Testing… What Do We Do?

This morning I am adding a blog, an essay written by Sarah Desautels, my 17 year old daughter who is a junior at Lawrence Central High School in Indianapolis. When I returned home from class last night, she asked if I could take a look at this paper and I was amazed… to say the least . She captured the hearts of many educators and students with her beautiful words and notions!


Sarah Desautels

Mrs. Legge


21  February 2012

Make Your Mark Heavy and Dark

            A student walks into a cold, fluorescently lit classroom. He absent-mindedly gazes at the rows of desks and blank expressions of unfamiliar faces in front of him. He hurriedly slides into desk number four. The thump of his heart echoes in his ears as he anxiously fumbles for his freshly sharpened number two pencil. The scantron sheet glaring at him from the corner of his desk is a nagging reminder of the fact that the test which he is about to take could potentially determine his future. No amount of tutors, five hour energy drinks, or extensive prep courses could help him now. This test, completely irrelevant to his musical ingenious, will supposedly assess just how “intelligent” he is. There is an overwhelming crisis in the current education system of America. Children and teens across the nation are crying out in exasperation and seeking help as we continue to suppress their latent talents with unethical exams. These standardized tests are ineffective in our current education system as they do not accurately assess the intelligence or accommodate the unique thought process of each individual student. To better understand the severity of this crisis, one must first look at the pressure that standardized tests places on teachers, their tendencies of measuring with bias and inequality, the emotional and psychological effects they have on students, and their alternatives.

            Teachers are feeling the pressure now more than ever to make sure their students succeed when taking these standardized tests. Panic stricken and hopeless, some teachers have resulted to cheating in order to save their students and their jobs. Cheating has been uncovered across the country as “more states and school districts have made test results the key factor in teacher evaluations and student growth” (Blume 1). The “No Child Left Behind Act,” passed during the Bush administration, has an unrealistic end goal of 100% proficient test scores by all American students and schools by the year 2014 (Scrivner 1). This demanding and overreaching goal has caused many teachers to “teach to the test” instead teaching to their students while simultaneously narrowing their curriculum. Alina Saminsky states in her article that “teachers are cutting out crucial subject areas such as music and art, and are beginning to spend excessive amounts of time on test preparation” (2). Drilling students solely on what they will be tested on and reaching beyond the curriculum to simply teach test taking skills will never engage or encourage an adolescent to embrace learning, yet most teachers are forced to focus on these less than important matters. Colette Kemmerling argues that that “standardized tests are beneficial as they identify what content was not mastered by students and allow teachers to identify areas of strength and weakness in their teaching plans” (1). However, this is simply not the case. Standardized tests do not help to identify areas of weakness in the teaching plans of these teachers, but rather they are the reason for the areas of weakness in their teaching plans.

Not only are standardized tests ineffective in our current education system, but they also have many assessment traits that do not demonstrate equity.  One of the biggest faults of these uniformed tests is that they often do not take diversity into account. More often than not, disabilities and language barriers are over looked in the construction of these high stakes exams, and all students are held to the same standards. “On  average, students with physical disabilities, ADHD, visual impairments, and so on need special assistance while taking a test which is typically not made available to them” (Haladyna 178). Granted, “The Department of Education has issued a new regulation to allow a greater number of learning-disabled children to take alternative tests rather than standardized tests” (Dunnan 1).  However, this new regulation has not been made available to all disabled children, and thus it does not express true equality throughout the education assessment system of America. Diversity in ethnicity is also a huge factor to consider when weighing the inequity of standardized tests. “African Americans currently score lower than European Americans on vocabulary, reading, and mathematics tests, as well as on tests that claim to measure scholastic aptitude and intelligence”(Phillips 1). This is not to say that there have not been some exceptions made by certain school systems for adolescents with language barriers and different cultural backgrounds, but is it fair to give non-native English speaking students the same allotted time on an exam as a native English speaking student when he/she might have trouble interpreting our complicated language?

The current education system in theUnited Stateshas turned to standardized testing in order to assess students from coast to coast and determine crucial matters such as passing or failing a grade, graduating from high school, or being accepted into certain colleges. What most don’t realize is that these high stakes exams are greatly impacting students both psychologically and emotionally. After doing poorly on a test, “low-achieving students often become disillusioned and less motivated which, in turn, leads to less effort to learn and an emotional and academic downward spiral” (Haladyna 160). Standardized tests are continuing to evoke more negative emotions toward learning, resulting in a depressed and desperate student body. In addition to leaving students in despair, standardized tests are turning schools into very competitive environments. “More students are worried about how they will do compared to other students instead of worrying about how they will do for the sake of doing their personal best” (Knight 1). Standardized tests usually consist of a multiple choice format which “limits teaching and learning to knowledge at the expense of skills and abilities such as critical and creative thinking and problem solving” (Haladyna 16). Colette Kemmerling writes in her article that the ACT and SAT college admittance exams have shown to be effective in predicting a student’s future performance in higher education, in the military, and in the work force. (1) This is not an accurate statement. One test could not possibly determine whether or not a student is capable of reaching their full academic potential at the college level.  How can one expect the children and young adults of this generation to perform their best while under this kind of pressure?

            It’s time for the scantron to meet its worst enemy, creativity. This nation is continuing to advance at an astonishing pace, and individualism is extremely prominent in this generation, so why is the attempt being made to homogenize students by assessing them with standardized tests?  The students of this country need to be recognized as inimitable individuals. They need to express their creativity and inventiveness. These tedious exams should be substituted or at the very least, complemented with performance assessments so that all strengths of a particular student can be acknowledged and embraced. “Performance assessments are opportunities for children to actually do something; maybe conduct an experiment or write a play” (Pollard 1). According to Pollard, a type of this performance assessment might be a portfolio where students collect examples of their work over the course of a year. (1) Education needs to revert back to the basics and allow “hands-on” projects with visual aids to resurface and ignite the smothered flame in the brains of these distraught students. Through creative alternatives, the American education system can put an end to the regulation of inventive students and curriculums, and light the spark of education in the hearts of all students once more.

            This is the twenty-first century where originality reins. The Apple Company comes out with a modified version of the iPod practically every month, yet the standardized tests given to students in the United States have remained the same, with few modifications for years. According to the Webster Dictionary, the definition of the word “standardize” is causing something to conform to a standard. The key word? Conform. Students across this great nation are conforming into something they’re not and losing their innovation and genius potential every time they pick up their pencil to “make their mark heavy and dark.”  The students of America must break free of this routine, cookie cutter normalization that is standardized testing.  High stakes exams can’t see the texture of oil paint on a starchy white canvas. They can’t hear the strum of a guitar or the powerful voices of a choir. They don’t see the fear and frustration in a child’s eyes. They only know percentages, deadlines, and what they think is accuracy. So where is the hope? Where has the stimulation and drive to learn gone? Standardized tests are putting too much strain on students and too much pressure on teachers. Student engagement and involvement are clearly lacking. These monotonous tests cannot possibly be effective in the current education system of America because they do not accurately assess the intelligence or accommodate the unique thought process of each individual student. It’s time for a different approach to evaluating students. It’s time for true ingenuity and authenticity. It’s time for the American student body to make its mark heavy and dark, not by bubbling in hopeless letters, but rather by living out loud and exceeding all expectations.




 This excerpt from my new book, “How May I Serve You?”  published soon, is written by a former graduate student who now teaches 11th grade in a large public high school in Indianapolis. I believe she captures the feelings and thoughts of this “testing scenario” and its effects on teachers and students alike! Thank you Brea for sharing your experiences, intelligence,  and mostly … your heart!  

Testastic: The Overactive Testing of Today’s Students


Brea Thomas

Your palms are sweaty. You can feel your lungs, which are typically the most anonymous aspects of your body.  Your eyes turn blurry. Tears? Sweat drops?  You aren’t sure which. And your stomach is making the most humiliating noises—ever. You have to use the bathroom, you now realize, and it is too late. You were too busy willing your mind to remember miscellaneous items of importance: two No. 2 pencils, a calculator, your registration confirmation, your most comfortable clothes, and oh yes…your mind, which is an endless stream of equations, vocabulary terms, and self-doubting remarks.  Your saving grace?  That you did remember to eat breakfast.

You were too busy, and now—ten minutes before the test begins—you want to scream out into the silence of the forsaken testing room that has you captive for the next four hours. You slip a piece of gum into your mouth, and try to breathe. Those unfamiliar objects in your chest—you lungs—wince in pain and constriction. You start to recall your testing strategies: deep meditative breathing, counting to ten, thinking of a calm and peaceful place.

All of that works…until the proctor brings your exam booklet. You are assigned seat number 17 in a room full of 50 chairs. The proctor writes pertinent information on the board that seems blurry to you. You are supposed to have glasses, but you loathe the feeling of anything on your face. You wish that you had taken some Advil.  But it is too late for that because the booklet has arrived and is in front of you, staring at you with its formality.  You muster the energy to complete the registration page full of circles to bubble in about everything except your heart rate, and then the… “DO NOT OPEN UNTIL INSTRUCTED” label makes you wince, as you realize that the test in front of you must be endured.  It is time to begin. 

This is the young adult version of test anxiety.  I can recall nausea as early as five days before a test. Sleeplessness. Incessant studying.  Fear of failure.  Fear of the room.  Fear of forgetting.  Sleeping with note cards.  Sleeping on top of test booklets. GRE madness.  And this was as a young adult. 

Now, reread the aforementioned and place yourself in a six year-old body.  A ten year-old body.  A fifteen year-old body. You lack the words to articulate exactly how you are feeling.

Today, as I remind my junior students about the PSAT and attempt to distribute preparatory test booklets, hands flail and mouths moan.  When I attempt to do practice questions during class, or assign reading comprehension passages—timed—with small incentives like candy on their desks for completion, eyes still roll.  iPods are conspicuously retrieved from book bags and slid into one, or both, ears.  I then proceed to do the “tap” game: tap, tap Student A on the shoulder, followed by, “Put that away.  You cannot listen to that right now” statements.  In the increasing “Age of Examinations”—when are all schools, students, and teachers are being hyper-measured by assessments—one cannot but wince at where we’ve arrived, and where we are heading if there is no intervention.  Indeed, my eyes are now rolling, too.   

  It is no secret:  today’s high school students are faced with the throes of several standardized tests, which occur multiple times per year. Additionally, teachers are required to use pre and post tests in their daily curriculum, furthering the volume of tests that are filling desks and grade books. For the typical student, test anxiety is weekly.  Monthly. And scores are posted online in grade books, or in web portals, with a few paper reports delivered to their houses with “Pass,” “Fail,” and other designations.  Our students are disconnected from their actual scores, and ultimately, from the severity of test scoring.  The reality sets in only when scholarships or graduation are at stake.  Teachers are left speaking “old news” or “irrelevant news” about testing and what it means for the future. 

Yet despite all of the apathy and anxiety, we educators and piling more desks onto our students’ desks.  And yet their scores are not improving, nor is their morale.  Our schools and teachers are being reprimanded, and now May is not even a solid month of teaching—it is “Test Month.”  Our administrators have to make announcements about “testing etiquette” : get rest, eat breakfast, no loud music in the hallways, be on time to school so that you can pass your examination.  And most importantly, don’t just take a test booklet and scantron; write your name on them, and refuse to mark anything.  Such is the advice to our young minds who hold “testing” just higher than… I am not quite sure what to say here?  

My first year as an AP teacher, I learned the hard way that low testing morale exists at all academic levels.  Many AP students were simply paying eighty-five dollars for the registration fee, and then refusing to answer any questions—simply to “skip-out” on their final examinations in the AP class. That a student would waste—because there is no other word for it—his or her parents’ money, and then sit through the examination period without answering a single question, and not feel guilty about this lackluster behavior, made my conscience ill.  This kind of behavior is deplorable.

What or who is to blame for the increasing “test apathy” that even our top students face, in combination with the increasing “test anxiety” disregard the significance of testing. 

As teacher and proctor of  today’s schools, you feel as though you are delivering the stress unto them, hoping that the result is that they become more cavalier, more self-assured, more proficient. Ready for the next test.  Ready to meet all of the state’s mandated requirements.  But then, you do not see the students’ readiness.  Their application of the skills that you’ve honed all semester—plummet when they are tested. You feel their apathy, and if you are an apathetic teacher—you absorb it, too.  There is a complete dismantling of education occurring right now, in the area of testing.

The truth is, we are placing our students and educators in a conundrum: prepare for, study for, produce for…the next exam.  Also, increase your scores and should you not pass—re-do in multiple sessions of remediation.  Your teacher may or may not be placed on probation, and you may or may not attend graduation.

As a high school teacher, I see the various sides of the debate quite clearly.  Standards are needed and with them come assessment—otherwise, differentiation occurs to a degree of unrecognizable CORE standards.  I get it.  But as Joshua* (name changed for privacy purposes)  sits there for the fourth ECA remediation session with furrowed brows and a sweaty forehead, I feel at a loss for the thousands of students who—like Joshua—simply become stumped by the testing scenario.

During practice sessions on Tuesdays and Thursdays, Joshua would glance at me, glance at the booklet, and both of us—in that awkward moment of frustration and confusion, felt stumped.  Joshua had me as his English teacher and despite class instruction on thesis statements, the research process, and multiple selections of reading comprehension, when faced with a new booklet and a too sharpened pencil, he starts to “clam up” and “freeze.”  I feel as though those words capture the state of testing in today’s school systems; we are clamming up, freezing our students’ success in the name of standards that are not truly measuring anything much, with accuracy.

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