Monochromatic Butterfly: The Problem With High-Stakes Testing in Schools

Monochromatic Butterfly: The Problem With High-Stakes Testing in Schools

Before relocating to Austin, I had spent eight years teaching math and/or science in Egypt, Mexico and Honduras at elite private schools that used American textbooks, American curriculum and were accredited by American institutions.  The majority of my students were not Americans, but graduated with a combination of diplomas: local, American and/or IB (International Baccalaureate). After graduation, nearly all attended college, mostly in the US, Canada and England, and a few remained in their own country for higher education.

I proudly returned to the US, toting my international bag of creative, engaging teaching tricks, especially curriculum-based projects that I had created, ready to dazzle my American students. So, imagine my utter shock when resettling into American life, teaching at an Austin public high school, and discovering that the standards were actually lower. Moreover, my teaching creativity was all but stifled for the sake of “standardization” in the most controlling environment I had ever taught.  

During the eight years that I had taught outside the US, a gradual yet educationally lethal trend, like a viral infection, had set in.  As a result, no longer were educators preoccupied with fostering such lofty ideals as stimulating students to become “life-long learners” and “critical thinkers” or “accepting personal responsibility.”  Instead, teachers were pressured to focus tremendously on preparing students for high-stakes standardized exams that tested basic knowledge.

During fall semester, I remained at school for 12 hours a day, researching and writing lesson plans, marking papers, making parental contacts and doing a myriad of bureaucratic things. I was in “survival” mode although I had 13 years of teaching experience. By mid-March, we science teachers stopped the regular teaching instruction, which was already geared toward the state standardized test, and did nothing but drill past standardized exam questions and review science objectives.  This was in addition to an 80-question baseline exam, morning/lunch/afterschool science tutoring and horrendously punitive five-question quizzes where the students could score only a zero, 80 or 100. A “more rigorous” version of the five-question quiz was later implemented among Biology teachers: students could only score a zero or 100!

In the end, our science students did well enough on their high-stakes standardized exams to receive “recognized” status.  The school was euphoric, but I was apprehensive.  I had never conceded that the end justified the means and I certainly did not think that doing recognizably well on any state-issued exam should be the aim of education, especially since we classroom teachers were allowed to do little else than standardized test preparation. 

Additionally, the standards, which were drilled into the students, had transformed themselves into being the ceiling of knowledge rather than the foundation. Anytime I attempted to go into a deeper level of understanding, some of my colleagues warned me that the “students don’t need to know that,” since the state standardized exam would not test them on it.

I started my second school year refreshed and full of new ideas that I wanted to implement now that I knew how things worked at my high school.  How naïve I was! The powers that be had their own ideas. Since the administration trumps an individual teacher, my creative, fresh ideas were quickly edged out as the school year unfolded, not to resurface again until after the mighty state standardized exams were completed.

The administration deemed that science teachers, who taught the same course, had to use the exact same lessons 80 percent of the time. With tighter control on teachers’ lesson plans, administrators easily compared electronic grade books online. The grade books “looked good” if majority of the assignments looked alike.  The grade books “looked bad” if there was more than 20 percent diversity among assignments.  As it turned out, we common subject teachers taught about 95 to 100 percent of the exact same lessons since, given the challenge of teaching at a conducive pace for student comprehension, more time was necessary to sufficiently cover the learning objectives than we had previously allotted.  Most teachers sacrificed their 20 percent of creative lesson opportunity in order to “be on the same page.”

Whatever happened to effective teachers excelling in their classroom by presenting their own engaging standard-based lessons? Being handed scripted lessons to use in one’s classroom reduces a creative, experienced teacher to a robot. When administrators control lesson plans, they put outstanding teachers into a mediocre box.  Innovative teachers are chastised for thinking out of the box since individuality is only praised when a teacher provides the same instruction as every other teacher.

Could some of the reasons why the US has fallen behind globally in both math and science be due to the mediocrity that is being perpetuated by teaching to high-stakes tests and the practice of forcing teachers to use the exact same lesson plans? In all knowledge domains, we highly value the innovators—not the mediocre masses.  So why in the world would the powers that be squelch innovative teachers?  Answer: Quality control.

As one sympathetic administrator informed me, the quality of teaching instruction had been waning; so the administration had to strengthen it. As noble as that cause sounds, the “one size fits all” approach does not lead to stronger teaching; it lowers superior teaching and makes bad teachers lazier. Teacher enthusiasm for a lesson affects student enthusiasm. If teachers are estranged from the creative, personalizing process of lesson planning, then how well can they deliver those scripted lessons? Public school teachers, who research, write and deliver their own standard-based lesson plans, are the last defense against the mechanization of mediocre public education. The US will only recapture its high academic glory through creative and innovative teaching—not cookie cutter scripted lessons presented by disenfranchised teachers.


Teresa Y. Roberson is a teacher and writer living in Austin.

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