The Cruelty of the Annual Spring Testing Season

The spring standardized testing season has begun, and learning has stopped.  Or, should I say that learning the skills and knowledge necessary to become a healthy citizen has stopped? Students will continue to learn about the seamy side of adult politics until the testing ordeal peters out in May.

Especially for many students in low-income neighborhood schools, the bubble-in marathon follows the winter test-prep season which also has been driving the love of learning out of their classrooms. Real learning often stops around Christmas.  In New York City, the long pre-test drill regime is so stressful that some schools have tried to soften the test drills teaching kids breathing exercises or “modified yoga” poses. The New York Times’  Kyle Spencer explains how a fifth-grade teacher at least tries to sooth “tense 10- and 11-year-olds as they pore over test prep exercises. ‘Sometimes, I say: “Just breathe.”’”  

Spencer also describes how ever more strident “reformers” have created even more anxiety than necessary by artificially speeding up its accountability regime. NYC rushed ahead with the far more intimidating Common Core high-stakes tests even before students had a chance to be taught the more rigorous material.  The Times quotes one principal who sympathized with her elementary students. Even before the school had access to the materials to teach the higher standards, they are being held accountable for them.  But, she supported the district’s “sink or swim” mentality, “To stay competitive in the global economy, you children need to be better prepared.”

Board of Regents Chancellor Marilyn Tisch personifies the brutality of the race against childhood. Tisch says she could relate to test anxiety, but “We can’t wait,” she said. “We have to just jump into the deep end.” The NYC Chief Academic Officer Shael Polakow-Suransky seems to think he is being reassuring when he telling parents, “Everyone is in the same boat.” Since all schools, students, and teachers will be judged against one another, Polakow-Suransky claims that driving this competitive mindset down to the earliest grades is less inhumane.

My experience is in the inner city.  My high school students already know that their childhood was cut short. More than anything, they earn for the safety of trusting relationships with loving adults. My kids do not need to be told they are being dumped into a dog eat dog world.

In my experience, it MIGHT, and I emphasize MIGHT, be possible to use pep assemblies, games, rewards, and other external reinforcements to distract young children from the real reason why so much testing is dumped on them.  The indignity of high-states testing cannot be hidden from older teens, however. By the time my inner city kids were in high school, it was not possible to pull the wool over their eyes.  They often complained of being robbed of an education, and they knew that the nonstop test prep mentality is worse in poor urban schools.

Few of my high school students knew precisely why they endured so much drill and kill instruction. They just knew they were caught in the middle of a fight between adults.  My kids knew they were pawns in a vicious game, and they had a visceral understanding that the fight, somehow, involved race and class.  Most assumed that the purpose of standardized testing was to “keep us down,” so there would be plenty of low wage workers.

Being a social studies teacher, I tackled the testing issue as I would any other controversy, and I made sure that my students heard the “reformers’” sides of the accountability debate. But, the students rarely bought it.

If adults were honest with themselves, I bet, we would have long ago repudiated this effort to leap into the early 20th century by turning schools into a sped-up Model T assembly line. But this has been the problem.  During most of the year, education reform is a second tier political dispute.  The press, accurately, reports the “reformers’ (inaccurate) attacks on teachers, and then it tells our side of the story. 

During these months, though, the students’ ordeal is the story that counts, “Test, Test, Test, and the re-Test. And, now, even in affluent schools, from Christmas to spring break, often the story is just as simple, Test Prep, Test Prep, and more Test Prep.

So, in the short run, the annual test prep and testing seasons will likely get worse.  Too many districts will use the same drill and kill shortcuts when implementing Common Core. The bubble-in crowd have outsmarted themselves, however.  In the past, teachers who were fed up by this educational malpractice could quietly, one by one, leave the profession. Parents and students do not have that option.  I can’t believe that families will put up with many more testing seasons.    


  1. Here’s an idea. Shrink class sizes. For the core subjects divide the shrunken classrooms so that math, science, reading and writing have no more than ten students for elementary and no more than 12 to 14 for the upper grades. Therefore a teacher can provide students with more individual attention. There will still be some that struggle even at that small class size (I know. I’m experiencing this right now). Those students should be pulled for extra tutoring. That would be a much more cost effective way of ensuring kids are “on track” than pitting teachers against each other, demanding they take on more and more responsibilities (with less pay), and paying money to some private corporation to buy the tests.

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