Saturday, January 6, 2018

Conversations in Education: Testing and Burnout

Christmas break is coming to an end and the new school semester begins Monday.  It has been absolute bliss to have this time to rest, recharge, and regroup.  I feel like I've accomplished quite a lot over my break: I've worked through the queries from my copy editor on the book, cleaned house, organized my planner for 2018, unsubscribed to a large number of email clutter, done some writing, some cooking, and some reading.  It's been busy, but productive.

Much of my reading has been work related. During the school semester there is little time for that sort of thing and over break I've read several different pieces that, taken together, seem to indicate some troubling trends.

The article that most resonated with me was this one by Bruce Dixon about standardized testing, a practice he equates to "tyranny" and "an insidious virus."

Dixon writes:
We are way overdue for the debate around standardized tests to become prominent in the mainstream media led by educational leaders, instead of politicians, journalists or in particular those who benefit most, the testing, tutoring and textbook industry.
There is little doubt that the testing industry is huge business; testing and textbook giant Pearson is at the top of that list earning billions of dollars from testing alone.  Their profit statement for 2016 is here Note their goals for 2017:  "Our priorities for 2017 are clear. We will continue to accelerate our digital transformation, simplify our portfolio, control our costs, and focus our investment on the biggest growth opportunities in education."  What are those biggest growth opportunities in education, exactly?

Back to Dixon's piece.  He quoted this 2014 article in The Washington Post by Valerie Strauss which quotes extensively from her own 2013 piece about the resignation of a very talented and creative teacher, Ron Maggiano.

As for standardized testing, Maggiano says:
The overemphasis on testing has led many teachers to eliminate projects and activities that provide students with an opportunity to be creative and imaginative, and scripted curriculum has become the norm in many classrooms. There is nothing creative or imaginative about filling in a bubble sheet for a multiple choice test. Students are so tired of prepping for and taking standardized test that some have protested by dressing up like zombies to protest — and thousands of families are opting their children out of taking high-stakes exams.
How true this is.  Excessive standardized testing crushes kids.  The ones who are very concerned about their GPA feel one type of pressure and the apathetic ones, the ones we have to work harder to reach, are reinforced in their ideas of failure and inadequacy.

Magianno also notes the "scripted curriculum."  Think about that for a moment and think about your own education.  The scripted curriculum is literally that: teachers read from a script and teach the same content in the same way on the same day in every classroom across the district.  Depending on the district there may or may not be room for creative leeway, but more often than not, teachers are required to stick to the script, thus confirming Maggiano's statement that teacher's no longer have an "opportunity to be creative or imaginative."

Standardized tests do not require creativity or imagination.

This quote by Maggiano resonated with me:
Every student is a unique individual with their own talents and abilities. The standardized testing regime fails to recognize the importance of individual achievement in education and instead uses a “cookie cutter” approach to learning that ignores students’ individual interests and abilities.
Amen to that.  The reason I love teaching is because my students are all unique individuals.  Every single one of them.  Helping them find their own talents and abilities is the primary goal and perhaps the most rewarding part of my job.  Standardized testing quashes that.  Standardized testing assumes they are all the same individual who must score above a certain level on a test to assess mastery of material learned that was taught from a script.

Back to Blake's piece.  Aside from killing creativity and innovation in the classroom, and assuming that all students learn the same material in the same way at the same pace, Blake points out yet another flaw in standardized testing:
And if all of that isn’t enough, don’t forget that one of the hidden curses of standardized testing is the insidious manner in which it penalizes diversity. By statistical definition, it ignores the “edges” which include all of those students who have cultural, geographic physical or intellectual disadvantage. Far from helping to “close the gap,” the use of standardized testing has in fact found to be most damaging for low-income and minority students.
This is a fact proven to be true.  Consider this quote from Noliwe Rooks's article in TIME (2012):
And if the standardized testing gap between racial minorities is bad, it’s nothing compared to the gap between the poor and the wealthy. For example, one recent study by the Annie E. Casey Foundation found that the gap for achievement test scores between rich and poor have grown by almost 60% since the 1960s and are now almost twice as large as the gap between white students and children of other races. The playing field is far from level when we continue to use tests where we know at the outset that wealthy students will do better than less wealthy students and white and Asian students will outperform blacks and Latinos.
There is a great deal of research out there to support this theory.

Another trend that is disturbing is that of teacher burnout and not surprisingly some of this comes from the testing atmosphere.  We have long been aware of the challenges that new teachers face; often once they get into the classroom they realize this is not what they anticipated and so the dropout rate for new teachers is relatively high.  In this 2015 Washington Post article, one can see the climbing rate of new-teacher-dropout.  In 2011-2012, seventeen percent of new teachers left the profession within five years.

On January 4, 2018, Elizabeth Mulvahill posted this list of why teachers at all levels are leaving the profession and one of those reasons was standardized testing:
The demands teachers are feeling as a result of high-stakes standardized testing and the emphasis on data collection is definitely a hot button issue among teachers who are leaving. According to an NEA survey of classroom teachers, 72 percent replied that they felt “moderate” or “extreme” pressure to increase test scores from both school and district administrators.
The NEA survey cited in Mulvahill's article is dated 2014 and sounds remarkably similar to Bruce Dixon's article discussed above:
The sheer volume of tests that teachers are tasked with administering and preparing students for is enormously time-consuming. Fifty-two percent of teachers surveyed said they spend too much time on testing and test prep. The average teacher now reports spending about 30 percent of their work time on testing-related tasks, including preparing students, proctoring, and reviewing results of standardized tests. Teresa Smith Johnson, a 5th grade teacher in Georgia, says her school spends a minimum of 8 weeks testing during the school year. “That doesn’t include preparing for testing, talking about testing, and examining data from testing,” she adds. “Imagine what we could do with that time. There must be a better plan.”
The time cited here, about 30 percent of time on test prep and testing is spot on and I would suggest a little higher now, three years after the date of this survey.

In August 2014, this NEA article by Richard Naithram contends that parents are tired of the testing obsession and says that 68% of the parents surveyed have no faith in the tests.

Finally, moving away from standardized testing, another source of stress for teachers is lack of time to adequately plan and the incessant demands on their planning time, including but not limited to the growing stress on professional development and the professional learning community model.  This post, dated January 5, 2018, at The Great Handshake blog describes the busy day of any teacher, the long hours, the plethora of necessary duties on any given day:
Good teachers are artists, yet we are not allowing them studio time. Art can’t be manufactured on an assembly line, but that is the position we put teachers in. They have one spare hour a day in which to plan, collaborate with colleagues, meet with students, grade tests, provide feedback, make copies, eat, and pee. It shouldn’t shock us that the rigor of their schedule can cause good people and thoughtful educators to leave student-centered education fall by the wayside.
Why would a teacher need time to plan if you have scripted lessons, one might ask.  Because even scripted lessons need planning, perhaps even more so because they are not your lessons and not designed for your kids.  You have to find some way within the script to make them relevant.  The planning period is filled with many more tasks than just writing a lesson plan.

Yet too often that planning time is scheduled for PLC meetings, test administration, covering classes, faculty meetings, and other tasks that must be met.  There simply is not enough time.

This paragraph from The Great Handshake post resonates:
Conversations about increasing teacher planning time are essential to any conversation on how we can make education better for our young people. And, when we make choices under the pressure of a system set up for teachers to burn out and eventually fail, they are often counterproductive. We throw things on our walls without thought, yell at kids instead of working with them, are short with parents, whine about our administrators, brag about things that don’t matter, overlook things that do, hand out worksheets, and see lonely kids as bad.
And also this:
Not having enough prep time can turn a great teacher good, a good teacher average, an average teacher bad, and a bad teacher abusive.
This all sounds very negative about the state of education today and it is not meant to, but I do believe it's time to have these conversations.  Are parents content with the constant testing and teaching to the test or do they want a more creative, innovative classroom?  Do parents want their children taught from a script or do they want a curriculum modeled to their child's needs as assessed by the professional in the classroom with him?  Do teachers have adequate time to prepare, assess, communicate with both students and parents, and teach?  Are we teaching our kids to take tests or be critical thinkers and good, well-rounded citizens?  Are we preparing our kids for the future adequately if what they primarily know when they leave high-school is how to take a test?

There are many conversations that need to happen in the field of education today.  The changes are happening very quickly and perhaps not enough parents are paying attention to them.

At the end of the day it should all come down to what is best for the students and it may be that that is not what is happening any longer.  At the very least, it's time we started talking about it.

For further reading:

The Testing Emperor Finally Has No Clothes
Why Good Teachers Quit Teaching
Don't Eat Supermarket Cupcakes
11 Problems Created by the Standardized Testing Obsession
Award-winning Virginia Teacher: "I can no longer cooperate with testing regime"

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