students who didn’t “look like they were trying” because you only had to have a certain percentage of the student body participate in the test. These teachers were not doing this for personal gain, no bonuses were tied to test results.  They acted out of desperation to maintain funding and resources for their already depleted schools.  They acted out of loyalty to their students.

The news stories about Georgia are often led with the headline “Cheating Our Students” and the convicted educators await sentencing that could result in up to twenty years of imprisonment.  Let that sink in for a moment.  Twenty years.  In prison. 

This is cowardice.  We don’t have the courage to address the elephant in the room, so we will imprison teachers instead.  Strip them of their teaching license, require them to pay back the funding they received, give them community service hours.  But do not imprison them for a poor response to a broken system.  Do you know what is REALLY cheating our students?  Policies that tie school funding to test performance. Policies that remove funding from the schools that need it most. Policies that create such anxiety around these tests that people are willing to risk their careers and personal freedom to alter the outcome. 

This has to stop. Teachers, parents and administrators have to create a united front around this issue. There are examples of this happening around the country, where administrators are supporting their teachers and students in opting out of testing, but there are still so many schools afraid to push back. And I get it. They need their funding. 

But not only does it make no sense to tie funding to test outcomes (taking funding from an already failing school is not going to help it improve) but these tests also don’t address the reasons some schools are failing in the first place. You know who can tell you those reasons? The teachers who work there. I’m not opposed to all forms of assessment. I realize schools need to evaluate their students, but I believe assessments can and should be locally developed to address the unique needs of each school.  They should go beyond the test answers to include the assessments of the actual human teachers working with the actual human students, because only they can tell the whole story. And the whole story includes the student’s test scores, but also if the student had breakfast, is living in poverty, works two jobs in addition to school, has been in three foster homes that year, the list goes on. 

I don’t have the answers here. If you do, I’d love to hear them. But I do believe we’ve spent the last 15 years continuing to move in the wrong direction. And I think most people know it, and that’s why we keep updating and creating new policies to address it. We change the number of assessments or the type of assessment. We change what we assess and how. We change funding formulas. But really, we’re just running in circles. It’s time to start from scratch, and we need leadership that is brave enough to say, “You know what? We were wrong. This isn’t working. Let’s find a new way.” 

If you are a parent, I’m asking you to add your voice to this conversation.  Find an action piece you can take.  Call your state or federal representatives.  Attend a school board meeting.  Vote in an election.  Share your ideas even if they seem completely outside the current narrative.  Your idea might be the idea we need.  And remember, when it comes to the issue of education, you do not need any additional letters behind your name to be a part of the conversation.  

The letters  P – A – R – E – N – T  are more than enough.  

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