Erika Sanzi and Holly Kragthorpe, EducationPost, March 24, 2015
There’s no doubt about it: We could do a lot to improve standardized testing in our schools.
State tests could be designed to be more engaging for students and provide more timely and relevant information for teachers and parents. Schools could do a better job ensuring that art, music and P.E. remain in the schedule during the testing window.
Teachers could actually use their influence to reduce testing anxiety by getting kids excited at the chance to go out there, do their best and show what they know. It’s no secret that kids feed off whatever adults project. More teachers could impart a feeling of confidence to their students and give off a vibe that tells their kids, “Hey, we got this.”
In the appropriate setting, policymakers and school leaders should certainly be listening to teachers’ thoughts about testing. But as imperfect as our tests may or may not be, without them we would have no way of knowing how our students are doing and how to best help them.
No mother wants her child to be viewed as merely a test score and parents can opt out of testing if that is the personal choice they make. However, a mother also has every right to expect access to information about how her child and her child’s school are doing compared to others across the district, state and nation. Her tax dollars help pay for that school and should afford her an objective snapshot of her child’s academic development.
So when it comes to testing, how should teachers navigate this situation? Should teachers discourage students from taking state exams? Is it appropriate to hand out anti-testing leaflets and flyers during the school day?
As two mothers of school-aged children who also happen to have 22 combined years of teaching experience, we say no.
Districts, schools and individual teachers should not encourage parents to opt out, discourage students from showing up to school on testing day, nor to threaten a penalty for students who take the test. To do so casts a shadow of unprofessionalism not only on the teacher involved but also on their colleagues.
Outside of the classroom, teachers can and should feel welcome to share their political opinions and engage in advocacy work to promote ways they believe education can be improved, including changes to testing. Within the school building and in the classroom, however, the role of a teacher is to provide students with a safe and supportive environment where they have every chance to show their best work, even if it’s on assessments that the teacher doesn’t personally support. Most states and districts have codes of conduct that speak directly to this issue.
When public schools use their communication tools and resources to encourage families to opt out of testing, what kind of message does that send to voters and taxpayers? In an era where public schools need community support more than ever, schools should be embracing measures of transparency in a way that is at least neutral, if not positive, including when it comes to annual testing.
Where is all this anxiety and backlash against testing even coming from? MinnPost writer Beth Hawkins discovered that in Minneapolis, for example, most of the testing backlash is being led by teachers from the most privileged schools. Yet these are some of the same schools that promote Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate exams. This not only smacks of hypocrisy but the lack of consistency calls the motives of educators into question.
We’ve seen another example in Rhode Island where a teacher and son duo have worked hard to opt out of PARCC testing. According to a local news outlet, despite being warned not to do so, the teacher continued to actively contradict school leaders by announcing to students during advisory that their school would not lose funding if they did not take the PARCC test. Additionally, a colleague reported to school authorities that this same teacher was handing out an “anti-PARCC brochure” to other teachers and “stated that he had the students make edits on the document.” It’s important to note that this Rhode Island school has seen an opt-out rate of more than 30 percent, while the district as a whole has seen less than 2 percent.
During testing season, we both call on teachers and schools to have meaningful discussions with parents and students and to use questions about testing as teachable moments.
For some children and teachers, the test results will be a much-needed victory, evidence that all their hard work is paying off. Just as we hear plenty of mothers complain that their children don’t do well on standardized tests, other mothers thoughtfully support the testing and value the information that these tests provide, not only about their own children but about all children. Like us, they believe that schools can’t serve kids and families well if they don’t know where the struggles and gaps are.
Our simple advice to teachers, and to parents, comes from Chicago mother Kelly Conrad:
Don’t sweat the test.
Holly Kragthorpe is a veteran teacher the Minneapolis Public Schools, currently on leave of absence to do advocacy work for Educators 4 Excellence during Minnesota’s legislative session. Kragthorpe is also the mother of two school-aged children.
Erika Sanzi is a mother of three sons and taught in public schools in Massachusetts, California and Rhode Island. She has served on her local school board in Cumberland, RI, advocated for fair school funding at the state level, and worked on campaigns of candidates she considers to be champions for kids and true supporters of great schools.