Letter: Do we really need good test-takers?

Graphic by Lori Deaton

I appreciated the article in Mountain Xpress about our schools [“Unequal Opportunity: Goals, Timeline Lacking in Program Aimed at Racial Achievement Gap in City Schools,” May 22]. However, it reminded me of the saying that describes insanity as doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results. Please consider the following.

Our children are failing because they are living in poverty, not because of their race. The color of a good teacher makes no difference in the learning of a child. When schools were segregated, there were black teachers teaching black children. While racist attitudes remain a huge problem, the problem then and now is poverty and opportunity, not the color of the teacher.

The teachers cannot solve the issue of children “failing” because teachers are not the cause of the problem, only the scapegoats. All of our children can learn if they have teachers who believe in them and have the time to show that they care. Instead, teachers are threatened and blamed and spend valuable time training children to be good test-takers. How many job applications ask about a person’s test scores, the measure that is being used for a child’s success in school?

I used to think the focus on end-of-grade standardized testing was a waste of time and money. I still do. But after reading The Deepest Well: Healing the Long-Term Effects of Childhood Adversity by Nadine Burke Harris, a practicing pediatrician in San Francisco, I realize standardized testing is also very abusive. Sleepless nights, throwing up in the bathroom, tears and fears of failure, all for the sake of teacher accountability?

We are allowing our children and their teachers to suffer toxic stress under a false presumption. Learning is a process, not a moment in time. I am not opposed to assessing student progress, but most teachers are fully aware of the progress and needs of their students through assessments conducted throughout the year. End-of-grade testing does nothing useful to enhance a teacher’s knowledge of her/his students.

Where is the evidence that this wholesale testing of children once a year enhances a child’s educational progress or improves our schooling system? I challenge you to find an elementary or middle school teacher who has sound reasons to continue with the expensive and unhealthy practice of standardized testing other than “I am doing what I am told to do.”

Would you want a surgeon who is told how to operate by the legislature to perform an operation on you? Probably not. The assessment of children’s learning is not within the expertise of legislators any more than surgical procedures would be. So why do parents and teachers put up with this practice?

Politicians will make many promises as the bid for the presidential race heats up, but they will not be held accountable for those promises. Why is it that the president of the United States and Congress are not held accountable while well-trained teachers are? I suggest we end this testing practice, let teachers teach children and hold the politicians accountable for their promises instead.

End-of-year, standardized testing is an abusive waste of money that does little to benefit the future of our children. The cost of this practice is great. Not just in dollars but also in the toll on the well-being of both teachers and children.

— Dr. E.L. Halsey
Retired educator,
Member of Veterans for Peace Chapter 99
Asheville

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8 thoughts on “Letter: Do we really need good test-takers?

  1. Enlightened Enigma

    Get your children OUT of government screwls as FAST as you CAN! They will thank you forever!

    • Bright

      Homeschooled ours…he got his Batchelor’s and is one of the top 5 bass players in the world! He always says how great it was to not contend with stupidity. We’ve paid school taxes in spite of our kid never attending. Bought our books and supplies also. The joke is…why are the screwels so d#@m pitiful? Unlearned officials who, themselves, yield to peer pressure and who work to justify their existence. Hey…you don’t have to throw your kids under the bus just because you overspend, or don’t think you are smart enough. You’re smarter than trons the at scrwels…most parents are! No…we did it even though we were food-stamp eligible! Ooooo…

      • ashevillain7

        How is it determined who the top 5 bass players in the world are?

        Is everyone who plays bass considered, or did he have to enter a contest?

        Who are the other 4?

  2. A concerned (white) parent

    I do wish I agreed with you on the color of a teacher not making a difference! Unfortunately, I’ve witnessed multiple times white ACS teachers making racist comments (not the outright “I don’t like black people.” racism of the 1960’s and before, but the more subtle “They aren’t like US.” comments of today’s racism.) When the standards and expectations for white students are higher than the standards and expectations for our students of color we will continue to have a gap in learning between the races. Until ACS stops blaming the problem on the community (who should bear some responsibility, though not all) and starts actually addressing the ways in which the teachers see each student, the gap will continue. There are a lot of poor white students who are outperforming our poor black students. Clearly racism is at play. There’s been talk of getting the teachers who are better at educating black students to be mentors. But we are two years into a three year program and that’s still just talk and no action per the most recent report to the school board. It’s shameful.

  3. Mark W

    I don’t know that it’s the standardized part of the testing that is the problem so much as the way in which the testing is handled. Nationwide (or statewide, even) portfolio standards that require students to demonstrate competence or mastery of a set of skills with artifacts they produce throughout the year would be standardized, provide a measure of external accountability for the classroom teacher, and, probably most importantly, allow students to choose how they wish to demonstrate their skills.

    I find myself otherwise in agreement with this excellent response, save for a tangential point about race. Research on stereotype threat and representations do show a need for diversity (racial and otherwise) in the classroom, both from the students and the teachers. Regardless of socioeconomic status, children of color do worse across measures of achievement when they are a very small minority in the classroom (think one or two), and when few or none of their teachers are people in whom they can see themselves. (Yes, adults with strong, positive socialization can learn to see ourselves as members of other races, genders, or other identity markers, in limited ways, but it’s a complex task that children struggle with, and it’s not really fair to ask them to do so).

    As a teasing provocation, I might suggest that I would prefer a surgeon who has been instructed by the legislature to one who claims to be ordained by God or who admits they have no idea what they are doing. However, the author’s point stands even more strongly when we consider that, while the goals of a surgeon are very carefully defined and measured (patients who continue to live after surgery), the goals of a student are far less straightforward. I hesitate to call someone who practices unorthodox surgical procedures a standout surgeon, but would readily call a student who uses novel, untested means to solve a problem a creative, talented thinker.

    While our medical schools may need that kind of high-stakes, comprehensive testing, our middle schools do not. We should be concerned that our students are cultivating a love of learning and the skills to pursue independent investigation. We can measure that outcome in a number of ways, and most of them result in less suffering than the current model.

  4. Phillip C Williams

    I agree – not all students “test well” – regardless of how much preparation they have. There is too much emphasis on testing, too much time and energy devoted to it, and too much depends on it that affects students, schools and teachers.

    I also do not understand the fixation that Raleigh or the Federal gov’t has on the “minimum attendance days” being 180-odd….when my daughter was in middle school, she missed a few days over the allowable maximum absences, and had to get an excuse from the Superintendent’s office – this was, thankfully, given in the form of a memo. She was a straight-A student and had maintained her class work, and the reason for absence was her own severe illness and the death of her grandfather.

    When school let out, we didn’t get her report card – the office refused to release it until she made up the 2 or 3 days that were in question. My wife and I had to take the superintendent’s memo by. When we got there, the receptionist said that we needed something signed by the teacher in charge of Summer School. I was directed to the school cafeteria, where I found around 100 students sweltering in the semi-darkness, presided over by a miserable-looking coach in gym shorts.

    I asked him what they were doing. He replied “making up attendance”. I said “What? No work, no assignments, no tests?” He said “Nope. Just making up missed days. They are not gainfully employed at any school work”. I could tell that any complaint I made would be “preaching to the choir” because he was obviously as disgusted as I was.

    I took the form back to the office and was issued the wrong student’s report card, and had to go back and wait while they found our daughter’s.

    This attendance fetish is, as best as I can tell, the reason Buncombe County makes such foolish decisions about snow days – they either call off school at the last minute or they go ahead and call it on despite the obvious impending weather, and call it off at 9 or 10 am, clogging the roads with buses, parents or student drivers – and the DMV and Highway Patrol urging people to stay off the roads! They also can’t run buses on certain roads and those buses have to drop kids sometimes a mile or more from their homes, which they have to walk to in wind, precipitation, and freezing temperatures.

    It all seem s to be driven by the frantic desire to not call a snow day and endanger that all-important 180-odd day threshold. I can’t figure it out, but I thank God on my knees that I no longer have a kid in the Buncombe County School system!

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