Guest Blog | By Courtney Johnson, ColumbusEA
I am a high school English teacher turned school librarian at Columbus Fort Hayes Arts and Academic High School. Literacy is my life’s work. I’m a National Board-Certified English teacher with a reading endorsement and a Master’s in Library Science.
I spend my days working with students and teachers, helping them find books, conduct research, and write essays. I help run a free school store in the library’s auxiliary space for students in need.
During the fall 2018-19 administration of state-mandated tests, I spent three weeks — 15 instructional days — away from the job that I love. Instead, I administered nearly 900 end-of-course test retakes. This meant that for three weeks our students did not have access to the resources of the school library or librarian.
“…I love my Job! Yet, I felt complicit in a crime.”
DIFFICULT THREE WEEKS FOR EVERYONE
Unfortunately, I was not the only one negatively impacted during those three weeks.
These assessments also tied up our two school counselors, who should be able to spend their days supporting students in crisis and helping them plan for their futures. Educators across our school were pulled away from instructional time to help meet the need for test administrators.
Intervention Specialists, who are required to serve all students with an Individual Education Plan (IEP), lost a combined 22 hours of traditional instruction time in providing necessary extended-time and small-groupings for students, some needing to retake all seven tests.
We all lost no less than three weeks of valuable instructional time.
AN EMPTY SEAT
Shakespeare once wrote, “Grief fills up the room of my absent child.” We all suffer when students are absent from classes. During this three-week period, that grief took on many forms.
One Senior tried coming to school late to avoid the test, and then refused to leave her English class. Our school safety officer was able to convince her to come to the library to take the test. She wasn’t alone.
- Students enrolled in our carpentry program refused to miss their morning trade classes to take the state-mandated tests. (One student told me he has been working with his dad as a carpenter since he was 10. He believes he will never pass the state-mandated tests, and why does he need to? He has straight A’s in carpentry class, and a solid plan for his future.)
- Another anxious student went home vomiting.
- A student who lost her home overnight begged not to take the test. She just couldn’t handle it. We couldn’t make her.
- Another student confided in me that he used drugs and alcohol to de-stress from the anxiety caused by the test.
Day after day, I watched as Seniors dragged themselves to our school library for the tests. Our library is a place normally vibrant and alive — just ask any of the 270 student participants of my school’s book club. However, as a designated testing area, the library had become a place filled sleepy-eyed students with defeated spirits. I would hug them, and say, “You’re almost finished. Hang in there.” I did the only thing I knew to do: be kind.
“It is wrong to subject young people to this much testing…. I called my union.”
Yet, I felt complicit in a crime. I knew I needed to stand up for them. So, I called my union.
OEA CONVENING ON OVER-TESTING
My local president, John Coneglio, and OEA Vice President Scott DiMauro, listened to my concerns, and we went to work to fight back against this over-testing of students.
The first outcome was the Convening on Over-Testing, January 26, 2019, in Columbus. More than 80 educators from across the state convened to examine further the issue. We began by asking participants to talk about why they came and to record their feelings about testing as they discussed with one another. We collected these words to create the image below.
Federal minimum testing guidelines require only one English, one math, and one science assessment during high school. In Ohio, we ask high school students to take more than double that amount, and we attach high stakes to them – for our students and our schools.
These tests are at the heart of so many education policies in Ohio from the State Report Card to HB 70 (the State Takeover Bill) to Value-Added teacher evaluations. We do not have to do this to children. Only 11 states in our nation continue to subject students to high stakes testing.
I don’t know a single educator who isn’t feeling frustrated, overwhelmed, or heartbroken by this soul-crushing, over-testing of students.
A colleague of mine described our state of standardized testing as feeling like “both prisoner and warden.” Educators feel hopeless, and yet we must do all we can to get kids through a faulty measure, or else our value-added scores determine that we need the state to take over our schools.
Even the written answers are scored by computers. There is no humanity left in this policy. Kids are reduced to numbers on a spreadsheet.
SHARING OUR STORIES
We all have stories to tell about the effects of high stakes standardized testing on our students, their families, and our schools – stories like I mentioned above, and stories like these we heard on Saturday:
- An Intervention Specialist has to tell parents that their children with Multiple Disabilities are not on track to pass the Third Grade Reading Guarantee (3GRG).
- A second-grade teacher’s student hid under a desk and cried rather than take the MAP test.
- A high school career education teacher said, “I want my kids to be smarter than the robots they’ll work alongside of and preparing them to take tests is not how we do that.”
- A middle-school gifted-cohort teacher’s high-achieving students asked why their hands-on projects had to be interrupted to take a practice test.
And my own family’s story: my son, Brady, was in the first group of students under the 3GRG law. Literacy is my life’s work. I read to my son every day of his life. He had high-quality preschool. Our home is a literacy-rich environment. He loved books and stories. And then the 3GRG made his first-grade teacher hyper-focus on his reading level, and it made him HATE reading. He entered into an endless cycle of test and remediate. This vicious cycle continues to happen across our state.
WE ARE TESTING LESS TEACHING AND LEARNING
At this point, I wonder what are we even testing? With more testing comes LESS teaching and LESS learning. We need time to teach, and our students need time to learn. They do not deserve this toxic testing environment that our state legislators have created.
In 2011, I became a union activist. When the Governor and our state legislature attacked our collective bargaining rights, we found a way to say, “This is wrong. Let me tell you why.” We need to find our voices again.
Here is where you can help. Write your story. Ask your students to write their stories. Ask families you know to write their stories.
TIME TO TEACH, TIME TO LEARN
We need time to teach, and our students need time to learn. It is time our state legislators — the folks with the power to change these laws — hear our stories. Our voices must be louder than the testing lobby. Here’s how:
#OverTestedOH | #RedForEd — Call To Action
- Invite legislators to your school as well as events
- Attend an upcoming OEA Educator Lobby Day to share your story
- Send your story to your state legislators and to Governor DeWine
- Ask your local school board to pass the Time to Teach, Time to Learn resolution
- Click here for a sample resolution (Please check back Tues. Feb 12th)
- Share your insights in the comments section of OEA’s Voices of Change blog
- Submit your story as a formal OEA blog (300-500 words) entry to: firstname.lastname@example.org
- When posting to social media use the hashtags #OverTestedOH & #RedForEd
Courtney Johnson is a member of the @ColumbusEA/OEA, and an English teacher turned school librarian at Fort Hayes Arts & Academic High School.
Click here for more #OverTestedOH & #RedForEd Stories.