I spent the weekend with my baby sister, and during the course of our girl’s weekend, we discussed her 14 year old daughter who was struggling in school. Because I am an educator, my sister is able to discuss with me the kinds of modifications and accommodations her daughter is receiving in school, knowing I would not only understand all the coded language of education but also that I would be able to provide her with advice. Unfortunately, the area she lamented the most was the dreaded STAAR tests, Texas’ measure of learning and “college readiness.” The absurdity of that particular statement is neither here nor there and is a subject for many past and future posts, but suffice to say, her 8th grade daughter must take an ELA Reading test, along with a Math, Science, and Social Studies test later this school year. This is, of course, on top of all the eleven other standardized tests she has taken since 3rd grade, and doesn’t include the 5 standardized tests she must pass in high school in order to graduate.
While my sister doesn’t necessarily disapprove of the tests altogether, she does have issue with the immense pressure and anxiety these tests place on students as a result of the test-intensive environment of Texas public education. My sister was overjoyed by the possibility that she could opt her daughter out of state-mandated testing, which would help alleviate the anxiety and illness that these exams cause my niece. I had to break her heart: no such thing exists in Texas.
To understand the human face of high-stakes testing, you must first see the human, something the state has forgotten. You see, Masie is a beautiful, funny, witty young girl. She has the deadliest blue eyes, an infectious smile and laugh, and skin models would kill for. She’s an amazingly gifted soccer player. She enjoys music and singing her heart out. She loves art and begged our mother to teach her to crochet. She is turning in to a pretty good cook. She’s kind, thoughtful, and always sticks up for others who are being bullied and cares for those who are hurting. Yet she doesn’t see these beautiful qualities in herself. She only sees that she struggles in school and cannot pass the STAAR tests. She thinks she is dumb.
She is, of course, nothing of the sort. When she was first starting school, she was diagnosed with cholesteotoma (c-toma), a benign tumor that grows between the ear canal and brain. Doctors can sometimes remove it, but it often grows back. Since she’s started school, she’s had 8 surgeries–4 removals, 3 reconstructive surgeries, and 1 exploratory surgery. She’s a pro at surgery and recuperation. However, as you can imagine, all of these medical procedures have kept her out of school for long stretches at a time. As a result, she missed much early instruction that would provide a strong foundation for the skills she would need as she progressed through the grades. Her real nemesis: math.
When she was in 5th grade, she knew she had to pass the STAAR Math test or she would be held back a grade. She became so anxiety-ridden that she had panic attacks, fits of crying for no apparent reason, suffered migraines brought on by stress, and lost weight because she couldn’t eat. She was 11 years old!
While she’s had some awesome teachers, there is only so much they can do to help her get caught up and continue to progress, especially when they have 30 students in a class. She attends after school tutorials and extra math classes at her own insistence, and receives instructional interventions during the school day. She tries very hard to learn the material but continues to struggle daily, often staying at school until 5pm so she can attend tutorials and then goes to track practice afterward to make up the time she lost attending tutorials. And now that the STAAR tests are again on the near-horizon, her anxiety attacks have returned.
Lest you think this is an isolated case, let me assure you–it most definitely is not. I’ve been a Texas public school educator for 18 years. I’ve taught through three versions of the state assessment, TAAS, TAKS, and now STAAR. Each iteration has inevitably created its own monstrosity, namely an increased pressure on schools to perform and produce high scores. Unfortunately, these state scores are far separated from the reality most schools face: poverty, high populations of English Language Learners, special needs populations. The state sets AYP goals and schools must meet them. Perhaps more unfortunately, the pressure to meet these goals results in many schools ditching any kind of real learning that cannot be measured by a scale score in favor of a curriculum that teaches to the test. When school district scores are reported state-wide as part of our accountability measures, they report only the passing rates for the district, the individual schools, and each subpopulation. They do not report progress for students who did not pass; they do not report the challenges students face; they do not report the human element and what it means to truly learn.
And this is the travesty of education today.
Consider Duc*, a high school senior at my school last year. Duc came to the United States halfway through his freshman year. He knew no one but his mother, had no family in the U.S., and spoke absolutely no English. Nevertheless, he enrolled at my high school where a mere three months after his arrival, he had to take the STAAR English I EOC test, a 5 hour test that included 5 reading passages with corresponding multiple choice and short answer responses, 4 revising and editing passages with multiple choice questions, and 2 written compositions. Obviously he failed. Our school was held accountable for this failure as the state only saw that a student had not met minimum standards. And no one outside of his teachers cared about the reason for his failure. This same failure occurred the following December when he had to retake the English I EOC, the next March when he had to take the English II EOC and retest the English I EOC he still had not passed. He also failed his Biology and Algebra I EOCs–because they were given to him in English. By the time his senior year arrived, Duc, who was becoming more fluent in understanding, reading, and speaking English, had failed his English I and Biology EOCs 8 times, his English II EOC 6 times, and his U.S. History EOC 2 times. He did, however, pass his freshman Algebra I EOC the third time he took it (a year after he arrived in the United States).
Duc arrived in my class the first day of school his senior year. He had a smile on his face and a joke to tell me–a play on words that required a nuanced understanding of an English word. Throughout the course of the first semester, I worked with Duc and the 60 other seniors who, for various reasons, had not yet passed one or both of their English EOCs. Clearly I had my work cut out for me since every one of these seniors had to pass all of their exams to be eligible to graduate. All of them were panicked, afraid that they wouldn’t walk across the stage at the end of the year. Many of them would have been the first in their families to graduate high school. Of those students, many came from homes where English was not spoken. Some of them had learning disabilities that did not qualify them for Special Education services or 504 accommodations, some had challenges at home that made school both immediately important as their ticket to better futures and completely purposeless in helping them find the basic necessities for living right now. Sadly, some dropped out because they simply couldn’t continue school.
Of that group of seniors, there was Duc, of course. But there was also Jason, a student I’d had in my sophomore class the previous year when he was a junior and who I now had as a senior. Jason had dyslexia. Jason was also the reason I asked to teach this particular class. There was Jose, Alex, Jorge, and 20 others who had limited English proficiency. There was Anna, a mother-to-be. Michael and Tyler, who had learning disabilities, Brittany and Julie and many others, all of whom had been unsuccessful on their English EOCs anywhere from 8-12 times.
For an entire semester, I taught these students to take a test. I scraped and trimmed and cut the curriculum to its barest minimum and coached them through not only the kinds of questions they would have on the exam but also simple test-taking strategies. They wrote state EOC essays twice a week, EOC short answer responses three times a week, took practice multiple choice tests, and did EOC revising and editing warm-ups every day. By the time the December retest came, I was completely exhausted, totally demoralized, and feeling outraged by a system that forced teachers to teach tests rather than students and to celebrate raw scores rather than learning. We had become data junkies who only cared about the next score, the next benchmark, the next test.
The morning of their exam, I walked to the gym where large group testing was taking place. I wanted to give my students a pep talk, quick test-taking reminders, and in general wish them well. They were overjoyed to see me, calling my name. Their looks of relief when they saw me were mixed with anxiety about the test. They knew what they had riding on this retest, and the stress of it broke several of them. Several girls started crying, one boy–one who had been my most challenging student in class–asked for a hug, another student even asked me to pray for him. One girl started to hyperventilate when the testing proctor placed two pencils on her desk!
I left the gym as they were preparing to open their booklets and I thought, What are we doing to these kids? There is no test any child in grade school or high school should take that creates that much anxiety. An adult taking a bar exam–sure, go ahead, hyperventilate and vomit a little. Defending a PhD dissertation–a few tears can be cathartic (trust me!). But an 18 year old whose last 12 years and whose entire future relies on passing a state-mandated test that has never accounted for his learning disability or language barrier or particular living situation but which has always seen his nominally increasing scale score as a failure–this is criminal. And I feel ashamed for perpetuating such a deplorable system.
In January, we learned all but 5 of the remaining 50 had passed their English exams. Four days before graduation, we learned that only 2 of those 5 had not passed their March retest. In the eleventh hour, the state came through with a proviso that a committee could decide whether a senior who had passed at least 3 of their 5 EOCs could graduate, which meant that I quickly gathered every piece of evidence along with my students’ writing portfolios as proof that they had made significant progress.
Of special importance to me was Duc, whose first English EOC score was 900 out of a needed 3750 to pass. His scores entering my class his senior year were 1600. His December score was 3300; his March score was 3698. All of these scores were failing scores, which is the only thing the state saw and is the only thing most central admin offices of any school district in Texas with similar student results would see, as well.
But here’s what I saw: I saw a student who entered the U.S. three and a half years earlier and who now spoke, read, and wrote in English with near-fluency, something I know I could never have accomplished in the same amount of time had the situation been reversed. I saw a student who wanted to be an engineer and came with his mother to the U.S. to make that dream a reality. I saw a very bright young man who could do Calculus (much of it without a calculator) as if it were simple elementary school math. I saw a young man with a wonderful sense of humor. I saw a student curious about ideas and the way the world connected in interesting and unexpected ways. To keep this young man from graduating high school because he did not pass the English EOC yet–a test any teacher will tell you is absolutely no indicator of college-ready skills, despite what the state says–would have been the real failure of Texas education, of American education.
Unfortunately, this school year is no different. I just sent a group of 25 seniors to retest their English I and English II EOC’s on December 5th and 7th. They face the same obstacles and learning challenges last year’s students did, and they also experienced the same anxiety, conflicting sense of hopefulness and hopelessness, and determination to do their very best so they can overcome this last hurdle to graduation and their “real” lives. This January, I will again be there to help them, teach them, and celebrate their learning and progress with them no matter what the state tests report about them because they are beautiful, thoughtful, inspiring examples of what it means to be uniquely human–and none of that can be defined by a number.
For all my teachers who are exhausted from the stress of testing, for all our students who are subjected to the worst possible assessment of learning and progress, for all the Masies and Ducs and Jasons and Annas out there, and for their parents who feel helpless–your voice is heard.
*names have been changed to protect the identity of particular students.