I spoke at a conference this weekend, as an education activist, because of ethical issues I faced in my public school classroom in the years following New York State’s inception of intermediate assessment. Here is part of what I told those who attended.
From 1998 to 2008, I saw my eighth grade students subjected to more and more testing.
An intermediate ELA assessment given to eighth graders in 1998 soon expanded to include ELA and math tests given to sixth and eighth graders, then tests given to seventh graders, and additional tests in social studies for eighth graders.
The cumulative science test of eighth graders was expanded to two different sessions where it had been only one before.
Our entire middle school faculty and support staff was enlisted to engage students in practice tests for each of these exams. Tremendous time and effort was spent to pin down the logistics of each practice test and then each official state assessment, as we provided testing modifications to suit all students’ needs.
Administrators insisted on seeing some form of test preparation, which they defined as practice tests and parallel tasks, in our classrooms. Then other teachers, of special subjects like technology, art, home and careers, other languages, and even gym class, were asked to contribute to that test preparation.
Time spent on test preparation and practice took away from time we could spend on activities that would increase my students’ skills as readers and writers. What we did in class each day no longer supported the curriculum and standards that had been in place for New York State already. Those standards had been developed by my professional organization, the National Council of Teachers of English, and adopted by the state education department, and rightly so. They were based on the very best research and scholarship into literacy development, but they went by the wayside.
Data-driven instruction took over our building and then our district. Administrators, trying to keep up with what they saw coming from Albany and from Washington, D.C., began to emphasize quantitative tracking of students’ achievements. Student writing achievement does not lend itself to quantitative measures, and I made my case to my principal, but my professional judgment was ignore in the face of tremendous pressure to attain higher scores on state assessments in any way that we could. Spreadsheets of vaguely-related information replaced attention to the details of each individual student’s strengths and weaknesses. Michael Apple has used the term “de-skilled” to talk about what has happened to teachers’ professional status. I definitely felt de-skilled, though I had not read Apple’s work yet.
By 2009, I could no longer be in my classroom doing what I knew was not the best practice in my field of teaching. I left to study for my doctorate so that I could perhaps effect some changes in the policies that I saw a wrong. This was a moral decision. I was ethically opposed to what was happening. I chose a path I felt I could follow. Many teachers stay on because they can see no other path, but many still have doubts about what they are being asked to do.
After I left public schools, the emphasis on data increased. Our state’s involvement in Race to the Top meant our school districts had to enter into a new approach to data.
I am a teacher, one who acts as an interface between new technologies and students. I provide a classroom teacher’s professional perspective on this slide away from caring about students into caring about data points. My career spans decades, and while I would not advocate a return to any sort of “good old days,” I would urge our state and its citizens to rely on educators’ professional judgment rather than the urging of corporations with data management products to sell.