Great teachers know the difference between tests that help students and tests that harm students

NEA president-elect: Teachers are neither strangers to, nor enemies of, tests.

By Maureen Downey

Here is an essay on testing by National Education Association President-Elect and former (Utah) Teacher of the Year Lily Eskelsen García.

A bit about García from her official bio: She began her career in education as a school lunch lady, became a kindergarten aide and was encouraged by the teacher to go to college and become a teacher herself. She worked her way through the University of Utah on scholarships, student loans, and as a starving folk singer, graduating magna cum laude in elementary education and later earning her master’s degree in instructional technology.

After teaching only nine years, Lily was named Utah Teacher of the Year for her work as an elementary teacher. She worked with homeless children and gifted children; as a mentor for student teachers; and as a peer assistance team leader in the suburbs of Salt Lake City where she taught at Orchard Elementary School.

By Lily Eskelsen García

As educators, we believe in good testing.  Almost every student in America will confirm that most teachers are neither strangers to, nor enemies of, tests.  But great teachers know the difference between tests that help students and tests that harm students.  While some of my former sixth graders might argue with this point, tests are not meant to be implements to torture and punish students.  Instead, tests should be designed to help teachers evaluate individual student needs and tailor lessons to meet their learning needs.

This is an important point, because what is happening in our schools today with high stakes standardized tests flies in the face of what is best for our students.  This is what I call “toxic testing.”  Too often and in too many places, we have turned the time-tested practice of teach, learn, and test into a system of test, blame, and punish.  That’s not right, it’s not education, and it’s not good for our students.

As a teacher, I never gave my students the test and the grade before I taught the lesson.  It just doesn’t work that way.  And, one other thing, I always tested the students on the material they had learned—not some other random lesson.  But this year and next, many states will begin administering Common Core-aligned standardized tests before our students have had the opportunity to actually learn Common Core-aligned material.

Other states are going to keep giving the old tests—which have nothing to do with the Common Core standards their teachers were asked to teach. Still others will give old tests and new tests side-by-side—which sounds a whole lot like torture.  If we believe these tests are so important, let’s make sure we are measuring what matters.

All of this testing means our students have less time to learn—and we are stealing it from them for these tests. A recent survey found that students are spending as much as 30 percent of their class time preparing for and taking these unaligned tests.  We are stealing so much learning time from our kids, their parents are going to have to start asking, “What were you tested on in school today?” instead of, “What did you learn in school today?”  Our students are so busy taking tests that they don’t have time to learn the material we are testing them on!

The scary part is that we have attached high stakes consequences to these insane tests.  Now, I’m not against measurement and accountability.  But I always want to know that we are measuring and holding ourselves accountable for things that matter.  That’s not what is happening here.  Instead of using tests to better direct resources to our schools and guide instruction for our students, we are using these tests to punish schools, teachers, students, and school districts.  This simply isn’t right.  It is toxic.

As educators, we know that this amount of testing—and the serious consequences attached to these tests—is toxic for our students. As they enter the adult world, our students will need to have good writing and math skills, creative problem-solving skills, and critical thinking skills.  But I doubt they will spend up to 30 percent of their time filling in bubbles on a toxic test.