Reducing Students to Their Test Scores Will Only Increase Their Pandemic Wounds 


Read the following as quickly and accurately as you can:

‘I know I withought all by he middle on, ” said a between he name a buzzing, he for began open he the only reason for making.”

Very good, you’re told as your teacher clicks a stopwatch and writes on a piece of paper.

Now try this one:

“Twas brillig, and the slithy toves, Did gyre and gimble in the wabe:

All mimsy were the borogoves, And the mome raths outgrabe.”

The teacher frowns and writes for a minute straight without comment.

Okay. Give this one a shot:

“Lorem ipsum dolor sit amet, consectetur adipiscing elity, sed do eiusmod tempor incididunt ut labore et dolore magna aliqua.”

No, this isn’t a crash course in some foreign language.

It’s the DIBELS test.

Students as young as Kindergarten (and sometimes younger) are asked to read a text aloud in a given time and each mispronunciation is recorded and marked against them.

And, yes, the texts are often pure nonsense.

My first example was from a nonsense generator of Winnie the Pooh, the second was from “Jabberwocky” by Lewis Carroll and the last an example of Lorem ipsum, a placeholder text commonly used in the graphic, print, and publishing industries.

To my knowledge none are actually used on the DIBELS test but they give you an idea of what an adult version might be like if given to people our age and not just the littles.

Can you imagine being a child, feeling the pressure of a test and being presented with something that looked like those passages!?

The fear! The sense of urgency to say something before the time runs out! The feeling of inadequacy and confusion as you finished knowing you got it wrong!

And the assurance that this meant there was something wrong with YOU!

That’s reading assessment in the standardized testing age.

Decoding – or working out the actual pronunciation of words – is given primacy over actual comprehension.

Why? Because that way we can break reading down into simple, quantifiable tasks that can be used to sort and rank children.

You know. The goal of standardized testing.

It’s highly controversial among people who study reading acquisition, but extremely common in elementary and middle schools.

And extremely lucrative for the makers of the DIBELS test.

Today I was forced to leave my class of 8th grade students with a sub so an “expert”from the Allegheny Intermediate Unit could lecture me and the rest of my school’s English department in using DIBELS as a gatekeeper assessment for all students.

That way we can group the students more easily based on their reading deficiencies.

I literally had to stop teaching for THAT.

I was bopping around the classroom, reading students’ writing, helping them organize it, helping them fix their explanations and craft sophisticated essays on a short story.

But I had to STOP, so an outside contractor could explain to ME how to teach.

ME, a Nationally Board certified teacher with two decades of classroom experience.

And the rest of the department with similar experience and education. In the group was also the holder of a doctorate in education. Almost all of us at least held a masters degree.

It boggles the mind.

In this time of pandemic stress when just keeping enough teachers in the building to staff our classrooms is a challenge, administration is wasting our time with this.

Before Covid-19, I could almost imagine it.

We did a lot of stupid things back then. But now a deadly virus rages across the country. Several students and staff get sick every week.  

There is a shortage of teachers, aides, subs, bus drivers, and other staff. 

And even though most school buildings are open, most students are still suffering from the social and emotional effects of the never-ending disaster.  

Yet the people who set school policy refuse to see any of it.  

They’re like ostriches – in suits – with their heads planted firmly in the ground. 

Covid safety protocols, reducing teacher workload, providing counselors for students – none of that is even on their radar.  

All they want to do is reinstitute the policies that weren’t working well before the pandemic hit.  

The only difference is their sense of urgency.  

In fact, the only impact they even recognize of the last year and a half is the dreaded LEARNING LOSS.  

Kids weren’t in class consistently. They were in on-line classes, or hybrid classes or maybe they didn’t even show up to class at all.  

That means they don’t know as much today as they would have known had the pandemic not happened.  

So – we’re told – they’ve lost learning. 

Oh no!  

But what these decision makers don’t seem to understand is that this whole concept is kind of meaningless.  

All people learn at different rates. If you don’t know something today, that doesn’t mean you can’t learn it tomorrow.  

There’s no time table for understanding. It’s not a race. It doesn’t matter when you learn something only that you continue making progress. 

However, you’d need a classroom teacher to explain that to you. And these are more business types. Administrators and number crunchers who may have stood in front of a classroom a long time ago but escaped at the first opportunity. 

They look at a class full of students and don’t see human children. They see numbers, data.  

And they are just itching to get back to sorting and ranking students based on standardized test scores.  

After all – say it with me – LEARNING LOSS!!!! 

Unfortunately there’s a whole world of reality up here above ground that they’re ignoring. And up here continuing with their willful fantasy is doing real harm.  

When I look at my classes of students, I don’t see overwhelming academic deficiencies.  

Even their test scores don’t justify that myth.

According to the Pennsylvania System of School Assessments (PSSA), they’re pretty much where I’d expect them any other year.

But their behaviors are off the hook

They simply don’t know how to interact with each other without conflict.  

My students are desperate for attention – any kind of attention – and will do almost anything to get it.  

They’d prefer to be respected, but they don’t understand how to treat each other respectfully. So they aim for any kind of response.

To a large extent this is due to a disruption in the social and emotional development they would have received at school. But robbed of good role models and adequate consequences, they’re somewhat at sea.  

Moreover, the pandemic has had a devastating effect on their support systems at home. Parents, family members and guardians have lost jobs, become sick and some have even died.

They don’t know who to trust and who they can rely on.  

So when they get to school, we’re going to meet their needs with more standardized tests!?  

That’s one of the worst things we could do. 

Take a child who already has trust issues and force them to read nonsense sentences while we judge them with a stopwatch?

Erase their individual identities and try to see them primarily as their scores?

These are in the low group. These are in the middle group. These are in the high group.  

Instead of giving them robust pieces of literature to read, they’ll get nonfiction scraps devoid of any connection to their lives, interests or aptitudes.  

We’ll drill and kill them, make every day about teaching to the test instead of teaching to the student.  

We’ll let data drive the instruction instead driving it based on the actual living, breathing, human beings we’re supposed to be serving.  

And instead of relying on teachers – highly trained people with decades of experience in how children learn effectively – we’ll put our trust in mega corporations that make more money the less effective their materials are.  

Prepare for a test – they make money. 

Take a test – they make money. 

Fail the test and have to remediate – they make money.  

It’s a scam – an endless cycle – and administrators and policy makers keep falling for it.  

Will this help meet kids social needs?  

Absolutely not. They’ll be segregated by ability and forced to repeat confusing and mind numbing tasks as if that’s what education was.  

Will it help meet kids emotional needs?  

No way! Being forced to do the same thing over and over and continually told you’re a failure won’t teach anything except a kind of learned helplessness.  

Kids will learn “I’m bad at math” or “I’m bad at reading” rather than the joy that can be found in both activities.  

They’ll learn to give up.  

And they’ll take out the negative feelings all this generates on each other and their teachers.  

It doesn’t have to be this way.  

A new world is possible.  

The pandemic offers us a chance to stop repeating the same mistakes of the past.  

We can scrap standardized testing and focus on authentic assessments – teacher constructed assessments the are suited to the individual context, the individual students.  

We can focus on lessons that engage students and encourage them to learn intrinsically.

We can focus on what students know instead of what they don’t so they learn that they are capable, that they have the power to do the lesson.  

We could help students understand how to interact with each other and heal some of the social and emotional wounds of the past year and a half.  

But we can’t do that if we’re forced to continue with the same mistakes of the past. 

We have to recognize the reality teachers, students and parents are living through.

And we have to make decisions based on that reality, not the same old preconceptions that have never gotten us anywhere.


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18 thoughts on “Reducing Students to Their Test Scores Will Only Increase Their Pandemic Wounds 

  1. Amen. I had to teach total BS and the kids hated it. Uh, I had written for a newspaper, was a copywriter, and composed articles for a local magazine. I could tell the kids, “Guess what?  A perfectly grammatical essay without a great storyline or pizzaz, sucks.  No one will read it.  But, a good story is always a good story. And guess what?  That’s why there are editors to help writers.  That’s the way it works.  You don’t have to be perfect at everything.” So, in one of the “Study Stink” (that’s what the kids called it) and the assignments were boring, the questions were about the same, and never encouraged someone to WANT to learn more, a student replied. “Why in the (f) do we need to learn this stuff.  I know it’s not your fault, but this is the same (f’ing sh..) we do time and time again.  I don’t learn anything and it is pointless.” She copied and pasted the response into every question. I replied, “I concur.” It was all crap. Well, unless, of course, it was my crap “Creative Responses After Processing.” I love how not only students are reminded of what they can’t do, but teachers as well. Great points made. Peace out, Rick Charvet

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks so much for sharing your point of view on this, Rick. I was a journalist, too, before becoming a teacher. I think we’re both seeing a lot of the same things here. I appreciate your feedback.


  2. I think that when I was a child, I was the perfect example of a child that didn’t pay attention in class or do most of the homework or classwork. As a child, I did horrible on tests.

    Before I was seven, I didn’t know how to read. They held me back in 1st grade. Yes, I spent two years in first grade because I wasn’t learning how to read and I wasn’t doing the classwork.

    The district had experts test me and after they had the results, they told my mother I was retarded and would never learn to read or write.

    My mother cried all the way home from that meeting and she was driving. I was seven. I didn’t care.

    Then my mother went to see the 1st-grade teachers I had for both years and asked that teacher what she could do. When I say she, I meant my mother, not the teacher. My mother asked the teacher for advice and my mother followed it. Not only did my mother start to teach me to read at home, but she also took me to have my eyes examined (that teacher suggested that too – the nonteacher experts that said I was retarded did not.) The eye examination discovered I had really bad vision. The world was a blur to me and I didn’t know the difference. At seven, I thought what I saw was what everyone saw.

    After I slipped on my first pair of thick-lensed glasses that would earn me the nickname “four-eyes” from bullies, I could see and was astonished.

    A couple of years later I was reading at or above grade level and had joined the ranks of avid readers. The library became my favorite place and I was devouring historical fiction, science fiction, and fantasy novels as fast as I could read them.

    But, I still wasn’t paying attention in class or doing most of the homework and classwork. Tests results, even though I could now read the tests, still labeled my as a retard. I did horrible on tests. They should have tested me on my favorite authors’ books.

    Fast forward to the end of high school when I barely graduated with a 0.95 GPA. By my junior year, I was reading two books a day and ignoring my textbooks.\

    I joined the Marines, ended up in Vietnam, and got out years later to start college with help from the GI Bill. That community college required reading test me to learn who read well enough to take college-level classes.

    Students that didn’t do well on that reading test indeed up in what we called bone-headed English classes that were designed to catch them up so they could take college-level classes.

    My literacy level tested so high, that I was ahead of most of the other freshmen that didn’t have to take bone head English and far ahead of those that did.

    Even when I was a Marine in Vietnam, My mother mailed me books and I read them inside bunkers, and decades later, I’m still an avid reader and a published author that’s sold tens of thousands of books and picked up a few literary awards, too.

    And when I was seven, nonteacher experts gave me a test and used the results of that test to say I was so retarded I’d never learn to read or write.

    To this day, I HATE all tests that rank children in any way. Tests should be teacher-created tests that teachers use to improve their instruction and experts outside the classroom should never be allowed to even touch those tests let alone see the results.

    Remember the GPA I had when I graduated from high school?

    Well, I graduated from college with a BA in 1973 and my college GPA was 3.85.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks for sharing, Lloyd. I can relate. Everyone learns at their own rate. There’s nothing deficient about someone who doesn’t meet the benchmarks on some number cruncher’s clipboard. just as there’s nothing special about those who exceed those expectations. It’s just called being human.


  3. Reblogged this on Politicians Are Poody Heads and commented:
    All of these tests, and the required “teaching to the tests,”
    are meaningless in the real world that these children will be expected to live and achieve in.
    They are recipes for failure, not for satisfied, productive, kind citizens- and humans.


  4. Steven, Congrats! You made Bill Maher’s show Friday night, and undoubtedly someone among the 1.3 million viewers has told you already. The title of your 2019 article, “Standardized Testing is a Tool of White Supremacy” shows up on the screen at 4:45 at Bill does his facile liberal bashing by claiming that you’re devaluing “white supremacy” by applying it to the SAT, and turning “lovers of common sense” into Trump voters. He did not have the courtesy to mention your name.

    Not only is Bill ignorant of this issue, but he neither has an awareness of the discontent across the political spectrum with the SAT, nor does he probably realize that two highly prestigious universities in his backyard, UCLA and Caltech, have jettisoned the test completely, as has UC Berkeley and the rest of the UC and CSU systems. I wonder how the issue was brought to his attention.

    Thanks for quoting me in your article, and for using the term white supremacy and emphasizing eugenics in connection with the SAT a little test sooner than I have done. Keep up the good work!

    Jay Rosner


    • Thanks so much for alerting me to this, Mr. Rosner! I stopped watching Bill Maher years ago so I missed it. I wish he had read beyond the title. I still think the text makes a pretty good argument and your work goes even further. No press is bad press I guess. Maybe more people will read the article and your excellent book “How the SAT Creates Built-in-Headwinds.”


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