Welcome back to “7 Hidden Truths of Testing,” in which we examine the realities of standardized testing in Mississippi from the educator’s point of view. It’s not filtered research from a corporation; it’s not a scientific study from a government agency. It’s just testimony from the people seeing it happen on the ground. My hope is that you find a perspective that better informs your views of public school operations.
In the last post, I described how inconsistent the testing experience is for individual students across the state.
Now, let’s talk about the effect testing has on the teaching profession.
Truth #3: Testing turns teachers into liars, cheaters, and thieves.
Ok, ok. Calm down. I’m not saying standardized testing provides just the right amount of competitive drive to automatically turn good teachers into cheaters. Though there certainly are examples of just that.
No, in this post I mean to focus on the effect the testing culture has on teachers as a group. I want to talk about the evolution of the profession, if you will. Individuals don’t evolve; populations evolve over time.
First off, let me be clear: we teachers go into the profession to be upstanding members of the community. We want to build honest relationships with youngsters. We want to help them find their moral compasses and be citizens of firm character. We didn’t go into this profession to be competitive, to get money, or to fight for scores. We went into it to inspire our students to discover greatness within themselves, by developing authentic relationships with them.
Most of us don’t have a problem with assessment. Or even standardized assessment. But no matter how many reasons each of us can give as to how this current testing culture is damaging learning and student morale, we are forced to pretend everything’s okay. We have no choice but to encourage the kids, to tell them that closing the year by taking tests ad nauseum is right and good and important. We have to lie to them.
Of course, every Mississippi teacher who helps with standardized testing is forced to lie, every single year. Did you know it’s standard operating procedure that should a school experience a deadly threat during testing, such as a tornado or a campus shooting, the teachers’ #1 priority shall be to secure all testing materials? That’s what teachers have to agree to in order to help administer these tests. It’s a corporate testing thing.
Think about that. If there’s an armed gunman roaming the halls of your child’s school during a state test, we teachers are supposed to place your child’s safety second, until we make sure all testing materials are accounted for and secure. Of course, we wouldn’t actually do that. Every single teacher in Mississippi would violate the testing agreement and protect the kids first. But that’s the point. Everyone’s a bit of a liar.
And we might have a subculture of cheating on the way, too. Some teachers are known to supply sleepy kids with minty gum or Altoids to spike their brain back into gear. Is this the school equivalent of performance enhancing drugs? Wouldn’t you be crazy not to keep up with the Mrs. Joneses? Wouldn’t you be doing a disservice to your kids and your school not to take advantage of every edge you can find? What happens when the Mrs. Joneses start finding advantages that are outright wrong, and you’re still facing pressure to keep up? If you think it’s silly to assume the testing culture encourages cheating, you should check out Freakonomics by Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner. They have an entire chapter showing how the testing culture can turn teachers into cheaters.
But who cares if you lie about wanting to protect a corporation’s tests? Or if you tell a kid that obtaining a high score is the most admirable thing he can achieve? Little things like that can’t change an entire culture, can they? Actually, many economists believe they can. It’s called Broken Windows Theory. Malcolm Gladwell describes it this way in his best-seller The Tipping Point:
If a window is broken and left unrepaired, people walking by will conclude that no one cares and no one is in charge. Soon, more windows will be broken, and the sense of anarchy will spread from building to the street on which is faces, sending a signal that anything goes.
But really! Gladwell goes on to describe how the New York Police Department under Guiliani fixed a huge problem of violent crime in the subway systems by busting people for jumping over turnstiles and cleaning graffiti off the subway cars! It’s all about whether people believe anybody really cares. Little things matter in steering a culture!
So where does it end for us?
Everyone outside our profession says they respect teachers, but no one wants to listen when we tell them it’s counterproductive to test kids this much, this hard. Instead, we have to pretend this is all normal. We are forced to violate our consciences.
Make teachers violate their consciences enough, and it becomes a nuisance to have a conscience at all.
Moral flexibility becomes an adaptation necessary to a teacher’s survival. A lot more necessary than moral fortitude.
Years later, you end up with a population of teachers who are too complacent to stand up for what’s right for their students, or too deeply awash in a corporate agenda to know the difference. That’s how the modern testing culture makes teachers into liars, cheaters, and thieves.
James Comans is an 8th grade science teacher in Southaven and contributor to MSEdBlog. His views are his own and do not represent the views of any other entity.