homethe billthe standardsthe testdiscussiontesting our schools
homethe billthe standardsthe testdiscussion
in the classroom

In the course of making "Testing Our Schools," correspondent John Merrow and producer John Tulenko interviewed teachers and school administrators who are grappling with the realities of testing and its effects -- for better and worse -- on teaching and learning in the classroom. Here are excerpts from some of those interviews, with educators in Virginia and California, in March 2001.

The Mood Inside the Schools

Lola McDowell
Teaches kindergarten in Richmond, Va.

... This year has been the most stressful year for me and for my team, and I think for many teachers, because there has been so much pressure from on top, that you have to make sure that these children learn these SOLs [Standards of Learning], that they pass this test. And we're doing lesson plans, OK? Detailed lesson plans. We're making games, we're correcting all those papers that you see in my file. We're not only doing this during the day; ... we have to take work home. People forget that we have families and we have a life of our own. So on weekends, we're doing work. I'm up sometimes 'til 2 a.m. trying to do stuff that will help these children learn. ...

I am not against assessment. ... I am against the methods they are using to test our children. I am against the pressure and the stress that is put on us for getting children to master these SOLs at the same rate of speed when everyone knows that all children do not [learn] the same way or at the same rate. ...

Maybe you have a problem with the fact that your school is rated down at the bottom. ... There are four categories, you were in category four. ... Does it bother you, the public perception of the school?

... It bothers me because I think they need to come in and see what we are doing. They're on the outside looking in. ... They have not come over here to see what our children are doing. I'm proud of this school, I'm proud of our children. And when you look at where our children come from and where they started and where they've gone to from September, they have made progress. And that's one problem that I have. People don't look at where the children started from.

Mark Edwards
Superintendent of schools in Virginia's Henrico County.

What are the consequences [if a low-scoring school doesn't improve its test scores]?

Well, I think that it is absolutely imperative, ... [if] you look at [scores] over time, ... and if we're not achieving, then I think we have to have consequences, whether it's dismissing people, whether it's reassignment, or support and coaching that should occur along the way.

So you can imagine at some point -- not this year maybe, but at some point -- you can look at some data and say, "Merrow, you're not doing your job, you're out of here"?

Absolutely. To me, it's as simple as this. Use a principal [as an example]. If a principal has been in place in a school over a period of time and there have been resources available and support and nurturance, and all of the things to help someone be successful, after that period of time students are not learning, then we ought to give somebody else a chance and say, "Let's let somebody else try to lead this team."

What's the period of time?

I think a 3 to 5-year time frame is reasonable. I think that's enough time in terms of a principal to build a culture, to make the connections, to support the faculty's learning and development. I think we need to do everything possible to support that process. But after a period of time, we need to ask the question, "Is the job getting done?"

And have you said this to your principals?

Yes, I have said that.

And what do they say?

Well, there are different reactions. ... I think there is an acknowledgement that we have to embrace accountability. If the public tax dollars are paying our salaries and providing the resources, we need to understand that there should be a result. And so I try to do it in a positive sense and a sense of support, but absolutely with a clear message that we must be accountable in terms of students' achievement. ...

Kaye Thomas
Principal of Baker Elementary in Richmond, Va.

Now you're the boss, and you want scores to go up. ... Do you feel pressure?

Pressure on myself. I've always put pressure on myself to do the very best I can. I think that we're looking at children's lives and children's learning and I think that's a very critical thing to have in your hands.

But what about your own job security? You think about that?

You think about it every day. I want to do the very best that I can do. ... We have such support that it's not a daily threat or a yearly threat. ...

You said [your school was so close to passing the test that] you can taste it. And you described it in terms of competition. It really is intensely competitive. One of your teachers has a football huddle every morning and carries a penalty flag--

That's right. We just think those things motivate the children. We don't have the children compete with each other. ... As far as we're concerned, it is a little bit of a competition because we want to be the first at-risk school, or challenge school, that passes. We want to be the first school with 50 percent or greater at-risk population to pass the state SOLs. ...

I want to reach full accreditation more than anything I want in the world. One of the teachers said the other day, "Kaye, if I offered you a million dollars or full accreditation, which one would you take?" And I said, "Full accreditation." And I truly mean that, because of the ramifications that it would have for the children, for the parents, for the teachers, for the community. And also just for the whole state. If Baker can do it, then everybody can do it.

Karen Merimam
Teaches English in Richmond, Va.

It's a little scary for me as a professional. You know, I've been a great teacher for 27 years, and now the SOLs are knocking on my door. Is Karen going to be a great teacher after that, or is she just going to be one of these broads that can't keep up? ...

You feel a lot of pressure to get those scores up?

I think every teacher in the state of Virginia feels the pressure. I don't care whether [they've] already passed the SOLs or not. It is like, if you can't do it, then you're not worthy. And if you look across the board, you've got a gap. You've got teachers like me that are starting to go moldy, you know, we've been around so long. And then you've got the new bloods coming in. And there was a gap there where people were not going into education at all. And it's scary to me to think that I might go out of a career that I've given my life to and enjoyed every day of it knowing I was considered kind of substandard at the end.

Because your kids didn't do well?

Because of where my kids placed or this or that. But I think it's important for the entire state to know, whether it's a county school, whether it's a city, whether it's a rural school, it really doesn't matter. It's the fact that we all hold this responsibility for our children and the teachers can't do it alone. The teachers cannot do it by themselves. It's got to be all the way around. Everybody, whether you have a kid or not, you've got to come in and make sure our public schools systems work. And the parents have got to do their part at home. I can't do it all, and neither can anyone else in this state.

Steve Weinberg
Hired by Frick Middle School in Oakland, Calif., to figure out a way to increase test scores.

We're in a situation here where we're under the gun in terms of our SAT-9 scores [California's state exam]. Our principal has been notified that he is on probation. ... So no one here takes lightly the SAT-9.

Everyone knows the defects of the test, or some of the defects, and I've told them more of the defects as I've come to know them. We're well versed on that. But we have no choice. It's like when you play in a crooked game, when it's the only game in town. SAT-9 right now is the only game in town for us. ...

What is your overall emotional feeling about this process? ...

... When I got here, I saw a school that was doing a magnificent job in so many ways, and yet its Achilles' heel was that people were looking at the test scores and judging us negatively based on that, and threatening some of the good programs we have here, and the good people we have here, because of those test scores. ... I have just focused on learning everything I can about the test and doing everything I can do, legally and ethically, to improve our scores. So I have to set aside everything else.

And when it's over, what are you going to feel?

I'm not sure. If the test scores go up, then I'm going to be elated. But I'm also going to be very careful not to ascribe the gains to better teaching, because I believe that good teaching was going on here before. Good teaching is going on here now.

Judi Hirsch
Special education teacher in Oakland, Calif.

You have superintendents and you have school boards and you have principals and vice principals and teachers who, instead of taking a stand for the children, go along with saying, "Oh, we must get our test scores up." And that's really -- it's very sad. We're supposed to be the advocates for the children. ...

If you see what happens to children who take this test, they cry, they throw up, they walk out of classes, they misbehave badly. And I work the hardest to pull them up from a negative number, up to ground zero, so I can move them forward, and this sets them back. ...

These tests are making things worse?

Terrible. Terrible. I mean, what's going to happen with the exit exam? Kids are going to drop out of school in droves. A couple of weeks ago we had the high school exit exam here, and you know what the kids were told? "You have to pass this to graduate." Well, the kids were saying, "Well, why should I go to school anymore?" I mean, that's tragic. That is the most tragic thing in the world. ...

It also was very demeaning to me as a teacher, because it says that what I do doesn't count at all. It's more important that children do well on a test than they do well in my class. My grade doesn't matter, my comments don't matter, my teaching doesn't matter, it's just this one test. It's affecting the entire profession. That's why people are leaving the profession, which is a tragedy. And you know who are leaving? Your good teachers who refuse to give the test.

Teaching the Curriculum, Teaching the Test

Robin Coppock
Teaches math at Courtland High School in Virginia.

Most of the time, in the past, I've always given problems where [if] they showed their work, they got partial credit. I'm turning more and more to multiple-choice type questions because that's the type of question that they're going to have to answer on the test. ... And we have to give them the multiple-choice questions because we have to train them how to take a multiple-choice type test. So I end up doing things like [saying], "OK, guys, remember you really don't need to know how to solve this problem. You can take all the answers and substitute them in."

So one thing that I see that's happening is that the kids -- particularly the smarter kids, because I've got smarter kids -- they know ways around this kind of thing, and instead of solving the problem they'll take the answers one-by-one, plug them in, and see which one works. So they're manipulating. They really don't know that concept. They know how to substitute a number in.

Herbert Morris
Math teacher in Richmond, Va.

We don't have the time to do the projects, the applications, because the emphasis is so much on the test. What good does it do to have a kid do a project when he is not going to be tested on it? ... I miss [the] application of what we're doing, being able to walk the kids out and say, "How far is it across this river? How can you calculate it? I'll give you a sexton or a compass and you can measure the angle. Do you know how to measure the length of this river without getting wet?"

You don't have time to do that?

Not truly. Not truly. ... They would learn so much more applying it, going out and getting dirty and doing it and applying it. But we don't have time to do it. We've cut back on field trips. I know school districts where they say you may not go on school field trips during the week.

Because it's not on the SOL?

That's right. It's not on the SOL.

Kaye Thomas
Principal of Baker Elementary in Richmond, Va.

The assessments assess what we've taught all year. It helps us to see where we're strong in reading and in social studies. It helps us to see where we're weak in math and in science. ... We've never had any standards-based program that was assessed that gave us this information. So even the high-stakes tests do afford us an opportunity to grow and to develop and to improve. ...

I met yesterday with a teacher [who] was leaving teaching because she said the Standards of Learning and that whole system had really taken the joy out of teaching. What would you say to her?

I can't see that it's taken the joy out. I do think that it's changed. It's changed in the fact that now we have to teach different things. I think that probably once people get used to them, once people get their units built up, once people get their portfolios of specific skills built and deepen them, then they will be able to come back and do what some people term "the fun things." Are they fun or are they fluff? That's my question. Are the children learning from the activities or is it just fluff that is fun but there's no learning in it? ...

People that think it's not fun or that you cannot make it fun have never been in Alice Lumpkin's classroom, in social studies, when she has all the children lined up like they're on an airplane and she's flying them across Virginia, talking about the four regions. She's serving drinks and she has a captain's hat and she's speaking into a microphone just as a stewardess would be. And they tilt the plane to see the Appalachian Mountains. They tilt it the other way and they've gone so many miles to see the Piedmont. People that think it can't be fun don't see things like that. ...

Mark Edwards
Superintendent of schools in Virginia's Henrico County.

I think that with the standards we are definitely in a new era in terms of the specificity of what should be taught. And there is less freedom, there is less autonomy. And we also have to pay more careful attention to how much time we spend on different areas. ... I mean, I think that certainly there's more structure and specificity with what the standards are providing. ...

And I think there is a lot of positive with that, but for a teacher who said, "I wanted to teach what I wanted to teach," or "I wanted the freedom or the autonomy," ... there's no doubt about it, there is less autonomy for the teacher in the classroom. ...

Our young teachers coming in are navigating that ground really well, in a wide sense. We hired 500 teachers last year, and 500 the year before. So they're navigating it because they haven't known the freedom and the autonomy that our veterans have. So they're coming in and saying, "This is what it's about, this is what I have to do."

So the veteran, though, is used to having that unit on poets of the First World War, and spending six weeks on it. Those days are gone?

Right. One of our excellent social studies teachers said, "I used to love teaching about the War of 1812. ... I used to spend three or four weeks on it because it was something I liked, and it had a lot of good information on it. I've had to change. I can only spend a day on it, two days on it, because I have to cover this expanse of our curriculum." But he also shared with me, he said, "I used to only teach up to 1950. ... We ought to teach the last half of this century as well." So it is requiring some adjustment and some pacing that previously we didn't have to pay attention to. ...

But if you're trying to cover everything, is there a risk that it becomes education as trivial pursuit?

Well, I think there is that risk. And I think the feedback to the State Board of Education was just that. ... So they've been through a process the last couple of years of refining, in fact, [and] are now kind of at the culmination of that. ...

Steve Weinberg
Hired by Frick Middle School in Oakland, Calif., to figure out a way to increase test scores.

What we have done is we've taken a three-fold approach here. We've done things that are educationally important and which we hope will show improvement in the SAT-9. ... The district implemented a reading program. ... We really hope that that program ... gets the material at their reading level, that this will show up on the scores. ... We've purchased new dictionaries for every classroom. For all the English classrooms we have new grammar books on order that should be coming. We've sent teachers to be trained on new techniques to use with students. All of those are things that are valuable whether there was a SAT-9 or not, and that we'd push for whether there was a SAT-9 or not. ...

We've also done some lessons that are geared to what we know is going to be covered on the SAT-9. From just the score sheet, it'll tell you there are going to be eight questions on capitalization. ... And so [in class] we have worksheets on the details of capitalization, because we know that's going to be tested. ...

[Is that a good use of your time as a teacher?]

I don't know. But it is necessary if we're going to improve the scores. ...

Testing Disadvantaged Kids

Lola McDowell
Teaches kindergarten in Richmond, Va.

We have children [where] passing those tests is the last thing on their mind. They are worried about whether they are going to have food on their plate, or whether they are going to have a home to go to after school, whether somebody is going to be shooting a gun in front of their house, drugs, whether they are going to be abused physically. Those are the types of things that our kids are worrying with that a lot of children around the state don't have to deal with.

So one thing we have to do is keep them motivated, keep them wanting to learn. And that's very hard. ... When test time comes up, we have pep rallies. We've got to pep them up. If everybody passes this test, or if you do your best on this test, we'll take the children to a skating party, or we'll have a pizza party. Those kinds of things, just to keep them motivated and keep them just excited about learning.

Karen Merimam
Teaches English in Richmond, Va.

I had to teach the eighth graders this SOL that they have to pass, that they have to take. And in the meantime, in a city system like we have here, I had kids coming to school that were living in cars. And I had kids coming to school to eat. I had kids coming to school that were living somewhere other than with their parents, in group homes. And when you have a 13-year-old kid or a 14-year-old kid in the eighth grade dealing with something that you and I would have a hard time dealing with, and then we pompously hand them these SOLs and say, "This is what you have to do to get out of school," it seems a little ridiculous at times. ...

With those eighth grade SOLs, I had to go all the way back to the beginning. I had to start teaching vocabulary straight off the bat. And not start with the eighth grade vocabulary, but I had to go back to the third and fourth grade vocabulary. My eighth graders could not decipher a sentence with [the word] "saucer" in it. They didn't know what a saucer was. ...

So, teach them the word saucer and move on.

And we did. And that's how you have to climb. I had a really high passing rate with my eighth graders. With the writing and the English tests, out of my two classes of eighth graders, they all passed. ...

So what's the big deal then?

The big deal is we're playing catch up. ... We've run into a stumbling block. Our children are falling down in English SOLs basically because they're not reading. There are no books in the house, or if there are books in the house, they're not given to the children, and [no one says], "No, turn the TV off. Do this. Do that." ... They haven't been exposed to certain things. ...

Judi Hirsch
Special education teacher in Oakland, Calif.

You suggested that taking these tests is damaging. I'm not sure I understand that.

I'll give you an example. ... I work with poor kids, black kids, immigrant kids, kids from low-income families. ... I work with learning disabled students. I worked with one of them on the SAT-2, the one that gets you into college. ... I read to him, this student of mine, the entire literature part. ... He's brilliant, and lots of people in Oakland know him. ... He couldn't even understand not only what the passage was, he couldn't even understand the questions, and he knew they didn't want him to understand. ... And he's black, and he's poor, and he's from a single-parent family, and it was clear that they didn't want him to do well on the test. ...

It was depressing. ... What a hurtful thing to do to children. ...

You're saying, "Well, instead of supporting kids, [school leaders are] spending their time trying to raise scores." You could argue that they're supporting kids by trying to raise scores.

Well, the sad thing is a lot of money in Oakland, for example, is being spent to cram words, vocabulary words, into kids so they'll do well on these tests. But the money should be spent on lowering class size and helping kids learn to read so they'll learn to think. ...

But California's giving out money based on how your kid is doing. ... It sounds like it could be a good idea: Let's give money to schools who do well. ...

But giving money to Piedmont--

Piedmont is a wealthy area?

Very wealthy. It's inappropriate. Money should be given to schools that need the money.

But schools, poor schools, can get the money. All they have to do is improve from where they were last year.

Well, you know, people don't learn by threatening them. People learn in a supportive environment. That's just how people do it. That's the nature of human beings. So if you want a child to learn, you have to give them a lot of support and a lot of encouragement. You can't threaten a child or a school or a school district into learning.

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