Mistreating Teachers and Students in the Name of Higher Test Scores

A few days ago I received a letter from an experienced teacher in an eastern state that recalled Yogi Berra’s observation, “Deja vu all over again.” Her story brought to mind the treatment that caused my older daughter, a talented teacher, to leave the profession, and it makes me grieve for students, teachers and the institution of public education.

Below is an excerpt from her letter, followed by my daughter’s story.

Let me tell you what a horrific day I had at work.

OK, so yesterday I had to spend the entire morning proctoring the state science assessment for 5th graders. Today I was called to the office and told I needed to proctor yet another test for the 5th graders, whose results would be used to determine what ‘track’ they will be on in middle school. The test had four sub-tests. I was told that I had to pick up all the fifth grade ESL students and get their tests and subtest answer sheets and bring them into another room. None of the classroom teachers knew anything about this test, either.

So my ESL colleague and I took the kids to a separate room and started the test. ESL kids get ‘extended time’…but while we’re giving the test, the noise level outside the room is unbelievable–the assistant principal is yelling to the secretaries because she won’t get off her butt to ask them a question but would rather yell from her desk. Talk about disrespect for the ESL kids.

We started at 9:30. The first two parts took until 11:30, then we had to dismiss the kids to their art, music, gym, etc, classes. After those classes they had to come back to us to be tested on math. Oh, and by the way, we needed calculators for them, but the administrators ‘forgot’ to tell any of the teachers about this. Then LATER we found out the kids were supposed to get a reference sheet about math terms, but the administrators said “just give them the test anyway…” Then came lunch and recess, and they had to come back again because they STILL weren’t done. When we finally finished, it was 2:30. Remember, we started at 9:30.

TOMORROW, I have to give them ANOTHER test. Friday, I have to give them ANOTHER test, then they spend the rest of their day finishing up the ESL test on the computer…and the computers keep crashing.

I called the ESL person in charge and told them about the proctor who was reading instead of doing his job. She told me that the only reason I was complaining was that I didn’t want the proctors there in the first place.

I’ve called in the union. I don’t think they will actually do anything, but this is child abuse and MY NAME is on these tests. And these scores go on MY evaluation.

Trader Joe’s looks better every day.

Reading this letter, I immediately thought of my older daughter’s experience teaching Italian in a middle school in Spanish Harlem here in New York City about ten years ago. She had been hired because she’s fluent in Italian and the school wanted the kids to learn a second language (most kids spoke limited English and Spanglish, but not Spanish). She had energized her 8th graders by challenging them: If they learned Italian to a certain (high) level, she would treat them to a meal in a real Italian restaurant in midtown Manhattan, an establishment with cloth napkins and real silverware, where they would order their meals in Italian! Most of her kids had never ventured outside of Spanish Harlem or been to a fancy restaurant, but they rose to the challenge. In fact, they were doing so well that she had begun a fundraising campaign to raise the money to pay for the restaurant meals.

At that point—roll of drums—her principal came in and announced in front of the entire class, “OK, Ms. Merrow, that’s enough Italian for the year. The tests are coming in three weeks, and I want you to put Italian aside and spend the time prepping for the math test.”

She protested, but he overrode her, dismissed her concerns and ordered her to get to it.

She did as directed. Of course, it did not work. And while the kids didn’t learn any math (or any more Italian), they learned THREE important–if unintended–lessons: 1) Italian was irrelevant. 2) Their teacher was equally irrelevant. 3) Only the test mattered!

The real world consequence of this idiocy was that, the day after the last test, about 2/3s of her students simply stopped coming to school. It was still May, and the school year did not end in NYC until late June, but the kids had absorbed the essential lessons from that brainless administrator.

I wrote the ESL teacher asking for permission to use parts of her letter. She gave her OK and added, “the testing mania has caused people to lose their minds and their ability to see that having students sit for hours and hours of testing does NOT enhance their abilities, other than their ability to take a test. Last school year I felt like all I did was teach kids how to game the test.

There is nothing intellectual going on in schools, just taking tests to provide quantifiable data that will be used to judge teachers, schools, districts, pigeonhole students into tracks and leave us with a generation of students who no longer find school fun, but find school a boring, frustrating place to be.”

My daughter left teaching, a real loss because she was and is a gifted teacher. I hope the woman whose letter I cite above will persevere. Perhaps her union will get involved, or perhaps she will share her story with other teachers, who will then speak as one voice on behalf of their students. Sadly, it seems more likely that she will choose another profession.

This is insane.

9 thoughts on “Mistreating Teachers and Students in the Name of Higher Test Scores

  1. Pitiful that stories like this extend beyond my district. Sounds all too familiar. As a Teacher Leader of a model New Teacher Induction Program in a very large district, I was volun-told to step away from my work to “assist” in standardized test administration in any one of our 42 elementary schools. Wow, I guess the work I was hired to do is not more important than proctoring for the state-level assessment. The small group of ESL kids who I spent the day with I also felt were devalued. The room was not set up, materials were not prepared and instructions were not given to me in such a way that permitted test integrity. The cluster that was “achievement” testing resulted in test irregularities, disrupted schedule for students for the remainder of the week, and a horrible waste of my valuable time. I do not dismiss the importance of assessment. I do however marvel at the lack of intelligence and integrity used to perpetuate a system of decision-making based on standardized, high-stakes, tests.


  2. John Merrow asks the right question: Have we lost our minds?

    The horrible stories he tells about testing abuse are part of the reason a friend and I launched the White House petition, just hoping to bring the conversation to the attention of President Obama. The current Race to the Top abuse and enforcement of NCLB abuse is, after all, on his watch.

    I just received a call for help from a parent in the Live Free or Die state. She was informed that she may not opt her child out of testing because “As the state of New Hampshire we must adhere to the laws of the federal government….” New Hampshire?!

    Here’s the petition:


    We petition the Obama administration to:

    Direct the Department of Education & Congress to Remove Annual Standardized Testing Mandates of NCLB and RttT

    A President initiated both mandates. Now we call on the President to end the part that harms children.

    Ending the controversial annual standardized testing is the first step toward ending the damage done by No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top.

    No other country puts students through this incessant testing.

    Let the long-established National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) results continue to provide a national picture of student academic progress.

    Each state will determine the proper role of standardized testing to meet their needs.


  3. I’m not saying that I agree with the assessment methods or teacher evaluation methods mentioned in the article or comments above, but stories such as these reflect something much more disturbing to me than the fact that these types of test are still being used. I’ve been an educator in public schools in New Orleans for many years and the biggest problems that I see with the stories above are the teachers and administrators that aren’t preparing the students (including the physical space) for success with these tests. Room set up? Materials? Directions? Daily schedule? Lunch? Other classes? Yelling Principals? NONE of these have anything to do with the test, but are the most prominent parts of this piece! If you really want to provide reasons that the test isn’t valuable, let’s examine the test itself. Let’s examine or research to determine why the question types, length, etc… are ineffective at “track” placement or teacher quality. Clearly the regional/school-specific leaders mentioned here were not actually all that worried about higher test scores, because if they were, this type of teacher and student mistreatment wouldn’t be happening. I’ve seen testing administered in a loving, supportive, positive environment and although it’s still ridiculous that we have to do it, it doesn’t have to be “criminal”, “disrespectful”, or teaching the scholars that foreign language, art, music, etc… aren’t integral and important.


  4. I have a strong memory of E.D. (Don) Hirsch Jr. saying “If you want kids to do well on reading tests, they ought to read, read read.”
    But when the adults are anxious, the kids pick that up and run with it.


    • I taught for twenty years, the last ten of which were 5th grade reading. What did we mostly do in class? We read. The students rarely read on their own at home, and so we did what seemed to be what one should be doing in a reading class. We read, together, individually, and we discussed what we read and did a lot of writing about it. The majority of students did not speak English as their first language, and the intense reading and writing increased their vocabulary. By the end of the year they would have spent the entire two hour block just reading if I would have let them. They loved it, and their test scores were generally good. Sadly, reading became a covert activity with my last principal, who didn’t see enough test prep going on, and didn’t like to see me reading with or to the kids when he came to visit our classroom. I left a few years after that when I felt like what I was being asked to do (test, test, test) was abusive. It wasn’t about learning or the kids, it was about a test score. Testing is not teaching. So very sad for our kids.


  5. One denial of the obvious in evidence from the Merrow anecdote. A longer school year does not matter much for real learning and a respectful relationship between institution and participants.

    If tests must be given, why not all at the beginning of the school year, instead of effectively diminishing motivation and desire with those tests with so much of the school year remaining? (Oh, but how so few educators would accept responsibility for so much less retained beyond short term memory and cramming.)
    No matter, it seems, that to teach students returning to school in the Fall, assessments at that time would be of greater value.


  6. I always love John’s work and forward to as many people as will listen. It is obvious his writing resonates with teachers and other educators. That is why I wish stories like this one also included some information and links to places where the battle against testing is strong and sometimes winning. A few sentences at the end of this blog about the work of teachers in Seattle and other places that have pushed back testing provisions, especially in this year of overlap between old and new systems. This would provide not only inspiration, but also pathways and resources for teachers to persevere and fight back!


  7. Agree – The NAEP is enough. Perhaps at one other grade level such as 4th grade as well, but that’s enough. Hopefully this too shall pass….throughout our history educators have tried many methods and philosophies to make education better, and they come and go, yet we do manage to get educated. Sadly, though, there never has been a time in our history when tests were driving the teaching, educating, and profession. If there is a moderation, and sane approach to assessment left to the EDUCATORS I believe the ship can be righted.


  8. Please help me stop testing that hurts students and punishes good teachers.
    Please sign & share!

    Students and teachers are stressed and overwhelmed by the incredible amount of testing in order to keep up with state and district mandates. The amount of instructional time lost is impacting student learning and making the companies who create the tests huge profits. A few weeks ago I was sent an email with an ACT blueprint of an end of the course exam for US History. I was told that my students had to take it by April 9th even though students just finished taking a week of Ohio Graduation Tests on March 17th, and have to take NWEA tests when we return from spring break the week of 4/21.

    It is absurd that students would take an end of the course exam by April 9th, especially when we have already lost a lot of instructional time for inclement weather days and the end of the course isn’t until May 30th. As I examined the blue print for the test, I discovered that half of the questions the test was going to be asking, the state and district do not tell me to teach, and another 25% of the test asks questions about events that I have not taught yet because we have another seven weeks of school left during which I will be teaching those topics.

    Next, I learned that the results of this test are going to comprise 35% of my composite evaluation for the school year. Although 50% of my evaluation is based on my principal’s observations, the other 15% is based on students’ Ohio Graduation Test scores on the social studies portion. That test is on 9th and 10th grade curriculum and I only teach these students during their tenth grade year. Plus, the test is given in March even though the questions on the test cover topics that aren’t supposed to be taught until April and May according to state and district guidelines. In the end, 42.5% of my evaluation that states whether or not I am a skilled or accomplished teacher is based on data that has absolutely nothing to do with what the district and state tell me to teach to tenth grade American History students. How does this help students or improve teaching?

    I have been teaching 16 years and have earned numerous certifications, awards, and honors. I also mentor new and struggling teachers, and I hold an Ohio Teacher Evaluation System certification, so I am qualified to evaluate other educators. I work long hours at school and home, and have extremely brief breaks because I am usually working even when school is not in session. I don’t have a problem being evaluated on content that I am supposed to teach, but to be categorized as an ineffective or developing teacher because of a flawed system and because tests purchased from a vendor have nothing to do with what I was told to teach is insulting, frustrating, and unjust. It is necessary to take a stand now for the sake of our students and hard working teachers.


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