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 andrewmfree@hotmail.com.

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


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

  1. martin le

    Without standardized tests, I can imagine many teachers straying from the standards and teaching random lessons. Heck, an 8th Grade math teacher might spend the whole year teaching 4th Grade math if there’s no means of evaluating her. And oh, by the way, a math teacher at my school did exactly that. Not surprisingly, a majority of her students failed the STAR test at the end of the year.

    #62697
  2. I Yam Edumacated

    I hope this clown gets fired before he damages any more students.

    #62707
  3. This clown was Humboldt County Teacher of the Year last year.

    #62708
  4. Andrew Freeman

    Martin Le,

    I agree that teachers should be evaluated and held accountable. However, that accountability should be towards the individual learner, not to state standards. I believe such accountability measures should be developed on the local level – maybe even within the school itself – and include qualitative along with quantitative measures. All aspects of the instruments of accountability should be completely transparent (unlike the STAR tests).

    #62710
  5. Carrie

    My children are still in elementary school, but I hope that they have the opportunity to be in your class someday. I sense that your students get the kind of deeply engaging experience I was lucky to have in high school. While life is full of tests of all kinds, and learning to be good at them is valuable, learning how to “think, evaluate, analyze” is what will really propel them in life.

    #62714
  6. Brad

    Schools lose funding for low test scores? I admire this teacher for sharing, though often struggle to understand the root causes of the contempt for assessment. There is a deeper frustration that abounds that we need to pay attention to, I just think the enemy (assessment) may be misidentified. Is it the inability to control external factors, the pressures of teaching, the transparency it provides on a system the public so highly values (but under funds), or just a tactic to avoid scrutiny? There is something deeper here, and pervasive, and worthy of our attention. Maybe the new assessments (v. 3.0 if you will) intended to assess higher order thinking skills will change this, maybe not. Have you ever seen someone who can think, evaluate, analyze and has no facts to share? Have you ever seen Jay Leno ask basic history or geography questions on the street, do you think these people can think, evaluate, analyze, but just don’t know the factoids? Anecdotally, schools that really focus on these deeper learning skills and do it well (and teach to the standards) score really well. So I agree, don’t teach to the test or test prep, just teach to the standards and I commend him for doing just that. $66 million, I think that might amount to 1/10 of a teacher per school and that’s about 1/10 of 1% of the the total funding for education.

    #62796
  7. secondary teacher

    I fully understand Andrew’s frustration with STAR tests and I am experiencing the same feelings as I prepare my public high school students to perform like circus animals. As teacher I am between a rock and a hard place because personally I don’t believe in high stakes testing, however school funding and my job is dependent on it. The ability of students to think critically and for themselves is virtually nonexistent, and it scares me. I have a hard time getting students to respond and answer questions unless they are enabled with multiple choices to choose from. As a society we need to get beyond developing just basic recall skills and teach our future leaders how to achieve results in life, not just on a test.

    #62806
  8. Jessica Haag Callahan

    For martin le and I Yam, NPA's STAR test scores are higher than the other Humboldt County high schools. 2011 STAR results for History – NPA 382.5- Arcata High 377 – Mckinelyville High 331- Eureka Senior High 352.

    #62851
  9. Jessica Haag Callahan

    For martin le and I Yam, NPA's STAR test scores are higher than the other Humboldt County high schools. 2011 STAR results for History – NPA 382.5- Arcata High 377 – Mckinelyville High 331- Eureka Senior High 352.

    #63332
  10. Jessica Haag Callahan

    For martin le and I Yam, NPA's STAR test scores are higher than the other Humboldt County high schools. 2011 STAR results for History – NPA 382.5- Arcata High 377 – Mckinelyville High 331- Eureka Senior High 352.

    #63353
  11. Brad,

    I realize a fault of my column was that I did not take a moment to note that I do support student assessment and evaluation of teachers. It's a matter of how we go about it. I don't think it can be done effectively in any context on a statewide, or federal level. In setting these narrow statewide benchmarks, and putting such high stakes in the outcome for schools and teachers, we are creating a situation where teachers have their hands tied.

    I tihnk we have to place trust back in school districts and schools themselves to conduct their own assessments and evaluations. Parents should be involved, as should students!

    Regarding the state standards themselves, there's nothing wrong with having them. In fact, I have found them at times to be useful in planning out a U.S. History or World History course – but don't tell me that my school's future or my own as a teacher are going to be tied to my student's ability to memorize the facts surrounding that standard and spit it out on a multiple choice exam. Why, we might have an event like 9/11 where I might want to stray from those standards for awhile and deliver a background History for a few weeks on that event. That's what I mean when I say that high stakes standards hinder opportunities for spontaneity – or what we sometimes call "teachable moments".

    Anyways, it's a complex situation and I appreciate your comments.

    #62861
  12. Brad,

    I realize a fault of my column was that I did not take a moment to note that I do support student assessment and evaluation of teachers. It's a matter of how we go about it. I don't think it can be done effectively in any context on a statewide, or federal level. In setting these narrow statewide benchmarks, and putting such high stakes in the outcome for schools and teachers, we are creating a situation where teachers have their hands tied.

    I tihnk we have to place trust back in school districts and schools themselves to conduct their own assessments and evaluations. Parents should be involved, as should students!

    Regarding the state standards themselves, there's nothing wrong with having them. In fact, I have found them at times to be useful in planning out a U.S. History or World History course – but don't tell me that my school's future or my own as a teacher are going to be tied to my student's ability to memorize the facts surrounding that standard and spit it out on a multiple choice exam. Why, we might have an event like 9/11 where I might want to stray from those standards for awhile and deliver a background History for a few weeks on that event. That's what I mean when I say that high stakes standards hinder opportunities for spontaneity – or what we sometimes call "teachable moments".

    Anyways, it's a complex situation and I appreciate your comments.

    #63333
  13. Brad,

    I realize a fault of my column was that I did not take a moment to note that I do support student assessment and evaluation of teachers. It's a matter of how we go about it. I don't think it can be done effectively in any context on a statewide, or federal level. In setting these narrow statewide benchmarks, and putting such high stakes in the outcome for schools and teachers, we are creating a situation where teachers have their hands tied.

    I tihnk we have to place trust back in school districts and schools themselves to conduct their own assessments and evaluations. Parents should be involved, as should students!

    Regarding the state standards themselves, there's nothing wrong with having them. In fact, I have found them at times to be useful in planning out a U.S. History or World History course – but don't tell me that my school's future or my own as a teacher are going to be tied to my student's ability to memorize the facts surrounding that standard and spit it out on a multiple choice exam. Why, we might have an event like 9/11 where I might want to stray from those standards for awhile and deliver a background History for a few weeks on that event. That's what I mean when I say that high stakes standards hinder opportunities for spontaneity – or what we sometimes call "teachable moments".

    Anyways, it's a complex situation and I appreciate your comments.

    #63354
  14. Are there assessments that actually help teachers refine their teaching?

    #62864
  15. Are there assessments that actually help teachers refine their teaching?

    #63334
  16. Are there assessments that actually help teachers refine their teaching?

    #63355
  17. I believe one of the goals of assessment should always be to help the teacher refine what they are doing. Under the government mandated standardized testing mechanism, however, the assessment directs the instruction in a very narrow way. Teachers know that in any given class they have a wide variety of diversity in regards to individual learning needs. Allow the teacher to direct the assessment to reasonably align with those individual needs. What good does it do to continuously pound a one-size-fits-all standardized exam down the throat of a child who is no way ready for it? Allow the teacher to refine their teaching of the class and of individuals based on what they see as being successful and unsuccessful.

    This also requires a redefining of what we mean by "assessment". It should never always be quantitative data. Assessment needs to incorporate qualitative observations, along with the story of the child.

    One of my personal beliefs also is that assessments should always have a positive outcome for the child. First, the assessment should be rich and truly offer the child an opportunity to share what they know, understand, comprehend – and when appropriate offer the opportunity for them to analyze, make an argument, or come to their own conclusion. Second, the outcome of the assessment should always have a focus on accentuating the child's success, and on making improvements for the future. This simple formula can be applied to a student, who in other terms may have "bombed" or have "aced" the assessment. I approach them the same. There is always something positive to highlight in what they did, and there is always room for improvement. That should be our goal in assessment. To keep the child moving forward in the learning process.

    #62883
  18. I believe one of the goals of assessment should always be to help the teacher refine what they are doing. Under the government mandated standardized testing mechanism, however, the assessment directs the instruction in a very narrow way. Teachers know that in any given class they have a wide variety of diversity in regards to individual learning needs. Allow the teacher to direct the assessment to reasonably align with those individual needs. What good does it do to continuously pound a one-size-fits-all standardized exam down the throat of a child who is no way ready for it? Allow the teacher to refine their teaching of the class and of individuals based on what they see as being successful and unsuccessful.

    This also requires a redefining of what we mean by "assessment". It should never always be quantitative data. Assessment needs to incorporate qualitative observations, along with the story of the child.

    One of my personal beliefs also is that assessments should always have a positive outcome for the child. First, the assessment should be rich and truly offer the child an opportunity to share what they know, understand, comprehend – and when appropriate offer the opportunity for them to analyze, make an argument, or come to their own conclusion. Second, the outcome of the assessment should always have a focus on accentuating the child's success, and on making improvements for the future. This simple formula can be applied to a student, who in other terms may have "bombed" or have "aced" the assessment. I approach them the same. There is always something positive to highlight in what they did, and there is always room for improvement. That should be our goal in assessment. To keep the child moving forward in the learning process.

    #63335
  19. I believe one of the goals of assessment should always be to help the teacher refine what they are doing. Under the government mandated standardized testing mechanism, however, the assessment directs the instruction in a very narrow way. Teachers know that in any given class they have a wide variety of diversity in regards to individual learning needs. Allow the teacher to direct the assessment to reasonably align with those individual needs. What good does it do to continuously pound a one-size-fits-all standardized exam down the throat of a child who is no way ready for it? Allow the teacher to refine their teaching of the class and of individuals based on what they see as being successful and unsuccessful.

    This also requires a redefining of what we mean by "assessment". It should never always be quantitative data. Assessment needs to incorporate qualitative observations, along with the story of the child.

    One of my personal beliefs also is that assessments should always have a positive outcome for the child. First, the assessment should be rich and truly offer the child an opportunity to share what they know, understand, comprehend – and when appropriate offer the opportunity for them to analyze, make an argument, or come to their own conclusion. Second, the outcome of the assessment should always have a focus on accentuating the child's success, and on making improvements for the future. This simple formula can be applied to a student, who in other terms may have "bombed" or have "aced" the assessment. I approach them the same. There is always something positive to highlight in what they did, and there is always room for improvement. That should be our goal in assessment. To keep the child moving forward in the learning process.

    #63356
  20. I couldn't agree more. In the behavioral observations I do in my early childhood environments, I always begin with the child's, teacher's, and parents' strengths and build from there. Thanks for sharing your perspective.

    #62901
  21. I couldn't agree more. In the behavioral observations I do in my early childhood environments, I always begin with the child's, teacher's, and parents' strengths and build from there. Thanks for sharing your perspective.

    #63336
  22. I couldn't agree more. In the behavioral observations I do in my early childhood environments, I always begin with the child's, teacher's, and parents' strengths and build from there. Thanks for sharing your perspective.

    #63357
  23. Excellent letter, Andrew. Thank you so much for your courageous and thoughtful examination of this relatively new testing regime. Your students are lucky.

    #63425

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