Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Standardized Tests Shortchange Education: Concern for Minority Youth

I get why we need standardized tests. Teachers teach the objectives, students get tested on the objectives and state tests provide a standard, verifiable way to ensure that all students are where they need to be. But not all students are the same. They do not begin the same way and they certainly do not progress the same. They are each unique individuals who may not comfortably conform to a test that is so confining and narrow in format.
In a school that is 65% Hispanic, 28% Black, and 3% White as well as Asian, “the test” has come to dominate our curriculum at the expense of all else. 

People are always talking about how public school teachers only teach to the test but nobody really knows what this means. About a month ago, a story ran in the Houston Chronicle about “the war room,” an entire classroom paneled with white boards from ceiling to floor (never mind that I am still working with chalkboards). Every wall is covered in magnetic strips describing every student’s name, demographics, teacher, scores from the past and anticipated scores for the current year. Everything is color-coded so that each student can be known in a single glance from their at-risk status to their language proficiency. 

The students are reduced to numbers, lives are reduced to statistics and teachers are reduced to input variables. I recognize the need for data and I understand the necessity of “leaving no child left behind,” but the extremes of this type of analysis leave me sick to my stomach. I do not teach a standardized subject. I am an elective teacher for Communication Applications and my job is to “assist” the “core” areas in ensuring all I do is somehow, TAKS (now STAAR)- related. 

There are 4 tests: English, Math, Social Studies and Science. For each of these tests, schools will shut down for a half to a whole day in order for students to “practice” taking these tests in real, simulated conditions. Once all practice testing is complete, students who are not “on track” to receive the scores necessary to pass will be pulled from their elective courses (my class, along with Art, Theatre, and anything else un-tested) in order to attend testing tutorials. 

Electives are the reason many students bother to come to school at all, and since this process has begun, our school’s attendance has begun to drop. As an elective teacher, we are not allowed to mark these students absent, and we are responsible for ensuring these pre-selected students are caught up with all they miss in order to pass our classes. By the way, this is not just for students simply at-risk of scoring low on these standardized tests; tutorials are also being required of those very close to achieving  “commended” status in order to improve the school’s bottom line.

As a non-core, elective teacher, my course has been deemed as not nearly as important as core-tested subjects by my own administrators. As a Latina educator struggling with my own voice in a school whose teacher demographics (40% Black, 40% White, 15% Hispanic) are hardly reflective of the students, I urge future Latino/a educators to question the validity of such a limited focus.  The challenges our country and our world will face in the future will require problem-solving, innovation and imagination; qualities which are being stamped out as our public institutions systematically require that every thought be standardized.

~ A Latina high school teacher in Houston, Texas currently enrolled in a Masters program at UH