Veteran teachers in Michigan express angst over standardized test prep

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Illustration with white lesson plan and green, polka dot background.

Some educational experts feel as if standardized tests are here to stay. But how is standardized test prep affecting Michigan’s classrooms? Original artwork by Aubrey Roskoskey.

For the past two decades, David Atkins has pursued his passion for teaching with excitement. As an Advanced Placement and eleventh-grade English teacher at Dearborn High School in Dearborn, Mich., he has looked forward to coming to work each day and playing a part in educating the nation’s youth.

Lately, however, he’s noticed something has changed. Over the past few years, the literature, poetry and humanities lessons that once held the spotlight in his classroom are increasingly being cast aside to make room for a new star – standardized test prep. As American classics such as “In Cold Blood” and “The Grapes of Wrath” gave way to article analysis and college readiness practice exams, he says school days have become less progressive, less interesting and ultimately, less satisfying.

“Twenty-five years I’ve been teaching, and in the last couple of years, it’s just reached this point where I ask, ‘What the hell am I doing?’ It’s not really teaching anymore,” Atkins said. “It’s not getting into people’s minds and exploring ideas. It’s showing students how to pass a test, and it lacks any sense of creativity.”

A Growing Trend

Atkins does not seem to be alone in this line of thinking. Thirteen years after legislation such as the No Child Left Behind Act refocused America’s educational system toward Common Core standards, teachers across the nation are vocalizing their grievances with standardized tests and their effect on classroom culture.

According to a 2016 survey distributed by the National Education Association, 70 percent of educators say state assessments are not developmentally appropriate. Additionally, a separate 2014 NEA survey states 42 percent of teachers report the emphasis on standardized test scores has a “negative impact” on their classroom.

Jennifer Rivera is the director of the Bailey Scholars Program, a non-traditional, community-based learning program at Michigan State University. She said that while standardized tests are beneficial for determining student comprehension, society has a way of examining test results a bit too critically.

“I find that standardized testing is useful, and I don’t think it will ever go away,” Rivera said. “I just don’t think it’s powerful as the only form to assess student learning. Standardized testing has enabled us to develop a form of curriculum and note the big ideas we want students to understand, but teachers should have full autonomy with how they want to get the material across.”

Under Pressure

However, Atkins explained that this is not always the case. He said pressure from administrators pushing for better test performance has forced him and his colleagues to omit creative-based units from their curriculums and replace them with more test prep exercises – so much that he said nearly 80 percent of his class time is dedicated to standardized test preparation. Much of that prep includes practice SAT exams that develop test taking skills, leaving little time for exercises involving creative writing or humanities-based education.

Stack of classic literary novels against a bright blue sky background.

Classic literary novels such as the ones shown above were once a staple in many classroom lesson plans. Now, some teachers are expressing frustration over having to replace literary units with standardized test prep. Photo by Erica Marra.

“This has been my first time teaching regular language arts in five or six years, but back when I was teaching those classes, we still taught American literature,” Atkins said. “Poetry, short stories, novels. I had a lot of choices, but the goal was always the same – to get kids to read, to think critically, to make global connections. But now, that’s all gone. We read ‘The Crucible’ in the fall, maybe ‘The Great Gatsby’ in the spring.  A play and a novel for the entirety of American literature.”

Rivera also recalls an instance during her earlier teaching days that altered her perspective on standardized testing.

“As a high school teacher, I spent my afternoons working with students taking remediation training for history. When I was working with them, I asked, ‘What other electives are you all taking right now?’ And they said, ‘more remediation courses.’ So that was really frustrating for me, knowing that they weren’t getting anything useful out of their education. I think that was a huge reason why I pulled out of traditional education.”

Maria Eugenia Alcón-Heraux is the director of public relations with The College Board, which administers the SAT. She said college admissions exams like the SAT are designed to measure what students are learning in high school, and “what evidence shows they need to know to succeed in college and career.”

But for some students, that success might come at a cost. Aditya Singh, a senior high school student at International Academy East of Troy, Michigan, has taken the SAT exam three times. While he says his school, a competitive International Baccalaureate program, did not include SAT test prep within their curriculums, they did utilize class time to complete IB test exercises. He explained that in his opinion, the act of both preparing for and taking of both standardized exams brought on an additional consequence: stress.

“I find standardized testing stressful because the fact is, if I don’t score high enough I may not get into the school I want to,” Singh said. “I believe that the negatives outweigh the positives. There are many things that different students are talented at that don’t involve reading, writing and math, but there may not be a test for those.”

A Clash of Perspectives

Controversy aside, Rivera remains firm in her belief that when pursued appropriately, tests — even the standardized kind — can promote growth and accomplishment among the country’s youth.

“Do children pick out what they’re going to wear in the morning? Typically, yes,” Rivera said. “Do children take a driving test and earn a driver’s license? Typically, yes. Those are all critical thinking, problem solving skills that they’ve developed in order to meet a set of criteria, and that’s test taking right there. Test taking has a way of fitting into your everyday life, but we never think about it that way. Sometimes it’s just a way of emphasizing whether or not something is worth doing.”

For Atkins, however, that worth may not outweigh the negatives of what he views as an increasingly frustrating career.

“I always imagined doing 30 years in a classroom, and I used to think that would be a breeze because I loved what I did,” Atkins said. “But now I’m looking around and I’m not sure if I can live another year based on test data. It’s the only thing we pay attention to.”

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