Brave Teachers Speak Out About Testing

If you’re lucky, you never stop learning from teachers. It was hearing the courageous voices of public school teachers that pushed me to think more closely about high-stakes-testing and its impact on our children. But teachers are between a rock and a hard place. It’s very hard for most to say anything, even if they see great damage being done to their students and their schools, because their jobs are literally on the lines. The very same forces that created this high-stakes system gagged and handcuffed teachers (and now principals), preventing some of the strongest advocates for kids – especially our most vulnerable kids – from speaking up. (And perversely, when they do, they are often accused of trying to protect their jobs, rather than students.)

So I applaud those who take a stand and help the rest of us see what is going on, as two more Pittsburgh teachers did this week. Mary King has a beautiful op-ed in the Post-Gazette today explaining why she is a conscientious objector and will not administer the PSSAs to her students this year. She may be the first teacher in Pennsylvania to do so and her action recalls a long Quaker and pacifist tradition in this state. Earlier this week, Kipp Dawson testified to the Pittsburgh school board about the way in which testing is hurting her students.

I encourage you to read their moving words, below. And then maybe we should stop and question a high-stakes testing regime that requires our teachers to become conscientious objectors or risk their own livelihoods, just to do what is best for their students. Thank you, brave teachers.

Mary, King: “The PSSAs are Hurting My Kids” [Post-Gazette, 4-22-15]

I am an English as a second language teacher in grades four to eight at Pittsburgh Colfax K-8. The other day one of my ESL students passed me a note with a shy smile as he left our classroom: “Learn English is the best thinks a never have in my life.” My heart melted. This student arrived just last spring with absolutely no English. He is finally starting to speak above a whisper.

But this student is being crushed, intellectually and emotionally. Despite the fact that he is still so new to English, he is in the midst of his scheduled 16 hours of PSSA testing; my other ESL students are scheduled for between seven and 20 hours.

It is my professional opinion that this experience will set my student back, that it will hurt his progress, but my professional opinion will never be weighed against the many requirements — federal, state and district-wide —which demand that these tests be given.

Two more stories about my students:

A girl who returned to her native country in March talked about knowing only a few greetings in English but having to take the PSSA math test during her first week here and how she remembers crying throughout the week. I remember, too.

I also remember the student who had no formal schooling before she became an eighth-grader at Colfax who wrote “I love ESL” repeatedly on her math test to save face with the other students working around her because she was not even able to understand the questions.

It is with these students in mind, and many others, that I have asked the principal of my school to re-assign me during PSSA testing. I can no longer, in good conscience, administer the PSSA. I am ready to become a defender of my students — a conscientious objector.

You might be thinking: “We all took standardized tests each year when we were kids and we’re OK!”

But things have changed. It is no longer the same as when you and I were in school. Most of us had only two mornings of testing, perhaps, in math and reading. Most Pittsburgh Public Schools sixth-graders are required to take 22 standardized tests this year.

You might be thinking, “As a teacher you can use the results of these tests to help the students improve.” But I cannot. The tests are developmentally inappropriate for my students, written far above their grade level.

Worse, neither the students’ families nor their teachers will receive the students’ PSSA test scores until long after the school year has ended. Even then, the individual results, the questions that the students got wrong, will never be known, remaining a mystery for-ever to all except the testing company.

I am a strong advocate for my students within the ESL department and with my colleagues at Colfax. My students need to feel safe and cared about in order to cope with the challenges they face learning a new language and adjusting to a new culture. So this act of conscience is an extension of my advocacy for my students. It might not affect their experience this year, or change any state or district policies, but, for me, it is the right thing to do.

These tests are not helping. They are hurting many of my students. I can no longer, in good conscience, administer the PSSA tests to my students.

Mary King has been teaching for nearly 26 years, all but four of them in Pittsburgh Public Schools. In addition to teaching ESL, she has been a school librarian, language arts teacher and school psychologist. She lives in Squirrel Hill.

Kipp Dawson: Testimony to the Pittsburgh Board of Education, 4-20-15

Last night a member of the Pittsburgh Board of Education thanked me, and other colleagues, for testifying at their public hearing about the realities of the testing tyranny. He said that he’s been raising these issues for a long time, but it means so much more when teachers, who experience these things, speak out. Not all of us feel we can take these steps, but for those of us who can, we should know that our voices mean even more than we might think.

He was responding to my comments which implored Pittsburgh school leaders to join their colleagues who are speaking out. Here is part of the story I told: Until last Tuesday, I would have introduced myself also as a Pittsburgh Public School middle-school teacher. On Tuesday, for nearly half of the day, my title changed to Test Administrator, as did that of almost all of my colleagues in our schools. In that capacity, my role, and that of my colleagues, practically reversed itself. Instead of being the nurturing adults who work to inspire thoughtful and thought-provoking conversation, inquiry, focused reading, and spirited interchanges of ideas and information which spur curiosity and real intellectual growth, we now are enforcers. Of rules we did not participate in creating. Of an atmosphere which is antithetical to the teaching/learning communities we have worked, with our children, to create.

What does this do to our children? I invite you to take with you this image, which I cannot get out of my head, and which is one that compels me to stand before you today.

Two years ago I was teaching a class of middle-school students who were significantly below grade level in reading. Among them was an eighth-grade young-woman-in-development whom I had taught other subjects for the two previous years. That year I had watched her develop from a child who hid behind books and papers, or with her head on desks and tables, into a student who was becoming confident enough to try those academic challenges which she’d assumed would always be beyond her. She was reading aloud with her peers, participating in discussions and written responses to her reading, and, especially, joyfully finding her voice as a writer. She was approaching the coming of high school with a growing confidence, and almost with joy. Then, one day, she took one of those standardized tests. One that would give her immediate feedback. I watched her at the computer. In slow motion it all comes back to me. Daily. She stood up, stumbled to her desk, crawled under it, banged her head on the floor over and over again, crying, “I’m so stupid. I’m so stupid. I’m so stupid . . .” The numbers that came up on the screen had become her self-image. And they were wrong.

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