Some Thoughts on Testing, Disobedience, and Perspective

Carrie Gaffney is the managing editor of The Educational Forum. She spent 12 years as a secondary English teacher and is still active in The National Writing Project and Second Story, an Indianapolis-based nonprofit devoted to bringing creativity to underserved schools. 

There’s a calendar somewhere that denotes July 3 of each year as Disobedience Day. Kind of a cool idea, right? So I thought I’d take the opportunity to write about a specific type of disobedience that’s been of great interest to me lately, and it’s disobedience that’s related to high stakes testing.

It was several years ago when I first heard about the “opt out” movement. All across the country, there are networks of parents joining together to tell schools and districts that too much instructional time is spent on high stakes testing instead of learning. When testing time comes around, they send letters like this one to their school leadership to opt their children out of the test, demanding that their children are instead provided appropriate and relevant instruction on those days.

That level of disobedience might seem pretty radical to some, and in a way it is. But then when you realize that Google can intuit the search term “standardized testing horror stories,” you begin to understand that test prep has been twisted to the point where many parents may feel like there are no other options than to opt out of the test as a way to advocate for the intellectual and mental well-being of their children.

Fortunately for me, where my children attend school (and where I taught as well), the state standardized test is treated as nothing more than what it is: one of many tools to gauge student growth. For my children, the test is a few mildly annoying days where they have to demonstrate learning on a bigger scale. But then everything goes back to normal, and they are once again engaged as inquirers and communicators. That’s the difference, I think, between why I’m still okay with the test versus what parents at other schools feel forced to do when opting out

What makes the test a “horror story” is not the test itself. It’s how much time and attention we give to it leading up to the actual event. It’s how scores from it are used to punish or reward a teacher’s lesson planning, professionalism, and even her teacher preparation program. It’s how districts use it to single out “good” and “bad” teachers, or worse, “good” and “bad” students. Kids have bad days. Sometimes they don’t want to write about a particular topic, or they might not know a word in the title of the story, which could lead to confusion about the story’s theme. These two factors don’t make the child; but they might make or break a child’s test scores.

Which brings me to a different kind of disobedience that’s getting some attention.

In recent months, teachers, principals, and superintendents across the country have begun engaging in disobedience that has people seriously freaked out.

They are publically naming the test for what it is: a test.

Check out this recent article from The Washington Post about a Texas superintendent who wrote a letter to parents telling them that their test results, “should be considered as one of many instruments used to measure your child’s growth, not the end-all of your child’s learning for the year.”

Why, you might wonder, is that so controversial?

Or, on an even deeper level of disturbance to me, why is naming a test for what it is an act that is to be lauded?

How did we get here?

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