The Goal: Measure Student Success
NCLB Mandates: Create standardized exams to assess students' math and reading skills, and test every student annually from grades three through eight, and once in high school.
What's Not Working: When NCLB came down, states had to whip up some standardized tests in a hurry, and most went for the fastest, most affordable thing. (Just as the proficiency standards vary across the country, so do these.) The cheaper (and most popular) tests are one-time, hit-and-run events that cover huge swaths of subject matter with mainly multiple-choice questions. That kind of test doesn't encourage educators to teach deep skills like critical thinking -- just the opposite -- nor does it tell us much about the quality of teaching and learning going on in the classroom. "I had a student who didn't speak English score higher than half the class because he filled out a nice little pattern on the bubble sheet," says Sokolsky. Not that the other kids didn't know anything. "Our students are very verbal, and you'd be amazed at what they can articulate and the connections they'll make," she says. "But there's no test that will allow those strengths and skills to shine through."
Even test makers aren't surprised to hear such stories. "We end up with a lot of small items that each test relatively discrete skills, and we never ask students to put them together," explains Randy Bennett, distinguished scientist at the Educational Testing Service, maker of the SAT and other exams. "The problem is that when we assess in that way exclusively, people teach in that way. You can't blame them."
As in San Lorenzo, school districts across the country have sacrificed the arts, PE, social studies, and science to the cause of drilling more reading and math. A 2007 study by the Center on Education Policy found that 44 percent of districts reported cutting time from untested subjects in elementary school, with average cuts totaling 30 minutes a day. In the worst cases, school administrators have foisted scripted lesson plans on teachers (yes, scripts, just like for a play) and ordered recess time cut back until scores improve. The edicts apply even to kindergartners, for whom it seems never too early to start preparing. Still, not everyone agrees that teaching to the test is terrible. "There are a lot of complaints about this, but I don't buy it," says Republican California Congressman Buck McKeon. "You can't teach geography if the kids can't read."
Yet, in Gina Spiers's English and social studies classes at Washington Manor Middle School in San Lorenzo, the kids spend 22 days a year -- about a month of school -- on district tests for state-test preparation. "My kids are wearied by it," says Spiers. And that's not counting the very real anxiety that the exams stir up in kids, teachers, and the entire school staff. "I've had a kid almost hyperventilate because we were about to start testing," says Sokolsky. "These kids feel really pressured, even in second grade before they even have to take the test. That's a lot of pressure."
The NEA's Eskelsen vividly recalls a meeting she had with a team of school support staff in Florida. She expected them to raise concerns about pay and benefits, but instead even they spent the hour decrying the stress that state testing causes kids. Specifically? All the vomiting that occurs come exam day. "One school secretary said that because the state requires every test to be submitted, she had taken to giving the elementary school teachers Ziploc bags and rubber gloves so they could wipe the vomit from the sheets and send them off in plastic," says Eskelsen.