A Teacher Speaks Out

Dear Friends and other readers,

How do classroom teachers feel about standardized, machine-scored testing?   Below is a letter from a young classroom teacher whose identity I am not revealing.  This teacher, who has been teaching more than 6 years, fears retribution, apparently with good reason. The letter arrived last week.

Hi Mr. Merrow,

We’ve corresponded before.  I’ve been teaching in (WITHHELD) public schools for the past (WITHHELD) years.  I’m an ESL teacher but am also certified in Remedial Reading.  I want to tell you about administering of the (STATE NAME WITHHELD) test to 3-5 grade ESL students last April.  This event was the thing that broke the camel’s back for me when it came to deciding whether or not I could continue with a career in public school education.

As I’m still teaching in (WITHHELD), I chose to email you rather than respond on your blog. They told us they can monitor our social media use and ‘discipline’ us based on that, so…

For three solid weeks I had to administer a computer-based test that was not only too difficult for my students to navigate (computer issues, not having adequate keyboarding skills, English language deficits, etc.) but had specific lessons to be taught prior to the exam, lessons that were bizarre at best.  As any good teacher would tell you, you don’t teach a lesson and test on it immediately, yet the (WITHHELD) exam seems to think it’s perfectly fine.  Hmmm.  My third grade students were instructed to cite three sources in their answers, yet this is not a skill that they are taught in the third grade.  The layout/format of the test was such that most students simply answered the questions, and didn’t read the passages.

As teachers, we were instructed to give no help other than say, “Do your best.  I can’t help you in any way.  Do your best.”  We could touch the computer only to log on a student.  Some computers crashed up to 11 times each test session.

The most heartbreaking part, the one that tipped me over, was having to test a third grade student who had only been in the country a few weeks and was suffering trauma due to family issues. She had to be tested on the math part.  She spoke no English.  She was faced with a math test of mostly word problems. She looked at us pleading for help, but all we could say was, “Do your best…”

We used Google Translation to try to tell her that it was OK, she could just guess, just finish the job, etc. but she really didn’t understand.  This child had to take THREE Math sections.  She understood nothing.  When she finished each day (it sometimes took hours), I had to return her to her regular classroom with both of us in  tears. After I told her classroom teacher what had happened, the teacher would be in tears, too!

What did this measure?  What did this tell us about our teaching?  What did this do to help the student?  NOTHING. If she was reluctant to come to school before the test, now she was MORE reluctant.

All states give a ‘pass’ to ESL students who have been in the country less than a year, but ONLY on the English Language Arts part.  You could literally arrive in the country on Monday, and if the Math test is administered on Tuesday, you must take it.  But today’s math tests include “explain your answer.” Or they are word problems.  Or they test on math aspects that the student may not have been taught yet in his or her country.

The party line we get is “Math is universal…”  Rote calculations, yes, but word problems, and introduction of geometry and algebra concepts in third grade are not universal.

I love teaching my students, but I feel, as do many of my ESL colleagues, that our voices are irrelevant.  And when we complain that the tests are not measuring anything or that they test skills that have not been taught, we are told (or at least the message is implied) that we are ‘negative,’ ‘lazy,’ ‘old-school,’ et cetera.

Thanks for letting me vent.  I know that there are MANY ESL teachers who are feeling the same way.

Do you have any advice for this young professional?  Stick it out, or find a new line of work?

How many other teachers feel as this one does?  Can our system afford to drive away teachers like this (GENDER WITHHELD)?

Three weeks of testing, sometimes for three or more hours a day?  Have we lost our minds?

The current ‘moratorium’ is the ideal time for state-wide conversations about testing and assessment.  I hope many of you are asking your school boards and superintendents to fill out that form I provided last week.

For your convenience, here it is again:

Students in our district will take _____ standardized, machine-scored tests during the course of the year.  Is this an appropriate number?

Of these tests,  _____ were selected by the district, and  _____ are required by the state.

A student who attends our district from Kindergarten through graduation will take  _____ standardized tests during his or her time in school. Is this number too high, too low or about right?

There are only  _____ days on our 180-day calendar when a standardized test is NOT being administered. {{1}}

Some test results determine a child’s promotion, while others are used to evaluate schools and teachers. Is this the right approach?  How useful is this information?  Should we test only a carefully drawn sample {{2}} of students when we want to evaluate schools, instead of testing every student?

Right now we test all students in only  _____ subjects.  However, if we are going to evaluate all teachers according to their students’ scores, we will need to test in more subjects, including art, science, social studies and music.  Is this advisable?

There is a ____ month lag time between the administration of a test and the delivery of the results.  Is this acceptable?

Our school district spends $_____ per year to buy and score standardized tests. (These out-of-pocket costs do not include the labor costs.)  This amounts to less than _____ % of our annual school budget. {{3}}  Is this amount low, high or about right?

We devote  _____ hours per year to testing, out of approximately 900 hours of actual class time during the 180-day school year.  Is this amount excessive, too little, or about right?

In addition, many teachers devote another  ____ hours to what is known as ‘test prep.’ The numbers vary from teacher to teacher and school to school and are difficult to pinpoint, but nevertheless the issue merits public discussion.

Last year we fired  _____ teachers because their students’ scores did not go up sufficiently.

Last year we distributed $$ _____ in cash awards to teachers whose students’ scores went up well beyond the expected level.

Last year we investigated  _____ incidents of alleged cheating on standardized tests,  _____ by students and  _____ by teachers and other administrators.


[[1]]1. Be prepared to be surprised by the answer here because Lee County is not alone. Christina Veiga of The Miami Herald reported a story headlined ‘In Miami-Dade the Testing Never Stops.”  She wrote, “Out of the 180-day academic year, Miami-Dade County schools will administer standardized tests on every day but eight.” http://www.miamiherald.com/2014/09/01/4322452/in-miami-dade-schools-testing.html#storylink=cpy[[1]]

[[2]]2. This is a perfectly plausible approach, as we reported on the PBS NewsHour recently, http://learningmatters.tv/blog/on-pbs-newshour/watch-testing-schools-instead-of-students/12470/[[2]]

[[3]]3. This number will probably NOT be high because most schools buy cheap tests. In Lee County, Florida, for example, the $5,258,493 it spends on testing is not even one-half of one percent of the district’s budget.[[3]]

19 thoughts on “A Teacher Speaks Out

  1. It strikes me that the problem with this story is the teacher’s inherent appreciation of the power of the test. That teacher legitimized the test and was partly responsible for the stressful outcome. All he or she had to do was tell the student in advance to answer “a” for every answer and not be concerned except to acknowledge that the student should rightly wonder why she was asked to participate in this strange ritual. The process could have taken 5 or 10 minutes of the student’s time and the test would have been completed.

    This whole situation highlights the import placed on every irrational and stress-inducing ritual that comprises public education.

    The real fear – that no one want to acknowledge – is that if the standardized test is treated as if it has no relevance while it exists in schools (which is why many people want to mostly get rid of them), then it allows rational people to appreciate that everything else that takes place in school is arbitrary and destructive and can be routinely dismissed as well.


    • Did you miss this part: “As teachers, we were instructed to give no help other than say, “Do your best. I can’t help you in any way. Do your best.” ”

      I’ve proctored tests like these before. Had I offered ANY help other than the prescribed phrases, had the other teacher in the room or any other adult checking the room witnessed it, I could have lost my job by the end of that working day, and may have eventually resulted in loss of my teaching certification. Believe me, ANY teacher who’s had to administer or proctor these tests will back me up on this. Violations are taken VERY VERY seriously.


      • I most certainly did not miss that part. What you fail to appreciate is that a teacher does not have to wait until the student is in the testing room to tell them not to take the test seriously and that they should simply provide random answers(!)

        That teacher knew the student was going to be tested and that it would be a stressful experience. Sadly, it is apparently too hard for many teachers and proctors to think even the slightest bit outside of the box that they allow for students, like the one in John’s story, to suffer needlessly.

        The tests and the rules are clearly inappropriate, but the teacher was the enforcer and the teacher was responsible for allowing the test to ruin the student’s self-esteem.


      • What *you* fail to appreciate is that there *are* administrators who would even take that as cause to take action against a teacher. I wish I were making that up, but sadly, I am not. The teacher *might* win an argument on appeal, but not necessarily. It really is THAT BAD on the ground. Have you been in a testing situation as a teacher or proctor? Even as a substitute teacher in the most recent instance of my proctoring, I had to sit through training where it was spelled out quite clearly what would happen if *any* rule were violated and I was caught, and I had to sign documentation as well, acknowledging that I knew the penalties, along with nondisclosure agreements.

        At least in this instance, the teacher is able to leave voluntarily instead of because action was taken against her, which might result in loss of her certification should she wish to teach elsewhere, where enforcement is not so stringent; some private schools ask for teachers to be certified, even though they aren’t required to follow the same testing mandates.


      • It is not necessarily the teacher who legitimized the test. In Michigan, it is the state legislature. Recent laws have eliminated seniority, and made student test results the most significant part of teacher evaluations. Teachers are being fired for low test scores, and schools are being taken over by the state for the same reason. Let’s stop blaming the teacher.


      • Mark,

        The legislature enacted the law – they did not legitimize them. Legitimization involves respect through a process that adheres to the spirit of the law. A person of character would act to delegitimize the law by only adhering to the letter of the law. The teacher has the capacity to tell students to not spend any time thinking about the test answers and simply answer randomly. Why is this so hard for people to understand?

        Your “stop blaming teachers” argument does not apply here. I am not attacking teachers for the quality of their teaching – I attack them because the voluntarily waste their talents by participating in a corrupt system that harms kids just as John’s examples show. That kind of suffering is the norm. Teachers agree to work in a system that promotes suffering – of course they should be blamed!


      • Leaving the system is precisely the appropriate response. No one is holding a gun to the head of teachers. If they choose to be a part of this system – and yes, it is a choice – then they are complicit.

        Your response asserts that if someone in power asks you to do something immoral under threat of losing your job that you are not responsible for your actions when you impose abuse on others. This is the point we disagree on. Teachers have the capacity to refuse and if they are fired as a result that consequence is more tolerable than crushing the soul of child.


    • HI!! I was trying to leave you a comnmet on your About page then went to About me..and wanted to leave you more comnmets or just hug you and tell you thank you for saying what you say out loud!!So I just came to this post to say it because after reading your moving moving poem..then reading Nadia’s comnmet that she offered (thank you Nadia!)..my eyes are welled up with tears and I feel very very connected all of a sudden So thank you for doing what you do for sharing and Im going to ad you to my blog roll so I can come back often as I read your words I felt I could relate on so many levels so feel free to check out my blog if you like I am not half as articulate as you and usually over analyzing much of what i live and experience but deep down I know the beauty and power we hold within ourselves..and am trying to nurture and grow in that area day by day So thank you a big hug from Canada for being so courageous and beautiful


  2. I thought you might be interested in the changes happening at Harvard! We are seeing an amazing uptick in interest in education by Harvard College undergraduates. Here is a recent article about the class I teach called the Dilemmas of Excellence and Equity.

    Here is the link: http://www.gse.harvard.edu/news/ed/14/09/welcome-undergrads

    Also we are working hard to get a minor at Harvard College on Education Studies and I expect another surge in interest in this.

    It is just so positive I thought you might like a little more optimistic news.


    • The graduate school at Harvard (HGSE) is in many ways responsible for the continual denigration of teachers, teaching and the public schools. That maybe where the interest comes from.


  3. Why don’t they teach English as a first language, like they do Hebrew in Isreal. Calling it a second language makes it sound less important than the language your grandmother speaks at home. I’m old but when my grandparents came here their children learning English was a prime requirement. Why isn’t it any more?

    I’m not surprised that more students are interested in education. There aren’t many jobs for non-technical people.


    • Did you get the idea from this piece that learning English isn’t a prime requirement? The anonymous teacher is discussing students who haven’t been in an English-speaking country long enough to have mastered enough of it to take tests like these and have the results be meaningful. If someone dropped you in, say, Japan tomorrow and had you take a battery of tests requiring skills and language use you hadn’t acquired, that wouldn’t mean that learning the language wasn’t a priority; it would simply mean you hadn’t been there long enough to learn the language. The kids not being taught the tested skills in the particular grade – the tests weren’t aligned to the curriculum, in other words – is just icing on the cake.


  4. This letter is a heart break as there are many non english speaking immigrant and refugee children in this country! I always thought schools should be in the business of making children more confident rather than less confident. But then the bubble testing debacle is not new. It is only worse than ever.
    Years ago I taught in the Albuquerque Public Schools. We had many children of migrant farm workers from Mexico. Irma was a funny, engaging child. She spoke not a word of English. Her family came for the apple harvest. Then they left but returned again in spring to pick lettuce.
    It came testing time. All was quiet in my kindergarten classroom. I passed out test booklets and read the instructions. Irma stood up and announced to me: “No voy a hacer esa basura.” (“I’m not going to do this junk.”) She walked over to the listening center, put on earphones, and listened to music for the duration of the test.
    Irma was resilient.


    • Of course, the “bubble test” is becoming obsolete. It is being replaced by something worse computer assisted testing. Every thing is on a screen. You can’t double check your work. You can’t skip a page. You can’t underline or do a calculation on the page. You have no scratch paper. You have to have head phones and listen to readings in English. Any language teacher knows how hard it is to listen to tapes or talk on the phone. It is far easier to read slowly and to respond slowly (in writing).


  5. I have been an ELD/ELL teacher for over 25 years. My specialty is ELD Social Studies; I also teach CAHSEE (exit exam English). I feel for this young teacher very much. Such a testing regime is a huge waste of time and educational resources. But she is quite right that when giving a CAHSEE test (administered under the supervision of ETS) or an AP test one cannot comment or coach students in anyway. I use zero computers for my bridge literacy class for 8th graders. I teach them phonics, how to read English,how to speak English, how to develop vocabulary, parts of speech, idioms, irregular verbs. Those students are required to do testing too. We are practicing to do “Common Core” tests on the computer. The Common Core tests are much harder than the CAHSEE and require listening and essay answers. Students who cannot type or understand spoken English well are at a severe disadvantage. Since I am ordered to do it , I do it. We were put in a language lab with no air conditioning (it was about 103 degrees in there by 7th period). For the last session I took attendance and unplugged the computers. I took them back to their normal classroom which was air conditioned. I gave general advice to the students to try their best on exams like that but not to be too concerned. Belief that testing like this will raise standards is specious scientism. But I do hope that I can retire before everything is electronic. That is what they are talking about. No books, no papers, no confidentiality, Even as it is for the first time all my grades are completely open for anyone to see (or tamper with). Counselors can erase all my grades and have done so (inadvertently) when they transfer students or change grade level. Fortunately, I am from the old school. I print out a seating chart with student numbers and write down the total percentage of each student weekly as a back up. If necessary I can “reconstruct the grade” As I grade all my student’s paper’s myself and never use multiple choice tests I can do this with confidence. But I never tell the students this.We are so dependent on computers now that I could only teach for a day or so without my smartboard. I no longer have maps. All my lesson plans, maps, videos etc are in the computer. I have no overhead, no TV, no VCR, no CD player etc. Everything is via the computer or via the internet. The new rules allow the students to have phones and ear phones and students constantly used them and constantly listen to music during lectures. We are not allowed to take their phones nor is security. We can just tell them to turn them off or put them away Fahrenheit 451 is closer day by day. I will hang on as long as I can by obeying but not complying as long as possible. But all I need is one new “smart” administrator and I am out of business. Hell would be proctoring computer tests like these 365 days a year. Of course in that educational inferno there is no need for teachers. Certainly not humane teachers. Gauliters will do. Achtung! Ve vill now vork on our ESLR’s (expected student learning results). Students will salute and say, JA, HERR ESSLER! And then I suppose they will do SSR (Sustained Silent Reading). I will graduate to SSD (sustained silent drinking…).


  6. Sadly, if not irrevocably, the bargain the AFT and NEA made as unions representing professional teachers was to take no professional position on practice and thefore on employer-mandated child abuse of this kind.
    Think about it; professionals with as much certification elsewhere follow, with State recognition of their authority, practice standards of their societies. These have legally recognized ethical priority over the dictates of their employer.
    Ask an MD. Ask a P.E.


  7. I left the profession in 2005, after 18 years in the classroom, mostly as a bilingual teacher, and 7 years as a Bilingual Resource and Literacy Specialist in low income urban schools in Northern California. Why did I leave, and go into university teaching at a 40% pay cut? The testing regime, and its complementary, mandated kill and drill instruction had just begun to heat up when I opted out. More than the time encroachment imposed by the tests, it was the dictatorial policing of teachers by administrators, coaches, and consultants that pushed me out.
    My strongest memory of my last few years in schools was of the horrible totalitarian control of elementary classrooms and teachers by Reading First. I was a licensed Reading Specialist with a Masters in Reading from UC Berkeley, and it pained me physically to see the philistine Reading First coaches and administrators, backed up by know-nothing principals and district administrators, intimidating good knowledgeable teachers into abandoning effective holistic reading pedagogy and implementing the scripted, behavioristic RF methods. All in the service of getting kids to “sound out” nonsense words on the standardized tests, which had nothing to do with reading for comprehension.
    And when I was reassigned to a new school in 2004-5, as a Teacher on Special Assignment, I was expected to join in on the nazi-like intimidation of teachers (yes, many teachers, and even some principals, began to call the “literacy coaches” by the name of reading nazies)

    That’s when I decided to take an early retirement with a skimpy pension and accept a so-so university position. At least I would be respected for my expertise and I’d have some genuine academic freedom, albeit at a big pay cut. At least a dozen of my close friends in K-12 education have similar reasons for leaving the profession, and we could afford to do it, since we had enough years of service to receive a pension.
    Many of my younger colleagues and scores of my former trainees are still teaching, or trying to teach in spite of “teach to the test” mandates (by the way, a form of legalized cheating, no?), and slowly going crazy and getting stressed out because they care about their children and their profession.

    The policing of classrooms and the deprofessionalization of teachers has gotten worse since 2005, and here in Texas, where it all began in the mid-90s, it just keeps going. Sad thing is that so few of the newer generation of teachers (except for my former students!) even know what good teaching can look like. All they know is worksheets, phonics, and scripted, test-prep curricula. Even when the schools provide the kids with i-pads, the focus is on multiple choice testing apps.

    Pete Farruggio, PhD
    Associate Professor, Bilingual Education
    University of Texas Pan American


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