Monthly Archives: May 2015

Students on testing: Taking tests is not a job skill

Testing from the inside out: This week, on May 20, the debate team at Minneapolis’ Northeast Middle School is hosting a “community panel on standardized testing.” With the help of French teacher and debate team coach Michael Grandys, these kids–whose school lives have been defined by testing–will be going directly in to the belly of the beast, and taking the rest of us with them. (I will be on the panel on the 20th, and, more importantly, so will a lot of other people, including students.)

After I met a few of these kids at a pre-panel event, I couldn’t resist asking them why they wanted to host a debate about testing. I just assumed that, since they have grown up within the low expectation-slashing embrace of No Child Left Behind, being tested would be as natural a thing as breathing for these kids. Turns out it’s not that simple.

NEMS 2nd

These kids have brains in their heads and feet in their shoes.

Here’s what the students I spoke with–8th grader Margret Ritschel and 7th graders Eleanor Craig and Ginger Benson-Nicheallochain–had to say. My questions and prompts are in bold; their answers (not in multiple choice format, unfortunately) are the bullet points that follow.

Tell me how you got interested in the topic of testing.

  • I have hated testing since I was little and thought the whole thing was really unfair.
  • I got involved in the panel on standardized testing after our coach, Mr. Grandys, went and saw Jesse Hagopian speak in March. He then talked with us about testing, and I got intrigued with it. I did a bunch of research and just got really passionate about it. That’s why I’ve decided to speak out about it.
  • There is just so much pressure with testing. Our teachers feel a lot of pressure to teach to the test, but the tests don’t match up with what we’re doing in class.

How do the tests not match up with what you are doing in class?

  • We are all in advanced math classes, so the (federally mandated) MCA tests don’t match what level we are at. The test is for grade-level work only, and we are all working above grade level. So, before the tests, we get crammed with knowledge, and told “we’re doing this because it’s on the test.”

Wait. When I asked the Minnesota Department of Education about testing last year, their message was clear: they do not endorse or support the use of test prep. But it sounds like that message didn’t reach your school.

  • No, we do test prep packets for three months out of the year, to get ready for the tests. The packets are 10-20 pages long, and we have to do them every day.
  • The test prep packets are huge, and kids don’t have time to do them because we still have all of our other work to do. So, this leads to copying and searching on the Internet for answers.
  • We get graded on the test prep packets, but we don’t have time to for them. 

Why do you think you have to do so much test prep?

  • We hear the message all the time: You have to do well on these tests so our school can succeed and teachers can keep their jobs. One teacher said, “I kind of want a job next year, so do well on the test, everyone.”
  • It’s so much pressure on students, but the teachers can’t help it. They have to do this

    “We know that adults learn best, just like children do, when they are engaged in a natural learning cycle that includes goal-setting, exploration, and reflection.”

    because they are getting graded on our scores.

Some people say the tests are needed, to see how students are doing and what they’re learning. What do you think?

  • Testing is not learning. The quizzes and tests that teachers make are more fair, and they are about what we’re doing in class. And teachers don’t lose their jobs if we fail a spelling test. But with standardized tests, teachers can be fired if we don’t do well.
  • There are two worlds: the testing world, and the real world. In real life, you can ask for help. On the tests, you can’t.
  • With the tests, no one knows what’s on them. We don’t know what we got wrong or why. 
  • Life isn’t multiple choice. In life, you have to think. And these tests don’t help you think. They don’t teach us how to apply information. 
  • I don’t like that you can’t ask for help, so there’s no learning. In life, we can always find help or look up information we need.
  • I have friends who get good grades and take all advanced classes, but do bad on tests. Why should so much depend on the tests?

So you’re not buying in to the idea that these tests provide useful information to you, your teachers, or anyone?

  • Testing was initially a good idea, because we do need to assess students. But it all got mangled. If I hadn’t opted out of the testing this year, I would have had to take 11 standardized tests. It’s too much.
  • Assessing students is a great idea, but not to the point of affecting students’ mental health and causing anxiety.
  • There is a difference between assessing and ranking, and these tests are about ranking. I know they do this in high school. My brother happens to be near the top of his class, but how would you feel if you were number 138 or something? It is not encouraging.
  • So much falls on one day. Kids are crying and feeling pressure, and if you have a bad test day, you can then be put into a special class, for extra reading or math. But there are a lot of smart kids who don’t test well.
  • These tests are used to judge students, but do we ever blame the people who make the tests? If a bunch of students don’t do well, do we ever stop and think the tests might be bad? Instead, we are blaming students, but maybe the tests aren’t good.
  • MAP tests (given up to 3 times a year purportedly to show growth) are the worst because there is no stopping. The test keeps getting harder if you get a question right, but then it drops you right down if you get a question wrong. Right away you feel like “I’m doing bad.” It’s a negative mentality.

Tell me more.

  • If 100 was a perfect score on the MCA tests, and 50 was passing, then they’ll focus on the kids who are getting 40 points, and ignore the kids in the 20 range. Those kids, getting a 20, will keep getting lower and lower if you ignore them, and then the higher scoring kids don’t get attention either. It’s all about the kids close to passing, and having them boost their test scores.
  • Teachers should test us on what they’ve been teaching us in class. 
  • After the tests are over, a lot of kids just think school is over. It’s like school doesn’t matter once the tests are done. One kid didn’t bring his math book to class after the tests and when the teacher asked him about it he said, “We did the test! I thought we weren’t learning anything anymore.”
  • High test scores equal a good school in parents’ minds, but schools shouldn’t be judged this way.
  • Tests won’t be part of our lives when we’re older. Taking tests is not a job skill.


  • Tests are draining. We have to sit for an hour and a half at a time, silently.
  • Some students miss lunch because they can’t get up and leave if they are in the middle of a test section.
  • Afterwards, your brain is mush. Fried. You need to run around and have a break, but we have to go to another class. Then that teacher can’t really do anything useful like an essay or project because we are all so tired.
  • Taking these tests means staring at a computer screen for an hour and a half straight. Last time, I had to ask my teacher for a break afterwards because my eyes hurt and were stinging. 
  • I actually miss the paper tests because of this. 
  • The computer lab and the library are closed during testing season, so we can’t use them to do our other work. And some kids don’t have a computer or Wi-Fi at home, making it hard for them to do their homework.

What do you think should be done instead?

  • I think testing uses the wrong incentives. It’s all negative because the message is, if you don’t do well then the school will lose funding, and teachers will get fired, and your parents won’t be happy. There isn’t any joy or inspiration this way.
  • It’s better when teachers know us and know why we did or didn’t do well on something. 
  • I read about these schools in New York that use essays and projects to assess students. That seems good. 
  • Yes! We’ve seen the science classes give presentations, and it’s amazing to see. The presentations are actually showing a student’s passion and it’s great. 

    Alternative assessment in action, at a private school.

  • You could learn how students are doing without ranking them.
  • Maybe there’s a different way we could fund our schools so we wouldn’t have to have these tests.
  • One option would be to just reduce the number of tests. There are a lot of useless tests given that could be taken away.
  • I see so many problems with testing, like the Pearson glitches we’ve had this year. Now they’re saying that maybe none of the tests this year will count. If testing has all of these unnecessary consequences, why are we using them?

What about opting out? Has that caught on at Northeast Middle School?

  • We’ve just started talking about it, in April of this year, so it’s a very new topic here.
  • Seven students, total, opted out at our school. A lot of students just don’t know anything besides tests, so opting out is a really new idea.
  • Some students think they have to do the test to get into high school or college. Students don’t have enough information.

Smart kids. Come to Northeast Middle School on May 20, and listen in as they burst the bubble (sheet, that is) around the promise of high stakes standardized testing. 

When: Wednesday, May 20, 7 p.m.

Where: Northeast Middle School Auditorium, 2955 Hayes Street NE, Minneapolis

Parents United: Leading Where Others Fear to Tread

Let me pause for a minute, in the middle of raising hackles and poking hornets’ nests, to sing the praises of a Minnesota gem:  Parents United for Public Schools, or Parents United for short.

Seriously, if there was a Mount Rushmore for great Minnesotans, Parents United founder Mary Cecconi would have to be on it, right next to the teachers, parents, and families from around the state that are functioning–and excelling–on the tiniest of shoestring budgets. 

Mary in action

Mary is, first and foremost, a teacher. She has a background in the classroom, and that matters. As one of the founders and former Executive Director (and now Legislative Director) of Parents United, Mary puts her teaching skills to good use by sharing complex information–about education policy and state budget procedures–with parents and public education advocates every chance she gets. 

And, like all great teachers, she challenges those of us who look to her for information by pushing us in directions we need to go. When I’ve talked with her about the current state of high stakes testing and my deep criticisms of it, Mary has fired back and pushed me to think harder about all of the kids who need real, concrete pathways to a better future. Overtesting these kids to highlight their deficiencies or punish their teachers might not be the answer, but Mary doesn’t stop there. She is relentless about pursuing practical, goal-oriented solutions and compromises for all of Minnesota’s public school kids, and that makes her not only a great teacher, but also a powerful leader. 

These days, Parents United, under Mary’s well-informed guidance, is calling on all Minnesotans to advocate NOW for all kids. In an uncharacteristic call to action, Parents United has been peppering my Facebook feed with very important messages about the pittance of public money state government leaders–both the DFL-held Senate and the Republican-controlled House–have proposed for our E-12 system.

When Mary and Parents United tell us to act, we should. Immediately. The stakes could not be higher, as the Parents United website makes clear. Unless more of the state’s budget surplus (and Mary could tell you a lot more about why the surplus is not really a surplus) goes to public ed, all of us with kids or careers in the system will be facing dire cuts. Think your kid’s class couldn’t get any bigger? Think again. 

And Mary, along with the whole Parents United crew, are doing the kind of education advocacy work that really matters. Parents United is not an Astroturf reform group that sprouted upover night, flush with hedge fund-fueled cash and dripping with policy priorities that just don’t amount to much at the end of the day. (Beware of “nonprofits” that are able to throw up slick websites and ad campaigns overnight.)

Instead, Parents United is leading where other groups fear to tread. The group is mostly funded by individual donors (that would be you and me); the rest comes from the services, such as workshops, that Mary and her crew provide. This is so key. In a world of increasing privatization of our public services, non-profit organizations are often hamstrung by the funding they receive. In other words, he or she who provides the money calls the shots and sets the agenda. (Always, always follow the money).

If we actually want smaller class sizes, better outcomes for all kids, and a democratically run education system, then we’d better step up, and follow Parents United’s lead. 

State budget decisions are being made NOW, at the Capitol! Here’s more info from Parents United:

Thank you for all you have done so far. If you have not yet, please, call and/or email your legislatorsHouse Speaker Daudt and Senate Majority Leader Bakk.

Send the same email to Rep. Jenifer Loon and Senator Chuck Wiger’s Committee Administrator.

Your voices are instrumental


Representative Daudt: 651-296-5364

Senator Bakk: 651-296-8881

*Join the Twitter campaign, too: #MNSurplus4MNStudents


What Would Maria Montessori Do?

With a longer school day now being consistently sold as a key education reform solution, the Minneapolis Public Schools has decided to add more time to the school day for most middle and high school students in the district.

Minneapolis parents found this out in true Minnesota fashion, through passive-aggressive, after the fact letters and Twitter messages, so as not to needlessly upset or antagonize anyone ahead of time. Some messages, like the one below, are best delivered quietly, even subtly, it seems, without community input.

Anthony Middle msg

I mean, how many middle school parents are monitoring the school’s Twitter feed? There’s a good chance a fair number of them won’t realize, until school is about to start again in August, that their kids will be gone longer than they were last year (by about 45 minutes). 

Yay! For some people, this will undoubtedly be good news. Most parents work, and some extra school time for their kids can amount to one less problem to solve (what to do with that in-betweener kid who is too young to be alone every day but too old for a babysitter). 

For other parents, having their kids in school longer will amount to another stepping stone in the Race to Nowhere. More time at school will mean 6-8th graders can now take 7 classes a day, instead of 6! Wow!! That’s such good news, because Junior can now do college level quadratic equations and become fluent in a foreign language all before getting to high school, where he or she will bypass all traditional coursework (a.k.a. High School for Dummies) and head straight to Rigor U. 

The array of options and courses and advanced this and that available in today’s public high schools, in Minneapolis at least, is astounding. I should know. I once attended a Minneapolis high school, and “minimally” graduated, even though all we had were Math, English, Science, Foreign Language (levels 1 and 2), and a few awkward gym classes that seem to have included floor hockey. I am pretty sure we only had six classes total, but I was much more interested in dissecting Replacements songs than frogs, so I could be wrong. 

I hope these guys will be on the test!

According to middle school parents I know (my own kids go to a K-8, where the school day will stay pitifully short), Minneapolis school officials have an interesting grab bag of reasons why extending the school day is a great idea, such as:

  • More middle school kids can now follow their interests. Huh? In middle school, my interests were cheap novels, taking the bus to the mall, and trying not to fall asleep in English class, as the teacher read Watership Down out loud to us. I’m not clear on how extending the school day will cover this but perhaps today’s middle schoolers are far more advanced than I was. In fact, I know they are.
  • Middle school schedules will now be aligned with high school schedules. I guess this is convenient in some way, although I thought autonomy, not alignment, was our new guiding principle. I am easily confused, though.
  • The International Baccalaureate program–which has an elegant global ring to it, meaning, if they’re doing it around the world, we better do it too, or we’ll be left behind–is most commonly used in MPS schools and apparently really requires kids to take 7 classes a day. 6 is just not enough.  Okay. Besides, with less free time to worry about, kids can take STEM and STEAM classes, and Advanced Geography, along with their other hard-core classes. This’ll be good. Or…will it? Have the kids been asked for their ideas?

I think this whole plan has lengthened the day just enough, but not too much, so that no breach in the teachers union contract was required to make it happen. I think the teachers will just be working more (direct face time with students, unless the school tries out a blended learning model, in which the teaching will be partially outsourced to a computer screen), and praying that their prep hour falls during that fab new 7th hour. 

I have two teenagers. They are nowhere near hyper or super active kids, but still, they complain about having so little free time and access to the outdoors. They miss recess. They miss taking a break during the day. They could be slackers (but they are definitely not), considering my track record, yet even Maria Montessori recognized that, developmentally, young teens are not like everybody else:

Montessori Quote


Now that sounds cool. In doing some research I discovered that Montessori-style middle and high schools have been around for almost 100 years, and that they don’t need to be located on a farm to be successful. (There was even one in Amsterdam, which Anne Frank attended until the Nazis shut it down.) Could we not dream big, give our kids some real work to do, and make them not want to leave school? We don’t even have to call it a Montessori school.

Until that happens (?!), maybe a longer school day will have its advantages, in some way. More kids will be occupied and in a safe space until they can be home with an adult. Some kids love being at school. Some kids will apparently be allowed to follow their interests better and take high school classes while rushing through middle school (really?). 

But let’s also be sure that we are not pushing kids and teachers into a longer school day and school year because we somehow fear “The Poor Are Too Free,” as writer and teacher Paul Thomas put it. Or because we assume that a longer day will keep them engaged in the work we have decided is most acceptable for them.

All kids need access to their own thoughts, even if they start by diving deeply into the lyrics of a rock band. Will a longer school day provide this?


Radical Roots Revival: Mother’s Day Edition

Displaying 20150510_094543.jpgHappy Mother’s Day, everyone. Let’s celebrate by returning this day to its radical roots.  

Mother’s Day, as most of us know, was not invented by Hallmark. Instead, according to National Geographic, “It all started in the 1850s, when West Virginia women’s organizer Ann Reeves Jarvis…held Mother’s Day work clubs to improve sanitary conditions and try to lower infant mortality by fighting disease and curbing milk contamination.”

There are many battles we can fight today, including infant mortality rates, which are still extraordinarily high in this very wealthy country of ours. Like many things in the United States, this is an issue deeply connected to race and socioeconomics, and perhaps a sense of exceptionalism. Cari Romm, writing for the Atlantic in 2014, described it this way:  “…children of poor minority women in the U.S. (are) much more likely to die within their first year than children born to similar mothers in other countries.”

In another piece from 2014, published on the Washington Post’s Wonkblog, Christopher Ingraham assails the U.S’s high rates of infant deaths and notes that, if Mississippi were a country, its rate of 9.6 infant deaths per 1,000 live births would place it “somewhere between Botswana and Bahrain.” 

The radical roots of Mother’s Day have been taken over, like almost everything else, by the pressure to honor mothers through store-bought gifts, most of which follow the kind of apron-laced gender story lines–or just flat out crass commericalism–that would probably enrage and embarrass our feminist foremothers, from Ann Reeves Jarvis to Sojourner Truth and beyond.

Even my 10 year-old son ended his very sweet Mother’s Day poem, written just for me, by saying that I look prettiest when cooking. Anyone who knows me or my family will find this very funny, since my husband is the cook in our house. Guess I don’t look my prettiest very often.

And that’s fine with me. 

Ann Reeves Jarvis, the originator of Mother’s Day as a day of service to the oppressed, the dying, and the most vulnerable among us, had a daughter of her own. Her name was Anna Jarvis, and she promoted the first organized Mother’s Day celebrations in the early 20th century. Very quickly, the holiday was taken over by the new forces of marketing and consumerism that were exploding across the United States. Jarvis fought against this with everything she had, and died penniless.

I’m writing this from a position of privilege and joy, surrounded by the flowers my own children picked for me this morning. They haven’t bought me gifts,  but have made me my own cup of fresh-squeezed orange juice. It’s a big treat. Displaying 20150510_105208.jpg

As Mother’s Day rolls on, I will stop and think about all the mothers who are not able to know and love their children in this way because they are the wrong color, or because they are too poor. Or because they live in the wrong state, or the wrong country.

Here’s hoping our radical roots will flourish between now and the next time Mother’s Day comes around.