I work as a paraprofessional in an elementary school in Fort Worth, Texas. I have first-hand experience of the stressful day-to-day activities that are involved in preparing students for standardized tests. I believe these tests undermine the creativity, free-spirit and true education that students could be experiencing if they weren’t required to learn test strategies and state mandated educational goals.
Standardized Testing: Creativity Lost
It’s the day we have all worked hard for and anticipated since the beginning of the school year. We had the pep rally yesterday. A fun, uplifting event complete with cheerleaders from the High School, a catchy rap song performed by the principal, vice principal and counselor, an inspiring clip from the movie “Facing the Giants” and finally, a heartfelt speech by the principal assuring everyone that if they believe in themselves and do their best, they will succeed. What she doesn’t mention is, that if you don’t succeed, you will have two more opportunities to succeed once you have completed after school tutoring and summer school.
My job this morning is to distribute juice and granola bars to each classroom. In addition to these healthy snacks, the third grade teachers are preparing breakfast burritos for their students to ensure that they have had their daily dose of protein. The fifth grade teachers have concocted a “magic” cereal mix for the students to munch on all day. During the day, I sit at a desk in a darkened hallway and remind students to be quiet and monitor the bathrooms so that no more that one person is in them at a time. At lunchtime, I sit with the students and monitor the conversations. By the end of the day all but 30 of the students are ready to go home. The lucky students that get to leave walk in a zombie-like state out the doors to the freedom and fresh air that they have been deprived of all day.
By now you have probably guessed that this is not a typical school day. It’s the day the third grade and the fifth grade take the Reading Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills (TAKS)—the dreaded standardized test that Texas uses to measure the performance of students, teachers and administrators. A total of seven days are mandated by the state to administer reading, writing, math, science and social studies tests to the various grade levels and each of these days will be just like the one I have just described.
In defense of my school’s the administrators, I commend them for using their creative energy to put forth a positive effort. After all, they really don’t have a choice. This is a state-mandated process that must be taken seriously by everyone whether they like it or not. Arguments in favor of standardized testing include practicality, objectivity and an unbiased measure of performance, however; these are greatly out-weighed by all of the negative aspects involved. Sitting in the quiet, darkened hallway, I think back to the beginning of the year and the laminated cards we made for each of the students outlining the different strategies used for math and reading. The pink reading cards give students directions on how to find the gist, important words, context clues and other tricks for dissecting and interpreting short stories. The green math cards show the student how to decipher word problems by getting rid of unnecessary information, circling all of the numbers and underlining important information. What both of these cards fail to do is to teach the child how to truly enjoy the short story or to actually gain an understanding of mathematical concepts. They are teaching the child how to take a test.
Of course, the teachers must be held accountable and the performance of the students is a direct reflection on their performance as a teacher. Unfortunately, the state also mandates what they will teach through TEKS (Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills). As a result, the tests and the TEKS become the curriculum. Teachers can no longer teach thematic units or give extended projects that utilize students’ creativity and problem-solving skills because they have to make sure they are staying within the guidelines that state has put forth. This causes a lot of negativity among the teachers and it makes it hard for them to keep their enthusiasm and energy level strong throughout the school year. Students also feel the stress and understand that if they do not perform well, they will be retained. This causes a diminished moral among both students and teachers.
What is the Answer?
No one will argue that students, teachers and administrators must be held accountable. But the process by which this is measured must be changed in order to offer our students a better, more meaningful education. Cookie-cutter methods of teaching will produce students with basic knowledge, but not the skills they will need to compete in an ever-changing, technologically advanced society.