It is not surprising that New York State is reporting steady improvement of student performance on standardized tests in reading and math. What is stunning to me is how dramatically the landscape of the New York City Public school system has changed since I began teaching in it four years ago. I did not enter my first year of teaching thinking about test scores. I do remember on day one, a colleague helpfully showing me the layout of the eighth grade state ELA exam, so that I would know it was coming. But that was it for a long time. That first year I didn’t give it another thought until the test came. I watched my students take that test and knew they were not going to ace it, but I didn’t care. They had learned a lot from me about language, writing, reading, and thinking critically. They had grown as students and members of a community.
The pained looks on my students’ faces as they took the test, however, drove me to look a little harder each year at the exam itself and think about how to better prepare my students for it. Until recently, though, this goal still took backseat to the exciting academic program I believed my students needed to move forward in the world of school and beyond.
Today, it is painfully clear to anyone in the New York City public schools that students, schools, principals, and increasingly teachers are judged on the basis of test scores. I realize that I’ve adjusted much of my year’s curriculum plan around the standardized ELA exam that occurs in January. I admit it felt good this year watching my students as they took the test. They knew what to expect and maintained an air of confidence throughout the lengthy two-day affair. And yet I felt a little cheapened, because I had given up almost two months of prime teaching time–two months of intellectual oxygen, true literature study, exploration of language and thought–for a superficial exam that forces students to read phony passages and answer multiple choice questions.
Students with skills in argumentation can easily make a case for why more than one multiple-choice answer could be considered correct, but the test does not allow for this kind of thought. To succeed, students must imagine the person who created the test and intuit which answer that individual most likely intended to be correct. I am pretty good at this by now. Why? ONLY because I have become well versed in eighth grade ELA exam question and answer patterns.
The writing required by the test is even worse. Suffice it to say it is the kind of useless formulaic writing that college professors complain they have to “unteach” in college.
If the results presented by the New York Department of Education are accurate, they reflect a student population that has increased experience and therefore understanding of the kind of material, questions and answers that show up on the tests. This may signify that students’ literacy skills have improved, but it may simply mean they are learning how to take the test better. Either way, I fear we are not preparing our students for the fast-changing world they will soon enter as adults, and that in our quest for higher test scores, we are denying our students opportunities to grow in other, much more relevant ways. [The first word of this paragraph is “If” because I and many other teachers have noticed the tests getting slightly easier each year. We also question why we are in the dark about how the tests are scored and scaled and why it takes so many months to get the results “ready.”]