Monthly Archives: March 2015

Busting Out of the Box

For 11 years, I taught students at this time of year one thing: “The Box.” I emphasized the words, repeated the phrase several times in class, and made a running joke of the whole thing. Why? Well, for one thing, my English, reading, and language arts students needed to be able to answer open-ended (written response) questions in a way that pleased the almighty state scorers. When you’re completing the formulaic writing that these high-stakes tests require, you have to meet the three criteria points: restate the prompt, use evidence from the text, and explain. The prompt and writing space just so happen to appear in an ever-important box. Typically, each reading passage also is preceded by a short blurb written – you guessed it – in a box, and some students skip right over the box on practice tests because they want to get through the stupid things. (Who could blame them?) So, I emphasized “The Box” for both reading and writing during the couple of weeks prior to the testing days.

I, being the diligent teacher whose evaluations were tied to these precious high-stakes standardized assessments, actually gave my students all sorts of tricks for the test. If the federal and state governments and school district were going to require us to jump through the hoops, I was going to make damn sure my kids had all of the necessary training. I knew the one thing that could generally assure even my lowest students a single precious point was to read “The Box.” Plus, the prompt that they had to regurgitate like trained monkeys was in “The Box.” And, we were told time and again by testing officials that anything a student wrote outside of “The Box” would not be scored. “The Box, The Box, The Box…”

Joey in the box by Louish PixelLiterally, we are forcing kids to live, breathe, and think inside “The Box” with state and national high-stakes standardized assessments. Are these the types of tests that result in academic achievement? Certainly not. Can you imagine trying to tell Monet, Van Gogh, or Jackson Pollock to paint inside a box? Can you imagine telling Mozart that he had to compose neatly on a single sheet? We may not be stifling the next great artist or musician. But, we absolutely are stifling our kids’ creativity and critical thinking, reading, and writing abilities when we shove these poorly designed assessments at them and limit their thinking on such a grand scale.

Simply put, we are boxing in our kids. We have limited curricula to the narrowest scope in the name of the tests. Whether we like to admit it or not, we teach to the tests and then wonder why our kids are not prepared for writing research papers, analytical papers, or anything that requires them to draw their own conclusions. After all, the standards and their associated tests often draw the conclusions for the students and then ask them how they got there in a neat little A, B, C, or D format. We prohibit kids who aren’t proficient from taking electives, such as art, music, foreign language, vocational and technical classes, and the like because they need more remediation on thinking inside the box.

Then, we see companies like Google and Apple that require their employees to think outside the box, collaborate, design, and dream. We hear about professors bemoaning the fact that our students cannot think on their feet, participate in debates, or complete papers without an immense amount of handholding. We see more college graduates taking five or more years to complete a typical four-year track, just so they can move back in with mom and dad when nobody will hire them.

Where is the light at the end of this very dark tunnel? Who will let our kids out of the boxes that we have been putting them into for far too long?

Through Rose coloured glasses by pangalactic garglebblasterThere are some rays of light appearing. One is that Pennsylvania’s new governor said that school ratings should be less dependent on standardized test scores. Governor Wolf has been touring the state and visiting schools, and I am encouraged by his statement. I don’t know what he saw in terms of authentic learning, but I hope he saw enough word walls and test prep materials to make him wonder what we are doing in the name of education in this great state of ours. I also hope that some teachers, students, or parents were able to get close enough to tell him about the tests without their messages being filtered through the rose-colored glasses so many administrators are wearing these days.

The opt-out movement is in full swing, and the numbers are growing daily nationwide. In Pennsylvania, the numbers are growing, too. The latest Pearson spying scandal dealt a blow to the PARCC tests. Finally, droves of parents are starting to question the tests, the standards, and the curricula at their students’  schools.

Will high-stakes testing end tomorrow? No. But, we have parents who are questioning the entire system. We have kids who are refusing the tests. We have teachers who are refusing to give the tests. And, we have some lawmakers and leaders who are beginning to truly take a look at the current state of education.

We still have a long way to go. But, we finally are seeing steps in the right direction. Teachers are notorious for saying that the tide has to turn and that the pendulum eventually has to swing the other way. After all, education reform and initiatives seem to go on a cycle and teachers have to ride out the waves or completely bail out, as I did.

The one thing that hasn’t changed after all these years, though, is the fact that students remain at the center of education. These kids need to be prepared for the next step in their journey. If we continue to box them in, if we continue to narrow the scope and follow curricula that follows the tests, we are doing our students an injustice that we cannot easily correct. If Governor Wolf has his eye on testing, if the opt-out movement continues to grow, if people push back against Pearson long enough, things will change.

That means districts need to be ready and willing to view their curricula and programs with a critical eye and get back to the business of educating kids and preparing them for life beyond the boxes. Is your district ready?

Images via Flickr by Louish Pixel and panhgalactic gargle blaster and the heart of gold

It’s Time

It’s that time of year again. Everyone is counting down to the tests or counting down the days until the tests are over. Administrators can tell you how many days until the tests begin without even thinking about it. Teachers have countdowns in their lesson plans and on their boards. egg_timer by openDemocracyParents think about which days they need to be sure to get their children to bed on time and which mornings they need to eat a good breakfast, per the directives they’ve been receiving from the schools once a week since classes resumed after Christmas break. The nurses will tell you that their offices are busier with requests for Tums and Tylenol, from students who have upset stomachs and headaches from the stress of the tests. The secretaries at the secondary level will tell you about the questions they’re already getting from kids who are planning to come to school late on testing days and what their excuses need to say.

But, what about the kids? In case you haven’t noticed, I’ve taken a much longer break than anticipated from this blog (and newsletter – sorry, loyal subscribers) precisely because I’ve been listening to the kids and their parents. I’ve been following opt-out channels to see how the parents are wording their opt out letters and how they are handling pushback from district administrators. I’ve been having Facebook message sessions with parents asking questions about how to opt out, and I’ve been sharing links to resources and information. I have been quiet so that I could listen to the people who are so desperately fighting this fight for wider curriculum, more opportunities for learning and understanding, and fewer tests and test prep lessons.

Yes, the parents are upset about what their kids are missing out on, as they should be. One mother in particular was in tears because her son’s schedule is full of remedial courses because he can’t pass the high-stakes tests; in turn, he cannot take the art class or vocational class that interests him. Other parents at the secondary level worry about what their advanced students are missing out on in the name of test prep and testing. Things like analytical writing, independent reading projects, in-depth research papers and projects, and midterms and finals – the things they worry their children need to be able to do to truly be prepared for college – are put off until AP courses or are not offered at all They, too, have every right to be upset.

But, what about the kids? When you really listen to the students, they are begging for more. Elementary students watch their parents sign checks and ask if they will teach them “how to write like that.” Kids are watching science experiment clips on their tablets and asking teachers when they get to learn “that kind of fun stuff.” Other kids want to know why school is so boring and how long their teachers have to stand at the copier making all of those testing worksheets. Similarly, secondary students ask teachers to stay after class to teach them cursive because they are worried about not being able to write the required SAT paragraph or sign their names. They ask math teachers about creating personal budgets and balancing checkbooks. And, they ask when they will have to take a midterm or a final because they don’t know how to study for “big exams like they will have to do in college.”

Growing by  Strep72This is what happens when you try to standardize the art of teaching and learning. Kids do not come in a one-size-fits-all package. Young students want to explore and learn and talk and share. They want to get their hands dirty and create. Others want to read that book from cover to cover because it sounds like a funny story, not because it’s on someone’s recommended reading list. Still others want to do math in a way that makes sense, and not in the one way that is best for the test because it will get them the  most points. They are sick to death of hearing the word “test,” and they are frustrated that school seems like a months-long marathon to prepare for a test that determines their worth when they’re still dreaming of becoming a superhero, a princess, a chef, or a combination of the three. One thing they don’t want to become is a teacher. Who can blame them?

And, those are just the elementary kids. The secondary students are finding themselves and realizing what their values, beliefs, and interests are. They want to take electives so they have opportunities to learn about various cultures and languages, vocations, art and music, and other programs while they are still students and have time to figure out what they really want to do after those four yeas of high school. Unfortunately, they are told they cannot take those classes until junior or senior year, if at all, because of the testing requirements of the freshman and sophomore years or because those programs have been sacrificed due to the testing requirements and lack of funds.

It’s time to opt out.

It’s time to listen to the teachers, who have been warning of the adverse effects of too many standards and high-stakes tests for years.

It’s time to listen to the kids.

It’s time to listen to the parents.

It’s time to take back public education while we still can.

It’s time.

For further information regarding what the true public education stakeholders – the students, parents, and teachers – have to say about high-stakes testing and opting out, check out these resources:

For more information on how to opt out your child, visit:

Images via Flickr by openDemocracy and Strep72