St. Paul teacher: Too much testing hurts kids who need help most

Kaye Peters (Photo by Alleen Brown)

For St. Paul English teacher Kaye Peters, the standardized tests her Central High students take throughout the year are an annoying distraction.

What frustrates her is the time testing takes away from instruction. It’s the tests themselves and their flawed multiple-choice questions. It’s the way they make struggling students feel stupid.

This article is part of a series, Testing: Who wins, who loses with high stakes, standardized testing in Minnesota schools

It’s that teachers are no longer trusted to know their own students; tests do that now.

Lost time and retakes

In October, Central students take practice SAT and ACT tests; teachers and students lose half a day of instructional time. With the spring GRAD reading, writing and math tests; they lose another half day. And for ninth graders, twice-yearly MAP tests each take two hours.

During the weeks of testing, computer labs become inaccessible to students learning how to write research papers.

Then, there are the retakes. Students have to pass reading, writing and math GRAD tests before they can graduate. If they don’t pass the first time, they are pulled out of class to try again. “Most of these kids are kids who are either English language learners or they’re having challenges with learning, anyway, so they’re using chunks of instructional time,” Peters said.

“The most disturbing outcome is the number of kids, who are the kids that No Child Left Behind supposedly wanted to help, the kids who are struggling in the gap, and what we’ve done is only reinforced that status, both in terms of pulling kids out for testing and confirming to them that they’re not performing well and, to use their word, stupid,” she said. “They’re not stupid but repeatedly testing them on something and then repeatedly failing them, because they don’t have the vocabulary, because they’re ELL or special ed, is hurting those kids, the very kids that that act was supposed help.”

The tests do not help Peters with instruction; in fact they tend to tell her what she already knows. “I could tell you which kid was just having a lucky day and which kid was in the tank that day, meaning they probably just blew the test off,” she said. “A number of my lowest performing students and highest performing students, I didn’t think were accurately reflected in the tests.”

A flawed assessment

Another frustrating thing for Peters is the test itself. In the GRAD test as well as the MAP test, students read a passage then answer a series of multiple choice questions about what they read. In class, Peters teaches her students that their interpretation of a text is as valid as anyone else’s as long as they can back up what they think. On the test, there’s only one right answer.

“Testing flies in the face of everything they’ve been told in their education about interpretation of text,” she said.

The ideal test, she said, would allow students to write in their own answer. Such a test would have to be scored by a person, not a machine. She acknowledged that that could breed inconsistent scores, but she said the real barrier is money. Policymakers want accountability, but it has to be accountability they can afford.

A real solution? Smaller classes

“This testing frenzy has come about because people don’t trust that we know our students,” Peters said. “Teachers know students best.”

“The truth is, if I didn’t have 30 kids in my room, I know who those kids are [who are struggling], and I’d have more opportunity to help them in an authentic way,” she said. “It’s not magic. It comes down to a teacher having the time to reach kids independently and being able to give kids quick feedback on the work that they’re doing, so they can apply it.”

Peters hopes that a renewed focus on grade-level standards will move education in a positive direction. Teachers are increasingly expected to cover a set of specific topics determined by the state.

And even though she’s unhappy with many of the changes that No Child Left Behind ushered in, she admits that it did draw attention to the kids that used to slip through the cracks.

“Even though those kids are made to feel like they’re stupid, no one’s leaving them behind anymore, because we can’t,” she said. “I think we could have done that in another way that isn’t so damaging to the kids.”

Peters is also a fellow at Minnesota 2020, where she blogs about education.

This article is part of a series on testing in Minnesota schools. The articles in the series, published during the week of December 10, 2012, are:

When tests tell teachers nothing: Special needs not met by standardized tests

At St. Paul's Maxfield Elementary, low ranking masks real transformation

Winner or loser? Test scores for Minneapolis's Kenny elementary school say both at the same time

Wonk time: An insider's critique of new Minnesota school rating system

St. Paul teacher: Too much testing hurts kids who need help most

One teacher's story: Testing makes teaching a nightmare

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    Alleen Brown's picture
    Alleen Brown

    Alleen Brown (alleenbrown [at] tcdailyplanet [dot] net or Twitter @AlleenBrown) is a freelance writer from Minneapolis.