When I first began teaching English in 1980, my department chair would begin every meeting with, “OK, what can we do to get our students excited about reading and writing?”
That’s what education was like for the majority of the years I’ve been a middle school and high school teacher. But in the last few years, the tone has changed to, “OK, what can we do to get our students a good score on the state tests?”
There is nothing creative about the state tests that our students are taking now in math and English. I see a need for them, but we have gone too far. We are over-testing our students in grades three through eight. They are being subjected to six days of testing.
Many of the questions during the six days are similar. Wouldn’t it be better to test our students only one day each for English and math?
My seventh- and eighth-grade students work hard on these tests. It completely wipes them out for the rest of the day. It’s impossible to have a normal teaching day on those six days of testing. And after the testing, I am out of the classroom for three days to grade the English tests.
Educator speaks out
Recently, I had the opportunity to travel down to Columbia University to hear education professor Dr. Diane Ravitch speak about this topic.
“The testing companies are taking over American public education,” she said. “They are being funded by the government, the business and the technology sectors, and it’s an attempt to privatize our public school system.”
Ravitch, who was the U.S. assistant secretary of education under President George H.W. Bush, was at one time a proponent of national testing. But today, she sees how that idea has become corrupted.
On the last day of testing, my students cheer and clap their hands. “Can we do something fun now?” they often chant.
They’re not talking about playing a game. They’re talking about doing something in class that’s creative, like writing a screenplay or creating a picture book with illustrations or reading an exciting story and discussing it.
Young people are bursting with ideas and creativity, and as educators we need to encourage that. As Dr. Ravitch said, “Kids in grades three and four want to play pretend. They want to climb a tree and draw pictures. But the testing companies are trying to get them college- and career-ready. It’s too early. We need to let them play and have fun."
Many of the questions on the recent English Language Arts test only looked at how well students were able to read a short passage and then pull facts from that passage. Many of the writing samples I graded were written in a lifeless style. But because the responses fit the scoring rubric, the student got a high score.
“The test makers want teachers to focus on close-reading strategies because that’s what is going to be on the test,” said Ravitch, “and in a few years, the tests will all be online, which is why the technology sector loves the Common Core, because they will be able to sell their new software and computer hardware.”
Students are losers
But the students are the ones losing out. Before all this testing, I had time to bring in guest speakers, writers, journalists and editors. My students spent days writing plays and performing them. We had poetry readings at local coffee shops, but it’s hard to fit any of that in today.
“The tests are getting harder,” said Ravitch. “Seventy percent of the children who took last year’s Common Core tests failed. We should have the legislators take the tests they’re mandating that our young people take. Let’s see how well they do. Let’s publish their scores.”
How many state legislators even have children who are currently attending our public schools? The governor and John King, the state education commissioner, have children who are not attending our state schools. What message does that send?
One of my favorite novels by Charles Dickens is “Hard Times.” I often think of the opening lines of that classic satirical book, spoken by the crotchety old schoolmaster, Mr. Gradgrind.
“Now, what I want is facts. Teach these boys and girls nothing but facts. Facts alone are wanted in life. Plant nothing else, and root out everything else."
Mr. Gradgrind would probably love teaching in 2014.
Jack Rightmyer teaches at Bethlehem Middle School and livesin Burnt Hills. The Gazette encourages readers to submit material on local issues for the Sunday Opinion section.