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.”