Every single one of my students “failed” the state test this past school year, and only 1 student passed in the entire 3rd grade at my school. Does this mean my colleagues and I are poor teachers?

You can lead a horse to water

Mr. and Mrs. Gates,

“You can lead a horse to water, but cannot make him drink.” This old saying pretty much sums up the education profession. Teachers and other education professionals devote their lives to imparting knowledge to children day in and day out in the hopes of helping them learn about the world around them and how to make their way as productive members of society. However, not all children are the same and they do not learn in the same way or at the same rate. Educators “lead children to water” each and every day, but it is not up to us whether or not they will drink. Perhaps they aren’t thirsty, perhaps they haven’t developed an affinity for a certain type of water, or perhaps they haven’t yet learned how to drink in the ways we are asking them to because they are not developmentally ready to do so; either way, we provide the water for when they ARE ready.

With the ever increasing emphasis on high stakes testing and usage of cookie-cutter curricula, we are expecting ALL children to drink the exact same water at the exact same time…and then punishing them when they will not or cannot. This isn’t fair on any level. It sends a message to our children that they are consistently “not good enough”, when the message should be “never stop learning”. It sends a message to educators that we are not valued. That we cannot be trusted to do our job. That we are inadequate. That we are doing our children a disservice, despite giving everything we have to give every single day…whether we are with the students or not. This attitude has permeated our society and is eating away at our profession like a cancer. It has turned our own nation against itself, as the message being spread is that we are “broken”, despite the fact that those of us on the front lines continually push back against that idea because it simply isn’t true! And we of all people would know! High stakes testing has done nothing more than tell an entire generation of children that they are failures; yet when they manage to rise to the occasion, under more stress and pressure than ever, are they rewarded for their efforts? NO! They are simply told that the proverbial “bar” has been raised again, so guess what? They still FAIL.

Once upon a time, teachers could utilize data from assessments they created to inform their teaching, create new lessons, go back and reteach skills that were missed or misunderstood, promote discussion, or even accelerate their teaching if appropriate. These days are long gone and have unfortunately given way to scripted curricula with strict pacing guides and meaningless tests that neither tie to said curricula or measure anything real. Life is not a series of multiple choice answers, and yet this is how we are forced to present the world to children in the “testing era”. It’s no wonder our young adults are not ready for the workforce…how can they be when they have never been taught to make decisions or solve problems for themselves? They’ve only been shown that someone will provide a set of answers for them from which they must choose the “right” one.

And then there is Special Education. The children who already struggle, who already have to work much harder than their “average” (if there is such a thing) peers just to stay afloat, who have ALWAYS felt or been told they aren’t good enough, who many times just simply “can’t” through no fault of their own, whose teachers feel their pain and take it on on a daily basis so they don’t have to carry it with them, and who want desperately to celebrate their baby steps with them but can’t because they are told they must teach and assess these students at the SAME RATE as everyone else. Where does this leave these students? Perpetually at the bottom with no hope of ever escaping. The demands are just too unrealistic. “If you judge a fish by it’s ability to climb a tree, it will live it’s whole life believing it is stupid.” (source unknown, but often attributed to Einstein) This is the problem with high stakes testing. It assumes that all children are created equal. As my husband (a former teacher, turned administrator) says, “You can give a child the best golf clubs money can buy, put him in private lessons with the greatest golf pro in the world, buy him the fanciest clothes, and have a membership to the most elite golf and country clubs…it won’t make him Tiger Woods.”

I am a National Board Certified Teacher and hold 4 certifications on my state certificate. I have taught every grade K-5 in my 13 years teaching, and I currently teach 3rd grade, a high stakes testing grade for retention in my state. Every single one of my students “failed” the state test this past school year, and only 1 student passed in the entire 3rd grade at my school. Does this mean my colleagues and I are poor teachers? Maybe in the eyes of those who believe in your agenda. But what if I told you that our students are deaf and come from homes where the parents do not know sign language? What if I told you that many of them didn’t even learn ANY language until they were 3 years old (or older!), and yet had to take this high stakes test a mere 5 years later? What if I told you that for someone who cannot hear to learn to read English print requires memorizing EVERY word they see, along with EVERY possible meaning and EVERY nuance in order to choose the correct one for comprehension, despite the fact that there is no written equivalent to American Sign Language (which they also have not mastered)? Would any of this change your opinion of what kind of teachers we are? Does a score on a test given in printed English over 2 days REALLY give a clear, meaningful picture about what my students are capable of? The answer is NO. It does not. And yet, my students are beholden to the same criteria for retention as their hearing peers who have been learning English since the moment they were born. I had 8-year-olds (typical 3rd grade age) and 11-year-olds (typical 6th grade age!) in my class due to retention rules. THIS is what high stakes testing does. THIS is why high stakes testing is WRONG. Students are different. Teachers are different. HUMAN BEINGS are different. We are not computer chips being churned out on an assembly line to be installed into a framework to all perform in the exact same manner. Children are individuals, with their own unique strengths and weaknesses, and need to be viewed as such. “You can lead a horse to water, but you cannot make him drink.”

Michelle Cosgrove


About Highlighting Members' Needs

We are running for the following Renton Education Association positions because we believe in the following planks: Becca Ritchie, Candidate for REA President, Nelsen Middle School, Computer Tech Susan DuFresne, Candidate for Primary Executive Board, Maplewood Heights Elementary, Integrated Kindergarten ✅  Demanding a healthy work-load/life balance. ✅  Bargaining competitive professional compensation. ✅  Challenging the status quo test culture with: Less is more! ✅  Emphasizing our professional expertise. ✅  Prioritizing equity and access for all. ✅  Utilizing 2-way 21st century communication tools. ✅  Acting in solidarity with all unions. ✅  Supporting ALL members. ✅   Implementing developmentally appropriate K-3 curriculum/assessment.
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21 Responses to Every single one of my students “failed” the state test this past school year, and only 1 student passed in the entire 3rd grade at my school. Does this mean my colleagues and I are poor teachers?

  1. Alex says:

    Thank you for enlightening me on the difficulties deaf children have learning to read and the inhumanity of the tests for them.
    I hope you will send this on the the Senate’s HELP committee.
    Thanks again.

  2. Marsha L. Irwin says:

    As a “retired” (a teacher never retires) teach who taught in the 70’s & early 80’s when individualized curriculum was encouraged I heartily agree w/ the above teaching philosophy. Let’s get back to teaching the student, not the class.

  3. Pingback: Every single one of my students “failed” the state test this past school year, and only 1 student passed in the entire 3rd grade at my school. | Brevard Teachers for Change

    • Teachers'LettersToBillGates says:

      Thank you for re-blogging this amazing letter by Michelle Cosgrove!

      Teachers’ Letters to Bill Gates

  4. beth says:

    This isn’t about deaf children. It’s about ALL children. It’s about teaching through a child’s strengths vs. their weaknesses. It’s about stop labeling kids smart ( because we’re all smart in our own way) and stop labeling them dumb (because even the smart kids are dumb in some ways). The problem with the United States is we as a nation don’t value those little nuances that make people unique. We value Mensa smart over Creative smart, yet IBM insists that they need creative thinkers, people who take data and information and do something different with it. I think the gradual and complete annihilation of arts and music programs is really putting our children at an overall disadvantage in the global marketplace.

    • That ALL children are concerned, not just this-or-that subgroup, is a fundamental and sad truth that I myself wanted to point out.

      However, I disagree somewhat with the details in this comment.

      Most notably, it is not a label of “smart” or “dumb” that poses the true problem—but the fear of differing between children. In a situation where it is politically incorrect or outright inacceptabel to imply that one child could be more or less talented than an other, one-size-(does not)-fit-all schooling ensues. It would be far better if the courage was there to acknowledge that not all children are of the same inborn capability and to allow a greater degree of filtering into classes of average, above average, and below average students. (The U.S., however, is not the disaster in this regard that my native Sweden is.)

      A less important point of (at least potentiell) disagreement is teaching creativity through arts and music: The type of creativity that is sought by an employer lies on a somewhat different dimension and can be legitimitately trained by other means, e.g. math and problem solving—likely better so than with music. To equal “creative arts” with “creativity” misses the point, seeing that the variations of the word have different meanings in different contexts.

      (I stress that by “math” I mean real math—not the boring arithmetic repetitions that dominate in most schools and are to math what the phone book is too literature.)

  5. Sandra Guinn says:

    Fantastic letter! This should be required reading for every administrator, superintendent, and so called “leader” in politics! Thank you Michelle.

    • Teachers'LettersToBillGates says:

      We wholeheartedly agree. We feel very strongly that a class action lawsuit needs to be taken regarding high stakes testing for ALL children, and especially those with special needs, and our ELL/ESL students. The high stakes have to stop. So does all the test prep and the overemphasis on testing period.

      Teachers’ Letters to Bill Gates,

  6. Cindy says:

    You are obviously a very smart , dedicated, caring teacher…I agree…the testing garbage has to go!! Every student is unique, with their own talents and weaknesses….as is everyone in this world…I am betting all of those so-called “leaders in politics” couldn’t pass those required tests if their lives depended on it!!

    • Teachers'LettersToBillGates says:

      We ought to require all lawmakers to take the current exams and publish the results, no? Then we can begin the consequences… fair is fair, right?

      Teachers’ Letters to Bill Gates

  7. timmcfarland says:

    Thanks for speaking out about this kind of discrimination.
    I think every teacher’s master’s degree program has to include a class on assessment. We take the class, learn about validity and reliability, yet encounter tests that are not valid in our teaching. For your students, Michelle, the test being given is not valid.

    I’m a special ed. teacher, currently of hearing students, and for those whose skills are two or more years below grade level, the state test we use is not valid. The alternative assessment is for students with cognitive disabilities, and is not a good measure for kids with learning disabilities.

    I celebrate the success of my students who are within a year of grade level and can pass our state tests, but I cringe at giving the test to those who just aren’t ready to take it.

    • Teachers'LettersToBillGates says:

      Tim, we need parents to begin a class action lawsuit. This is inhumane and needs to be stopped. I too am a Special Education teacher. Parents, if you have children with special needs, please find one another and begin to act together. Teachers will stand with you!

      Teachers’ Letters to Bill Gates

  8. Friend says:

    I have never seen a real quantitative collection of evidence in student growth by the state or federal government. Everything I see is percent passing state test or ap test. Neither is a direct result of a specific teacher or the education system as a whole.

    The kids drink the water we give them. All of them improve over the coarse of a year. The quantity of improvement is very difficult to quantify. Grades don’t effectively measure improvement. Standards based grading might be better, but doesn’t either (at least the methods I have seen) because of the style that the standard based questioning are typically written.

    • Teachers'LettersToBillGates says:

      All the results of high stakes testing are based on “junk science”. The evidence is there, but the lawmakers and corporate reformers are not held accountable by data. We need to stop that nonsense and begin to hold them accountable.

      Teachers’ Letters to Bill Gates

  9. Jojo says:

    Another special Ed teacher here….I had to give the third grade state test to a child who had been abused and took forever to learn at a first grade level because he would have a meltdown or run away whenever he made a mistake. He equated making mistakes to being in trouble, and being in trouble with being burnt with cigarettes. He was just starting to see himself as a reader and chose books to read for the first time, until a month later I had to give him the state reading test at the third grade level. He couldn’t read it, of course, but was in my room all day, agonizing over each passage and question, crying and self-injuring, because he believed that he had to finish the test or he would be in trouble. Yep, that’s what we’re doing to help our most vulnerable kids.

  10. Pingback: Tony's Thoughts » Teachers Flunk Bill Gates on School Improvement!

  11. I recently attended a training in which the leader, very informed and innovative, explained that all children except for “Learning Impaired” are expected to do well on the tests because all the other needs are able to be improved and brought to grade level with interventions. On the surface that is true, however It’s just not that simple. It doesn’t happen overnight.

  12. Pingback: Letters To Gates from Educators | MasakiNoguchi

  13. Pingback: Our Top 10 from 2013, but Bill Gates is Still Not Making Nice with Teachers | Teachers' Letters to Bill Gates

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