Susan Stone Kessler is executive principal of Hunters Lane High School and author of "The Principal's Survival Guide."
In 2015, I was invited to testify in front of the U.S. Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor, & Pensions as part of a roundtable entitled “Fixing No Child Left Behind: Innovation to Better Meet the Needs of Students.” I was honored to participate to share the innovative practices of the urban high school I lead and help to inform the policymakers of the lessons we had learned from the implementation of No Child Left Behind.
I must admit I was a bit starstruck by the pageantry of the event, the deep wood decorated hearing rooms in the hallowed hallways of our historic nation’s capital — and there I was, with a handful of other educators and famous senators from all over the country that I had seen before on TV, and they wanted to hear our ideas about innovation.
But they never got to, because all we talked about for the entire event was testing. We never discussed innovation.
It was still an exciting event, and considering I thought this was my one chance in life to testify in front of Congress, I made it count. I talked about things that had been bothering me for years.
For example, when a senator referred to a school as "low-performing," I challenged him “and all of us to stop using the terminology of low-performing schools. Schools are buildings. They house children and there are no low-performing children. There are children who have greater needs than other children for a wide variety of reasons, most compelling because they live in poverty, and every child counts. I wouldn’t say someone is a low-performing child any more than I would saw someone is a low-performing politician.”
All decorum within the chambers was broken as laughter broke out as a response to my pointed comparison. And then the laughter stopped, and we went back to talking about testing — again.
Three years later, in my home state and most others, testing continues to dominate political rhetoric and monopolize millions and millions of dollars that could be used to teach children rather than test them. In the effort to make sure we are holding people "accountable," we lose children in American public schools every day. We lose them to monotonous test prep, to a reduction of art and music time, and to a deletion of science fairs and field trips. In some places, you can time recess in seconds rather than minutes because we want to use the tests to sort and select kids, schools and districts.
Kids lose every single day in these scenarios. The only winners are the test creation companies, and the realtors who can trick families into buying house A rather than house B, not because House A is superior but because the kids who live in neighborhood A score higher than the kids who live in neighborhood B. It doesn’t seem to bother anyone that these tests often measure household income and the parents' educational background more than the quality of education received by the student in the school. Hence, the cycle of madness continues, and in many ways all that’s changed from NCLB to ESSA is the letters abbreviating the law’s title.
Part of the reason for the continued over-testing of students is the design of ESSA. ESSA required states to include performance assessments in language arts and math, graduation rates, English proficiency for English language learners, and then add “other indicators” for student success.
Do we think states added the indicators of student empathy or creativity? Did states consider rewarding innovative practices or cultural sensitivity? Of course not. Those indicators would be too hard to measure. This leads to the entire reason ESSA hasn’t been a great success in repairing NCLB: The flexibility that was designed as part of ESSA seems to have more characteristics of rigidity than flexibility. If I allow a prisoner on death row to choose lethal injection or the electric chair, at the end of the day, the prisoner is still dead.
We continue to perpetuate the myth that because you can test something, you should test it. It was a point brought up by a senator at the hearing on the day of the roundtable discussion, and it resonates within me as a practicing educator every day.
I am grateful that my school is not graded based on the average height of our students, an indicator that is measurable. I serve high school kids in grades 9-12. Some are shorter than five feet. Others are close to seven feet. We allow them to grow as their body (and genetics) sees fit. I don’t measure them weekly. I don’t send reports home saying that for some of my students their height is "below basic," nor do I congratulate others for reaching "proficiency" in their height. I don’t give awards to kids who grow the most over the course of a year because children grow at different rates according to their own timetables. Just because we can measure an indicator doesn’t mean we should.
The current practice with testing under these circumstances in many states is just as ludicrous as the height measurement example. In some places, they want to assess an art portfolio or assess Kindergarteners or hammer schools over what percentage of students are chronically absent from school. We can measure these indicators, but it doesn’t mean we should.
I am not opposed to a healthy level of standardized testing as part of a holistic process of evaluating American education. There is no effort being made to create a holistic process of evaluating a child’s education. We have a lot of data collected on students, and there is a wide range of actions of what individual schools do with that data to advance student achievement. What we continue to lack data on is all the other parts of a child’s experience in school that we don’t measure because of inability to standardize it.
Very few parents will answer the question of "What do you hope your child accomplishes this year?" with the answer, "I am hopeful he will be proficient in math class." The dreams that parents have for their children, for how they develop and who they grow into, have their academic prowess weaved within the total package. However, the overuse of testing isn’t about child development or student achievement. It is, at best, a way to pit schools, districts and states against one another as if competition is going to advance student achievement — or at worst, another billion-dollar industry that is paying for yachts and private jets of the top 1% at the expense of a meaningful, American public education for the children of the other 99%.
Educators leave their own kids every morning to travel to schools to serve other children. What makes this career worth leaving our own children for is to help students expand their minds, to consider a wide variety of perspectives, and to think about ways to solve the world’s problems.
We bandage boo-boos and write college recommendation forms. We reinforce the values of not hurting one another or taking something that doesn’t belong to us. We dry tears. We applaud growth. The combination of all of these things we do each day is the method behind the magic. The quality of a school or a teacher cannot be reduced to a standard of effectiveness based on how a student performs on one test one day. The tests should be a small part of a larger picture. A human is the most complicated being on the planet, and a child is so much more than a test score.
I was optimistic that ESSA would repair some of the errors of NCLB and discontinue the over-inflated value of standardized testing. Unfortunately, for most states, the name of the law is different, but everything else has stayed the same. The lack of improvement in this integral area may be a relief for the test generation machine and those who sell real estate based on test scores; however, make no mistake, this lack of progress comes at the expense of this generation of children and their teachers.