The curse of the standardized test

I’m not enjoying teaching as much as I once did.

Don’t get me wrong, I still love working with young people. I still think my job is valuable and important.

Unfortunately, the testing mandate has arrived in my classroom. My students must pass a Biology End-of-Course (EOC) Exam to graduate from high school in Washington state.

Before it came, I naively thought it wouldn’t affect me. Get them engaged, allow them space to explore and learn, have fun with biology, and the test will take care of itself. Unfortunately, the stakes for my students and my school are too high. Soon, my job may depend on these test results.

I have become a standards-driven, assessment focused teacher and it sucks. Sure I still avoid textbooks and worksheets like the plague. Yes, I still strive to bring hands-on, engaging, real-world learning to my students.

Still, I would be lying if I claimed this test hasn’t changed me. It has. And not for the better…

The time has come to reexamine my values and the way I’m facilitating learning in my classroom and figure out how to bring them back into alignment.

Commencement Day

Blue Scholars are one of the best music groups to arrive on my musical consciousness in recent years.

Their song, “Commencement Day” actually got a teacher placed on administrative leave in Spokane, WA for sharing it with his students. Oh, the irony!

Enjoy and judge for yourself (NOTE: the song does contain multiple profanities, although not the “f-word”):

There are times that I wonder not how but if we can fix our educational system. Luckily I’m an eternal optimist. I’m also a realist – so I focus much of my energy on what I can do in my classroom to minimize my role in the forced indoctrination of our young people. Beyond that, I gladly share my opinions – with anyone who will listen – about testing, grades, professional development, the purpose of school, punishments and rewards in school, etc.

Are we just tilting at windmills?

Teaching “honors” students

Teaching in a new school comes with many new experiences. This year has been my “second first year” of teaching and it has been exhausting and challenging but also rewarding.

One thing that I’m experiencing this year for the first time is having a group of “honors” students.


  • School size = ~1,800
  • % free and reduced lunch = 90+%
  • % minority students = 90+%
  • # of 9th grade science students = ~500
  • # of 9th grade honors students = ~50
  • How honors students are selected = IHaveNoIdea

I have worked in two places and both were high poverty schools identified by our state as needing improvement. Similar schools, similar context. The big exception to the similarity is that my previous school had a graduation rate hovering around 50% and my current school has gone from 40% graduation to 80% in the last 5 years.

  • Effort - So, I have these “honors” kids and they like to learn. The compliance level is ridiculous, which scares me. The difference in innate desire to learn is dramatic – even when it’s not for points. Standards-based grading is rolling with these guys becuase they will go study and come back and re-assess when they aren’t happy with their initial grade on an assessment.
  • Computer access - Another key difference is that all but one of these kids has an internet connected computer at home. This obviously indicates a higher level of familial income than I have typically worked with. Most of the previous times I’ve polled classes about computer access at home, the percentage has been more like 50%.
  • Much greater parental involvement/ pressure - Many of these parents come to conferences. Several will call/ email me when they have questions. Kids report losing privileges at home for B grades.
  • Work gets done outside of class time - When I give homework, it gets done. Kids redo assignments that they didn’t do well the first time (and actually use my feedback!). My students are currently doing science fair. I gave the option to my non-honors classes and none took me up on it. In my honors class, 11 of 23 are participating in science fair. Nearly all of this work has happened outside of class time and yet they have made incredible progress, many of whom with complex projects (homemade motors, underwater robots, testing electrolytes in beverages).

The flipside of all of this is what keeps me up at night. What would my “regular” classes look like if each had another 2 or 3 “honors” kids returned to them? Does a rising tide lift all ships? Or would the “honors” kids just be bored/frustrated by the slower pace?

Setting the bar low

setting the bar low

My new school district is voluntarily using the process outlined by Washington State’s Teacher & Principal Evaluation Pilot (TPEP). As of the 2013-14 school year, all districts in Washington will use the new evaluation process.

I’m already experiencing its negative effects…

At the beginning of the year, all teachers were required to create Professional Growth Plans (PGPs). We were required by our district to use improving student achievement as one of our two goal areas. The second area had to be aligned with the rest of our professional learning community.

There lies problem #1…

We were not allowed to choose our own goals in this process. On the flipside, we also weren’t even encouraged to select goals that were aligned to a personal deficit or weakness. Shouldn’t a true improvement process be either, a) personal, or b) based on improving actual weaknesses?

Problem #2 relates to the requirement to assess student growth with data…

Of course, I see nothing wrong with assessing student growth. That is part of the basic core of teaching. The real problem lies in the requirement for growth data. We were essentially encouraged to give a pre-assessment as a baseline (one which we know students will score low on, since they haven’t yet encountered the content) and then measure growth from there. 70% of our students must show measurable growth. This shouldn’t be hard to do since we are comparing to a baseline pre-test and they just have to show some growth. This is the first example of setting the bar low that I see in this process.

Of course, administrator observation of the teacher in action is a big part of the evaluation. The flipside of the TPEP is that principals are evaluated as well. I’m not sure exactly but I believe that principals are required to show measurable evidence of teacher improvement under their leadership… and this is where I just busted my shins on the low bar set for me…

Problem #3 is that the requirement for administrators to show measurable teacher growth causes them to set the bar low as well…

Every administrator I have taught under has been hesitant to rate teachers as exemplary during evalutions. More than one has told me flat-out that they don’t rate teachers too highly because they want to leave room to document “growth.” It’s much easier to show growth when you set a low bar in the first place.

Which brings me around to the observation that I received today. My administrator spent several minutes gushing to me about my content knowledge, pedagogical skill, rapport with students, professional leadership, etc. Then he handed me my very underwhelming evaluation. Don’t get me wrong, he didn’t score me as “Unsatisfactory” in any areas. However, he also didn’t score me as “Distinguished” in any areas. For most areas I was scored “Proficient” with a few as “Basic.” Yet, he gave no explanation as to why some areas were only “Basic.”

Now, you must understand that I am a perfectionist and would be the first to score myself very harshly. Of course, this perfectionism also makes me obsess over my “score.” My real point here is that all of the descriptive feedback was glowingly positive and yet I had a few areas with a score of “Basic” and none with a score of “Distinguished.”

Of course, I think I know what is really going on here. My evaluator is also being evaluated. Part of his evaluation is based upon the improvement of the teachers reporting to him. Thus, if he sets the bar low, he can then score me higher at the end of the year and show clear “evidence” of improvement. This sounds just like what we were encouraged to do with our student achievement “data.”

Nonetheless, I’m left feeling that this whole process is yet another shell game that has replaced our – admittedly  less descriptive – evaluation process with one that masquerades as being more nuanced and specific but really just creates more hoops to jump through.

Color me underwhelmed…

I teach in a “failing” school and you should too

“Welcome to White Swan, where you can teach whatever you want – even if it’s nothing at all.” ~ anonymous former colleague


“If you can teach here, you can teach anywhere” ~ anonymous colleague



I work in a very small rural school located in a high poverty area on an Indian Reservation. Funding is scarce and highly dependent on federal impact aid. Test scores are low and dropout rates are high. We are labeled by our state as a “failing” school.



This is not an easy place to teach, by any means.


And yet, I’ve come to realize how blessed I’ve been to teach at White Swan High School.


Yes, working in a school like mine comes with tremendous challenges; challenges that can become incredible opportunities:
  • I teach 3 different science classes (biology, chemistry, physics) and actually taught 4 preps my first year;
  • Attendance is poor and the dropout rate is high;
  • Many of our students come from squalid, toxic or neglectful home environments;
  • Our students’ scores on state standardized assessments are very low; and,
  • We have had 4 principals and 3 superintendents in my 6 years of teaching at White Swan.
Why should all teachers have the opportunity to work in a school like this one?


I understand the depth and importance of the educational reform debate on a visceral level. I have felt first-hand the impact of federal and state funding cuts to our schools as. I have been through 3 school improvement programs in 6 years. I’ve been down that road and back again! From this I have learned to roll with the punches and to get whatever I can from these programs while still advocating for what I so strongly believe in.


I have worked with students that are homeless, orphaned, in and out of treatment, severely handicapped, and those in the early stages of learning English. From this I have learned to treat students as individuals and to explore deep-seated causes of behavior before cracking the whip. This has taught me to differentiate instruction and discipline.


Our budget is limited and fluctuates wildly from year to year (or even within one school year). From this I have learned to be an experienced grant writer with many successful grant proposals under my belt. I have also learned to make do with what I have and to be creative in my planning.


My students do have other school options (private schools) but these come with a cost – one that many of our families are not willing or able to pay. From this I have learned just how very important public schools are to our nation and to our democracy. 


Many of my students would rather be anywhere but school. From this I have learned the incredible importance of building relationships with students. I have also learned how critical student engagement really is to learning.


Many of my students are jaded and downtrodden as learners. They have been repeatedly slapped in the face by a system that is failing them while simultaneously making them feel like they are stupid. From this I have learned that students need the opportunity to explore their interests and passions.


Many of my students feel completely powerless in their home lives. They have precious few resources and limited choices in their lives. Many are in survival mode every day once they leave school. From this I have learned that my students need and deserve to have a real voice in our classroom. I have learned to afford them genuine choices and control over as many aspects of our classroom as possible (bathroom and water breaks, for example).


My students have limited background knowledge. They haven’t traveled, they haven’t experienced a wide variety of things. My students haven’t been taught about the world around them throughout childhood. From this I have learned that I cannot assume anything when it comes to student background knowledge. I have learned that my experiences and personal connections have little meaning to students. I have learned that I must help to provide as much background knowledge as possible at the beginning of every project or unit of study.


Because our professional development has been, at best, underwhelming, I’ve had to seek out opportunities to learn and grow on my own. I’ve participated in a variety of grant-funded programs through the National Science Foundation, the Department of Energy, MESA (Mathematics, Engineering, and Science Achievement). I obtained National Board Certification. I dove into Twitter, blogging, online professional development and more. I’ve read widely of books and magazines dedicated to education. I’ve started to work on my master’s. From this I have learned to chart the course of my own professional development and to continue to be a lifelong learner.


My students are predominately ethnically, culturally, and socio-economically different from myself. 90% of my students are racial minorities. 90% of them qualify for free and reduced lunches. From this I have learned to have high expectations of all students while treating them all with respect. I have also learned to use a wide variety of teaching styles and methods because lecture and drill do not work for my students.


If I were to have worked in a “high quality” school in a suburban area, I would not be half the teacher I am today. I have been forced to critically examine every single instructional decision and pedagogical move I make. I have had to grow, improve, diversify and evolve as a teacher in order to meet the unique challenges I have faced.


Every teacher should be so blessed to have the opportunity to teach in a school like mine. All of our schools and teachers would be better for it.


Photo used under CC license courtesy of Hans Gerwitz

How can the culture of a school be changed?

I threw this question out on Twitter a week or so ago and got a fair number of responses.

One of the most reasoned responses came from Edna Sackson, an educator from Australia and the author of the blog What Ed Said. Edna shares many of my views on the importance of inquiry and we have collaborated from across the globe to create the blog Inquire Within.

Edna decided to open up the proverbial can of worms in a blog post and I will respond to it here.

Dear Edna,

Thanks for taking the time to respond to my question in such detail! I think the interest in this question likely stems from the fact that it is a question that we absolutely must answer in education. It relates to the current roiling debates about education reform in the U.S. and abroad.

A little background – I’ve taught for nearly 6 years at a small public high school on an American Indian reservation in Washington State. Our school enrollment consists of 90+% minorities, 90+% free and reduced lunch, and 20+% or our students have been officially classified as homeless. This is a difficult situation for anyone to teach in.

We’ve been in “school improvement” since before I arrived here due to scores on the state standardized assessments and our dropout/ graduation rates. In this time, I’ve experienced several reform efforts. I’ve had 3 superintendents and 4 principals.

Let that sink in for a second…

3 superintendents and 4 principals.

In 6 years.

No wonder we haven’t been able to establish a clear and consistent school culture!

My question stemmed from this experience but it also goes deeper. I really want to know what is working out there – without the media scrubbing or Gates Foundation brainwashing. I want to know the real details, without the slant that school administrators (their jobs are on the line, after all!) put on the progress of their school when faced with media interest.

When a “failing school” is truly turned around (not just test scores), what is the process?

What shifts take place that prepare kids for a life beyond high school while also keeping them in school?

How do we honor the uniqueness of every student while ensuring that each is developing a skill set and knowledge base that will prepare them for higher learning and responsible, informed citizenship?


I agree with you about establishing learning principles. I believe that this is critical. It creates common language for both teachers and students to use about the culture and focus of the school.

My school is headed in that direction, and yet, I have a fear nagging in the back of my mind – the group creating our learning principles does not include all teachers.

One thing I KNOW about teachers in our school is that we cannot agree about how students should be taught. Especially when it comes to inquiry and student-centered instruction!

Many of our teachers are very teacher/textbook-centric in their instructional methods. They look upon teachers like myself in one of two ways, either (1) I am too “loosey-goosey” and don’t teach the “fundamentals” properly, or (2) what I do is okay for me but too hard for them to replicate. Furthermore, our recent school reform efforts have caused many teachers to become more “traditional” and teach their classes in a more teacher centered, drill-and-kill style.

So, whenever we talk about instruction, we go in circles about how to do it.

This is not working for our students.


I think the real question here is how to go about creating learning principles that are the “right” principles while also getting all teachers to buy in? We know you can’t force people to buy in to anything. So, how do you get everyone on the same page?