OSSOWSKI: Confessions of a standardized testing survivor

By   /   May 17, 2012  /   No Comments

By Yaël Ossowski | Florida Watchdog

Yael Ossowski

TAMPA — Even after hours of cramming mathematical formulas, composing rough drafts and tracking down ever-elusive No. 2 pencils, there was no more excruciating experience than having to complete a state-mandated standardized test.

The teachers, worn out from their recent intensive lessons on math, reading and writing expected on the next standardized test, would arrive on test day with the latest Mary Higgins Clark novel in hand.

Anxious students entered the classroom knowing all-too-well that failing the test, which had been drilled into their heads, would mean repeating the grade — risking total social shame.

Throughout my primary and secondary education, this was the essential feeling tied to standardized tests.

For our class, they represented a barrier to future goals and dreams, not the rubric used to measure them, whether they were yearly writing exams to pass to the next grade or the SAT and ACT to be accepted into college.

It was no surprise to hear, therefore, that 66 percent of students failed the writing portion of the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test this year.

That led the Florida State Board of Education to do what has been done all too often —avoid admitting failure and pass an emergency rule lowering the standards of the standardized test.

This has been met with cries of outrage from the teachers and the parents, and they have every reason to be upset with the status quo.

‘Every Child Left Behind’

As a survivor of this form of standardized testing, I can attest to the fact that it is both narrow-minded and wrong.

Students with divergent strengths and passions, such as history, art or science, are made to conform to predetermined standards that simply cannot be met by the majority, evidenced by the 1.3 million students who dropped out of high school in 2010, according to the Department of Education.

It was no coincidence that friends of mine called the mandatory tests “Every Child Left Behind,” skewing the federal program of a similar named passed into law by President George W. Bush in 2001.

For example, we look to my 10th grade writing examination question, administered by North Carolina: “Write an article for a school newspaper about the meaning of individuality as it relates to being a member of a group.”

Now for some, this may seem quite simple. But to the majority of students, who are separated into academically gifted, remedial or sub-par “regular” classes, the writing subject requires much more focus and detail, one that cannot solely be achieved by a standard teaching style mandated in the school curriculum.

To that end, I did not do so well on that writing exam, scoring in the lower portion of the average tier of my peers — a sad fact for someone now paid to write.

This inspired me to reach out to a friend of mine now working as a high school English teacher in North Carolina, a studious chap who received a perfect score on the 10th grade writing test.

As a fellow survivor of the standardized testing scheme, he knew all too well the pitfalls of this method of grading students.

“What is the point of original thought if you must adhere to a standard that some administrators, far away from the classroom, have set?” he exclaimed, lamenting that teachers are required to “teach to the test” so that students will succeed.

“What we’re doing now is filtering an entire education and way of interpreting language down to such a narrow view,” said the English teacher.

He emphasized that more than 90 percent of his students passed the latest mandatory state tests, but he could not say the same for his colleagues in the teaching faculty.

“The bubbles on the paper don’t say more than the teacher who actually spends time with the students in the classroom everyday.”

Testing the test

A similar conclusion was reached by Rich Roach, a former teacher and 15-year member of the Orange County Board of Education, who decided to conduct a standardized testing experiment later featured in the Washington Post.

Roach took the FCAT himself last year and failed dismally, getting wrong 84 percent of the math questions and only scoring 62 percent on the writing portion, which would get him a “mandatory assignment to a double block of reading instruction,” according to Roach.

“It seems to me something is seriously wrong. I have a bachelor of science degree, two masters’ degrees, and 15 credit hours toward a doctorate. I help oversee an organization with 22,000 employees and a $3 billion operations and capital budget, and am able to make sense of complex data related to those responsibilities.

“It might be argued that I’ve been out of school too long, that if I’d actually been in the 10th grade prior to taking the test, the material would have been fresh. But doesn’t that miss the point? A test that can determine a student’s future life chances should surely relate in some practical way to the requirements of life. I can’t see how that could possibly be true of the test I took,” wrote Roach.

If the highly-educated people responsible for drafting the tests cannot even pass them, what hope is left for our nation’s children?