A plea from the trenches: Stop standardizing our children

Hi, my name is Claire Pelletier and I am an ELA teacher. My introduction sounds like an admittance of guilt and an introduction at a meeting where I am discussing my addictions. We will call it the “Highly Assessed Teacher Anonymous Meeting.”

I love English. I love teaching English. I love making texts and writing assignments real and relevant. I love getting kids to think beyond the capacity of what they thought they were capable. When students say, “I don’t get it,” I say, “Yes you do. What question can I answer that will help you show your understanding?” I promote thought and I promote accountability. I teach life lessons and I make sure that when these high school Juniors and Seniors step out into the real world, it will not chew them up and spit them out.

The real world for some of these kids, though, is not college. The real world is the world of hard labor, and, in my neck of the woods, driving truck and cutting trees. The real world is balancing a budget and buying health insurance. College is not the real world- trust me, I have been there. The real world is not going to give them a test to see if their accountant is doing their job correctly. The real world is not going to see if they can identify which text will support which idea. The world will not ask for a 5 paragraph essay.

My college bound kids are taught these things, however, since that is the reality of their future. My lawyers, doctors, nurses, teachers, radiologists, business managers, archeologists, and writers need to know the value of argument and how to understand complex texts. They need to know where our language comes from because they will have to study it. Immensely. They need to know word parts and understand the enormity of the world out there. They need to know what’s important in a textbook and what they can skim through. They need to know what standardized tests are asking. They really do.

They may not, however, all be able to show their knowledge in a multiple choice form. They could show you their reading and writing portfolios and you would get a better picture of them as students – more than what their scores will tell you. The products of their 3 years as a student in this school will tell you what they know. They can compare texts and analyze texts like no one’s business, however, put them in a testing environment and they no longer feel confident. They no longer look at English as a place to learn and explore. It’s enough that these juniors will, in 3 short weeks, have to take the SAT’s. Yes. The SAT’s. My heart just dropped to my stomach because I will have to continue to put off my killer Transcendentalism unit to do SAT prep. Vocab and grammar for the next three weeks it is!

I’m hoping that after this whole 4-5 weeks I’ve had to spend prepping them for two standardized tests (that do not give you a picture of what they know and what they can do when given a topic about which they are passionate) is a mere speed bump in their memories of my English class. When I remember English, I remember dramatizations, debates, classic literature, and contemporary literature. I remember finally feeling successful because I learned how to effectively argue. I remember the learning. I remember the passion my teachers had. I remember discussing topics such as Mass Hysteria, child abuse, conformity, etc., etc., etc. I remember what mattered to me. I’m hoping that my students forgive me for teaching to the test because this test will eventually tell me if I’m doing my job. I already teach a subject that is so painful to some (much like math) but has the most accountability because it is tested in two sub areas. But it’s not about me.

It’s about them. It’s about the kids I watched click on random answers and finish in 5 minutes because if you put that much information in front of them without chunking it, they will shut down. It’s about the student who told me she answered the open ended questions by saying how stupid this test was. It’s about all of the students I have helped to develop a good paragraph using relevant research who will massively fail the performance task because I have not gotten to argument with them. I have only taught them how to research a career, answer research questions, and develop that into a sentence. I’ve only gotten this far because that’s all they will allow. They will not engage in my teaching, no matter how relevant I try to make it for them. They don’t care. I don’t blame them. They don’t need to do well on this performance task to do well as a skidder operator or carpenter. They will need to be able to read a technical manual, identify parts of an index to find things quickly, and research ways to fix things. They will need very basic English skills. They, however, have more knowledge of an engine than I ever will. They visualize ways to build things that I would never be able to fathom. They are creative and they shine in other areas. They will make more money than me, and they cannot read beyond the 8th grade level.

So, I do what any ‘good’ teacher does: I adapt the curriculum and I try to make the Common Core as relevant as possible. I never teach a year the same. I can’t. But the tests are the same. They are the same for everyone. They ask students to perform at a certain level and they will judge me on it. They will identify a ‘proficient’ student by one day of testing. They didn’t ask the student when the last time they had a decent meal was. They won’t find out if the student is under the influence of drugs because that’s their coping mechanism. The student who didn’t eat since lunch at school yesterday still had to test. The student who was up all night because they have no curfew still had to test (and was sleeping during testing. And drooling.) I could give you the Everyman of every student, however I think you see my point. Every single day we are faced with multiple students’ baggage and while we can put some things aside, we have challenges every day. I may have 3-4 days a year with some of my classes throughout the years that all students are present and ready to learn. The odds of one of these ‘good days’ being test day are slim to none, since we often test for more than 4 days.

These tests also won’t ask the student which career path they will be pursuing. They assume (we all know what that word does) that these students need college skills. They don’t. They are not all going. They don’t all need it. Some will go to a tech school, some will go work on the family farm, some will go work at McDonald’s, and as long as they are working, there’s no shame in that. I want them to all pursue something after school to help us become a nation of hard workers instead of a nation of ‘easy ways out’ because they are not given the skills they need. A nation that is dependent on all careers and all careers are of importance. A nation where The American Dream is to work hard at whatever it is you’re good at, enjoy it,  and be able to get by. While I’m aware we are only in control of what goes on at the state level, let’s change our “Welfare State” status by producing well rounded students who can persevere and are able to hone in on their talents to go out and find jobs.

Back to the test. This test does not tell you who my students are or who I am as a teacher. These tests are based on norms and such.  Trust me, I’ve taken enough classes to know about the bell curve. So, technically they are fair. Yes, they adapt, so it is better than the paper version, however, some can’t read on a computer screen. It hurts their eyes. These tests also assess the Common Core Standards, which are what I need to teach. But the students who finish just by clicking on random answers do not care about what I’m supposed to teach and what they’re supposed to know. I can lead millions of horses to water, but if they refuse to drink…

My point. Yes, my point. I am teaching kids that their voice matters and it makes a difference. I am teaching them to think and change their world. I am teaching them that our founding fathers who wrote persuasive essays, speeches, and letters changed the face of our nation. If I didn’t act on what I teach and model such behaviors, I wouldn’t be the teacher I aspired to be. I would be regurgitating facts and giving them information instead of asking them to explore the world around them. I would be expecting them to do things that don’t matter. I would be failing them. I would be a mindless drone teaching scripted curriculum. That’s not why I went to school for what I thought would be the best job in the world. Instead, I am trying to help them become great, successful people who use their words to prove points instead of violence. I am showing them how our great nation was formed, and what better way than to know that a nobody teacher like me can have her voice heard? Her voice that is reflecting their thoughts and feelings. They don’t want to be given a test to see what they know – they want to be able to show you.

Demonstrate. If our education leaders cannot assess our students on their creative products, divergent thinking, and see who they are, they should not bother. Test anxiety wouldn’t be an issue and student accommodations would not be necessary. If you truly want to know how my kids are performing, come check out their poetry slams and their debates. Read their persuasive writing based on their thorough research or let them test on days that they are nourished and rested. Let them take portions of the test after they are ready and show mastery. Isn’t that what you expect of us in our classrooms? Allow them to choose their path and do the required assessments according to their future. If our nation’s performance is what we are worried about, let’s worry about its performance in other areas, such as gun control and violence. Let’s worry about solving problems within our government. Allow students to opt out of testing and submit a portfolio. Allow our students to show you what they know in the way they learn best because that is how we are supposed to teach them. Do not ask us to do something that you will not do: differentiate.

We also have to talk about money because if we do not do this test that has gained such popularity, we will not get money. In an article that discusses differences between American and Finnish schools (sorry, had to pull it out, they’re successful, we can’t deny it). “Finland spends 30% less per student than the United States.” But here’s the thing, Finland does not care that they do a better job than others, in fact, they were surprised when the statistics came out. They just want to educate their young. They just want to do what’s best for each individual child. They trust their teachers and make sure their teachers are doing their job – not by testing the students, but making sure they have good teachers who care. I can be HQ in our country and still not like kids. I also think if you polled all of the teachers across the nation, they would tell you that they would do their best to assure their time if you would get rid of the push for research based curriculum and standardized testing companies that need to turn a profit. We don’t ask for a profit, we just want to be treated as professionals who know what we are doing. Trust us to do the job you pay us to do.

But, in reality, it is a business in which the profit matters. It’s always all about the money (which is the root of all evil). Offering schools funding ONLY IF they do this specific test is a form of bullying. If we could submit proof of what we are teaching and how we are teaching it, we would show you that we, as educators, know what we are doing. And you would save millions of dollars on this test that only gives children anxiety and teachers a sense of incompetence. Let me tell you, after this week, I feel like an incompetent teacher. And I don’t feel this way because of what my students said to me, I feel this way because I have not taught them exactly what they are being tested on, because I have no clue what questions they will get.

If you want to measure my worth as a teacher, please, please, please, come see my lessons, poll my students, and see how I affect them. If they tell you that I do not care about them, if they tell you that I don’t know what I’m doing, if they tell you I don’t at least try to make curriculum interesting to them (let’s face it, I have to follow the Common Core), if they tell you I have not taught them anything this year, then I will go back to school and become a lawyer or something like that. But, you do not know me as a teacher and you do not know my students. This test does not tell you about either one of us.

Please, while you are visiting, ask them for their persuasive essays on a topic they care about. Please, see their reading portfolios. Ask them for their book projects. Ask them the underlying theme in the American Literature classics that we’ve read. Ask them to connect something they’ve read to their life. Ask them the lessons they learned while reading “The Crucible” about mass hysteria and McCarthyism. (Don’t ask them, though, about Transcendentalism, because I have not gotten there yet. We had to test.) Ask them how I’ve tried to incorporate physical movement because they spend 7 hours a day attached to a desk. Ask them about passion. Ask them about the real world. But do not give them this test. This test is not telling you what matters to them. This test does not tell you if they will change the world.

I understand that the feasibility of my suggestions may seem daunting, however, so is this test for most kids. If you would like to further explore some of my students’ suggestions for standardized testing, feel free to email me and I will send you some samples. A few students told me that they wrote answers criticizing this test and I could not be mad at them. They are only doing what I have inspired them to do: Argue. I will not feel sorry about that. They are standing up for what they believe in- and these are my high level students who think deeper than what is being shown on this test. They would amaze you. But their scores won’t because they did not take this test seriously.

I can’t help but think about how relevant my mantra as a teacher is: “Everybody is a genius. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid.” This was spoken by the late and great Albert Einstein. He would have failed this test, though. He was considered learning disabled and could not function in a regular school setting. He failed tests except for math and dropped out at 15. He was a creative thinker, though, and luckily some people were able to see that. The key being people. A test could not have told you that. A test could not have told you that this young man who dropped out of school would become a Nobel Peace Prize winner and one of the most critically acclaimed scientists. Actually he failed the science portion of his entrance exam to polytechnic school in Zurich. Imagine that. He also eloquently identified the core of education: Teach kids what they need to know for their future, show them how they are smart, and don’t judge them in ways they do not thrive.

I leave you with this thought. If you want well educated kids in this state, please, let us teachers do our job. Let us show you what we are doing in the classrooms. Let us pioneer our nation into success. Let Maine be the United States’s Finland. Not because we want good ranking, but because we want our kids to be smart, educated, well rounded, and passionate people. Not some kids that can do well on a test. That is not going to help our future. Please, understand that I realize that some hands are tied and that big corporations are what really run education. But it is us, the teachers, are in the trenches. Whether we get the credit or not, it should be our voice that is heard. Do not require us to get a Master’s degree then decide we don’t know how to assess our own students. I have been educated for over 9 years to do this job, please, trust me to do it. And the students. If you ask them, I’m sure they will tell you exactly what I’ve stated in this letter because they were my inspiration. These tests do not affect you, they affect us and never once have I or my students been asked what they think. It’s time we make our state a democracy and we ask the people who are affected by these mandates. Let’s value what makes our nation great.

Oh, and watch this girl: http://bangordailynews.com/2015/03/26/the-point/this-fourth-grader-explains-everything-thats-wrong-with-standardized-testing/

Citations (yes, citations in a blog, she must be an English teacher):

Hancock, LynNell. “Why Are Finland’s Schools Successful?- Page 2 | Innovation.”Smithsonian. Smithsonian Magazine, Sept. 2011. Web. 27 Mar. 2015.

History. “Albert Einstein: Fact or Fiction? – Facts & Summary.” HISTORY.com. A&E Networks, 2009. Web. 27 Mar. 2015.



Claire Pelletier

About Claire Pelletier

I'm 30. Boy am I 30. I have three children: Shelby (almost 8), Harper (3), and Aidan (1). I work full time as an English teacher, full time as a mom, part time as a wife, part time as a cook at a Diner (this is actually a paid position), and a per diem house cleaner. Basically, I do it all. Oh and I like to write (revert back to my full time teaching position). This life is crazy, people are even crazier, and online blogging has given me a voice. Some may think it's a loud and obnoxious voice, but I kind of like it. I do my best to write about things that interest people, mainly about myself. Sometimes I verge into the political land, but that place scares me, so I mostly write about every day things that make me laugh, cry, or scream. Thanks for reading!