Andrew Freeman: Why I’m Not Preparing My Students For The STAR Tests – April 25, 2012

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

It’s April, and public schools across California are gearing up for the annual STAR (Standardized Testing and Reporting) exams.

Cardboard boxes full of exam materials have already arrived at campuses, freshly prepared by the experts at Educational Testing Service – the non-profit corporation with a multi-million dollar contract to develop, score and report STAR tests.

Trained STAR test coordinators at each campus have dutifully received testing materials and have placed them in secure locations. Normal schedules have been shifted and pencils have been sharpened. Teachers are completing last-minute preparation exercises.

Except me. I refuse.

Just to remind readers the STAR exams are (in contrast to the SAT, ACT, CAHSEE, etc.) the federally mandated standardized exams that public school students must take annually. The exams measure student performance in academic areas such as reading, writing, math, science and history. Schools are assessed on how well students perform and that performance effects the school’s funding. If schools continuously do poorly, they lose funding and it can affect people’s jobs.

So, if we scrapped the STAR program we could hire 1,014 more teachers! Now that’s a plan which makes sense.

I have rarely met an educator who approves of the STAR exams and the reasoning behind them. I have also rarely met an educator who is willing to speak out against them in a public way, and that’s often because they fear losing their job if they don’t fall in line.

It’s also often because we are darn busy enough teaching full-time during the day and grading and prepping at night to be part of an anti-testing movement.

By the way, as we all know public school funding is lacking these days. Well, according to the 2011 California Department of Education’s annual report to the legislature, the STAR program cost $66 million for that year. Further, according to the 2010-2011 Certificated Teacher Salary Data from the California Department of Education, the average teacher salary across the state in 2011 was $67,871.

So, if we scrapped the STAR program we could hire 1,014 more teachers! Now that’s a plan which makes sense.

So why won’t I prepare my students for the STAR tests?

My plainest response is that I don’t have that kind of time to waste. While I may have been hired by the state to serve young people with a mandated standardized curriculum, I ultimately answer to a higher calling that has me make sure that on a daily basis I am meeting the individual learning needs and desires of my students. I take each and every hour that I have with a class seriously. The kids have showed up to learn, and I will not waste their time or energy.

I’m angry enough that next week I will lose more than half of my normal class time with students because of the testing taking place. I can’t imagine how fuming I would be if for the whole year I had to be training my students to memorize facts and fill in bubbles. Actually, if that had been the case I would have quit a long time ago.

I am fortunate to work in a school that values real, holistic, spontaneous and relevant learning over boxed in, narrow-minded state mandated standards. My student’s scores may get so low at some point that they’ll have to fire me, but at least I will go down knowing that I did my best to meet the real educational needs and desires of my students.

It goes even deeper. As someone who loves and appreciates History as much as I do, it hurts to see it melted down into a fact based, memorize the information you’ve been fed kind of a situation. With four multiple choice answers to choose from, the state ensures that the student does not complicate issues by offering varying interpretations, analysis, opinion, or creative thought.

I find more value in guiding young people to learn how to think, evaluate, analyze – not memorize, repeat, regurgitate. Besides, those history facts?  They are one click away on the smartphone anyhow. Learning how to learn, and how to develop and apply their skills? That is what young people need to prosper in the 21st century.

Schools trying to raise their test scores have resorted to the use of incentives to encourage the students to try hard. Redwood High School in Larkspur has given Cold Stone ice cream to test-takers. Mira Costa High School in Manhattan Beach gave last year’s top 40 high scorers free tickets to Disneyland.

A company called Positive Promotions offers school’s to purchase sets of such incentives as a “Rock the STAR” guitar shaped tag with chain, and “Do Your Best on the STAR” camouflage temporary tattoos. Some schools have even offered student grade increases if they perform well on the STAR.

Me, I’m going to apologize to my students for having to be dragged through such a demeaning process once again, thank them for doing it (for our school’s continued existence apparently depends on them doing it), and offer them the following incentive: that I will continue to hold to my promise of never wasting their time to serve the linear, misguided, data – hungry request of the state bureaucracy, but will continue to try my hardest to share a worthwhile, engaging, interesting, and useful educational experience with them.

Let’s continue the dialogue. Contact me at

Andrew Freeman is a teacher at Arcata’s Northcoast Preparatory Academy.

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