APS teacher: Shift focus from courtroom sentences to classroom testing

APS teacher Clara Totenberg Green says a lot of the discussion about the outcome of the Atlanta cheating trial has overlooked the voices of teachers and failed to ponder the standardized testing culture that still dominates today.

A teacher in an APS charter school, Green addresses those issues in this column.

By Clara Totenberg Green

One day after nine educators were sentenced to prison in the Atlanta Public Schools cheating scandal, standardized testing began across Georgia. I am a graduate of the Atlanta Public Schools. I am also a middle school teacher in an APS school.

???????????????????During test time, I silently administer exams to students for hours at a time. In that silence, all you can do is think. I think about educators sitting in jail cells because they changed students’ answers on these very tests. I think about my year spent trying not to teach to a test while simultaneously knowing I had to cover everything that would be on the test. I think about the mother who told me her son was so worried about the test that he scratched his face until it bled.

I also can’t help but think about the conversation that’s not being held. What we are talking about is the educators’ sentencing. What we’re not talking about is the massive and aggressive standardized testing culture that the educators functioned within.

Amidst the media maelstrom surrounding the case, the most common argument has been that as a result of their cheating, the educators harmed the children. Judge Baxter said, “I think there were hundreds, thousands of children who were harmed in this city…This was not a victimless crime.”

Yet the idea that purity in a massive testing regime will ensure quality education and success for all children is simply untrue. Quality education comes when we fund our schools, train our teachers, and implement teaching methods that instill a passion for learning. The high-stakes testing model directly counters these very educational methods that we know work best.

One of my coworkers is a brilliant math teacher. She’s passionate, consistent, and loves her subject. The other day, in the midst of test prep, she told me that she was teaching her students new concepts that they clearly didn’t understand. They needed extra days to practice the concepts before moving onto the next lesson, but she didn’t have the time for that. She was forced to push forward to make sure she covered every standard before test time, at any cost.

Her experiences parallel those of every educator I know, including my own. The best unit I taught this year was on South African apartheid. We spent three weeks analyzing historical documents, photographs and films, and conducting interactive activities. The deeper we dug, the more they wanted to learn. I watched my students become passionate and enthusiastic about history and learning. They still talk about that unit, six months later. And yet, three weeks on apartheid meant less time to cover other required material, less time to prepare them for the test. Teaching my students in an effective manner that inspired and awakened them to history will most likely hurt their test scores.

As the year progressed, we rushed to cover everything mandated by the state of Georgia. In order to do this, I was unable to replicate the very teaching style that made the apartheid unit so effective – in depth, prolonged study. I am required to teach too much in too little time so students can “pass” the test, which results in teaching a lot of things not very well. In public schools across America, including in my own classroom, teachers are consciously implementing teaching techniques that we know do not work in the long run.

Within a high-stakes testing culture, it doesn’t matter what level the kids began the school year. It doesn’t matter if they’ve been off their medication for weeks because their mother lost her job. It doesn’t matter if they are homeless, or don’t have a parent at home to help them with their homework. It doesn’t matter how hard they’ve tried throughout the year, or all the progress they’ve made. Their passions, their creativity, their imaginations – none of that matters. The only thing that counts is a test score.

Good schools consider the whole child, not just their performance on a single test. At my school, we do value test scores. But we also value the entirety of a student’s work through the year, their content knowledge, and their social and-emotional needs. We know that when a student is so terrified about standardized tests that she vomits on her exam she’s probably not going to accurately demonstrate her skills.

Was the purpose of this legal ordeal to punish the educators whose lives had already been ruined? Was the purpose to deter other teachers when, in fact, the shortest jail sentence would have accomplished that? Believe me, the message was sent loud and clear, long before the criminal prosecution was even initiated. Tomorrow I go back to a testing environment in which both the teachers and the students are terrified. But none of these developments help children.

In fact, according to the Georgia Budget & Policy Institute, Georgia has cut the education budget over $8.3 billion since 2003. In 2002 we were 26th in the nation in spending per student and by 2012 we were 35th. And at the same time, the rate of low-income students rapidly climbed. The percentage of low-income students rose from 44.2 percent in 2002 to 62.4 percent in 2015. Instead of providing these students the additional support and lower class sizes they need, state budget cuts require schools to do the exact opposite while still expecting them to meet testing benchmarks.

In other words, the very interventions needed to give children a fighting chance are being slashed from beneath them. Isn’t that the true crime?

 

Reader Comments 0

57 comments
NancyakaLill
NancyakaLill

The corruption and lack of ethics in APS was present long before standardized testing came into play. Don't use testing as an excuse in any form for these criminals. Especially those who, in the face of blatant evidence, will not accept responsibility for what they've done.

Norning
Norning

Some people just won't accept the fact that accountability is a necessary part of teaching—or any job that comes with a paycheck.

Lee_CPA2
Lee_CPA2

"The best unit I taught this year was on South African apartheid. We spent three weeks analyzing historical documents, photographs and films, and conducting interactive activities."

I wonder how much time they spent on the US Constitution?

RealLurker
RealLurker

Testing can and should be discussed.  However, it will not be discussed because of the APS convictions.  The illegal actions of those who were convicted was NOT caused by the testing.  Please do not denigrate the good teachers and administrators by giving excuses to the bad ones.  If anyone wants to discuss problems with the tests, or with testing, please do so on the merits of the tests and testing system.  Do not use the fact that A FEW bad people broke the law as a catalyst for the discussion.

OriginalProf
OriginalProf

SB152 would only "end TRS as we know it" for new members, but remain the same for others.  This proposed bill was tabled during the session just over, but evidently has been untabled, as MaryElizabethSings notes. They are going to vote May 7 on making a preliminary study, and probably will take up the bill at the next legislative session. 

The main change: "SB 152 is a fiscal retirement bill that creates a hybrid retirement plan for all individuals who first or again become TRS members on or after January 1, 2017. This bill does not affect individuals who are TRS members on December 31, 2016. Current TRS members may elect in writing to become a member of the hybrid plan. This blended type of retirement plan will consist of a defined benefit plan and a defined contribution plan." There are other changes, as MES notes.

The main effect on present members would be indirect: TRS reserve funds would be affected since all new members would be partial, not full, TRS members.  However, given the turnover rate for new public school teachers (40% during the first 5 years), this could be a significant number.

I took this from the TRS website, which has a useful column,"Legislative Update," under "Legislation." For more information check: http://www.trsga.com

BCW1
BCW1

Testing is one thing the obsession of it is another.

MiltonMan
MiltonMan

Testing is a fact of life.  How else are you going to measure a students progression?

MiltonMan
MiltonMan

Yet another bird-brained teacher wanting more money to "teach" kids.  Good God APS students get more money per student than any other student body in this state and they still require teachers to cheat for them.

MaryElizabethSings
MaryElizabethSings

Also, the original SB 152 would take away the automatic minimal, yearly Cost of Living increases for Retired Teachers in the TRS.  Be aware.


(Please write and call the members of the Senate and House Retirement Committees, which you can find in my link given in my post, immediately below.  Thank you.)

MaryElizabethSings
MaryElizabethSings

(ASIDE FROM T.R.A.G.I.C. RE: Legislative May 7th Meeting on GA TRS Retirement Changes:)


" ***TRS SNEAK-ATTACK!!!!***


Unable to get SB 152, the bill that would find an "actuary study" of TRS, through the retirement committee during session, supporters have called for a joint House and Senate Retirement Committee meeting on May 7. 

The purpose of this meeting is to vote to fund the study that would be the start of changes that would end TRS as we know it.

This meeting is normally held in June, but this year the meeting has been scheduled for May 7 - before any teachers are out for summer. It would seem as if someone was trying to sneak this meeting in before anyone could find out about it, and certainly at a time where most of us could not attend to voice our opposition to ANY changes to TRS.

We need EVERY educator to write the members of the House and Senate Retirement Committees NOW and let the members of the committees know that a strong Teacher's Retirement System is essential to the recruitment and retention of quality candidates for teaching positions in Georgia.

Tomorrow, please take the time to call these same legislators and let them know you are opposed to any changes to TRS. They most likely will not be in their offices, but you can leave a polite message with their secretary. It will be logged.

Even though this is very upsetting news, PLEASE KEEP YOUR EMAILS AND PHONE CALLS RESPECTFUL AND PROFESSIONAL! We have to build strong relationships with all of these legislators and win with ideas, not name-calling or threats.

Attached is a document with the names, emails, and phone numbers of the members of the House and Senate Retirement Committees. Please contact them, then share this post on your own walls and ask your friends, family, and coworkers to contact these legislators as well. The email addresses can be copied and pasted right to your email.

As of now we do not have details on time or place of the meeting. As soon as we do we will edit this post, and comment about it the edit. We are hoping all retirees who are able to attend the meeting will make plans to do so.

This attack on our insurance and retirement benefits must stop NOW."








Looking4truth
Looking4truth

Why do we make students take a test?  If we think about it from a medical perspective, we test to 1) diagnose; 2) measure progress and 3) monitor any situations that develop from 1 & 2.  Yet, when a patient does not follow doctor's recommendations for treatment and healthy living, do we blame the doctor? 


Testing, as currently conducted in our public schools (this week, as a matter of fact) is not intended for any of the above purposes.  It has become a way of continually beating up on public schools in the name of school choice. The results of this week's testing won't be available to parents and teachers until December, 2015.  How is that helpful?


Before regular posters get up in arms, I'm not afraid of testing.  I welcome it with open arms because I know I did my job as a teacher.   I'm just concerned that, just as a physician may "overtest" to protect him/herself from lawsuits, that we are doing the same with kids.  More tests do not improve student performance.  Less tests with proper use of results will. 

bu2
bu2

@Looking4truth 

It may not be used for diagnosing and measuring progress of students by the school districts much (although it has been with my kids-so it isn't totally ignored), but it is used to diagnose and measure progress of schools.  Note that they are developing measures of the success of doctors and hospitals now in relation to medicare payments.  Just because things like teaching success (or doctor's care) is hard to measure accurately doesn't mean we shouldn't try.

Looking4truth
Looking4truth

@bu2 @Looking4truth  I'm not saying we shouldn't try, but we need to keep in mind that just as some medical tests give false information, standardized testing may do the same.  Bad lab results can cause unnecessary consequences.  With that in mind, should the fate of schools/teachers be judged solely that way? 


Or should judging the progress of students, teachers and schools be a multi-faceted proposition?  I'm just asking...

MaryElizabethSings
MaryElizabethSings

@Looking4truth 


Multi-faceted.  We must not fail to be aware that every school's population and the population with every teacher's classroom will be varied, thereby invalidating an essential variable in the comparison of teachers, schools, and school systems. Variability of IQ levels is a factor which must be part of any test-based assessment of teachers and of schools. Imo, valid scores can only be had for the same teacher or the same school, based on that teacher's or that school's pre and post test scores for the year.

jezel
jezel

Great summary Ms. Green. These things need to be said over and over...and louder and louder.


Public education is under attack by those who seek to divide and conquer and ultimately gain control of the education budget. Many involved in the process are not aware of the damage they are doing.


It may already be too late to rescue public schools in Georgia. But is not too late to reveal some things that are happening.

sneakpeakintoeducation
sneakpeakintoeducation

@MiltonMan @jezel  We know why the students in North Fulton do well in school and it's no secret. Most of the student population have the following:


1. Don't live in poverty

2. Have 2 loving parents at home

3. Parents have a college degree

4. Students have access to health care

5. Students live in a safe environment

6. Students don't go to school hungry

7. Parents have provided experiences that enhance the child's understanding of the world

8. Parents have provided materials to enhance learning

9. Parents have paid for tutoring in weak subject areas when necessary

10. Schools are well funded and can raise money from the community for computer labs, books, sporting equipment 



We know what causes schools to perform less well than those in the North Fulton area and it's the above and more.

jezel
jezel

@MiltonMan @jezel Yea those kids are going to learn regardless of what the teacher and the school does. Good students are like that.

MiltonMan
MiltonMan

@jezel 


Public schools are doing well in North Fulton.  The honors award last night at one the high school results:


Valedictorian - National Merit Scholarship finalist - Attending Yale on full ride; GPA = 4.48

Salutatorian - National Merit Scholarship finalist - Attending Univ. of Penn on full ride; GPA = 4.46

#3 - National Merit Scholarship semi-finalist - Attending Duke with multiple scholarships

#4 - Attending Stanford on full ride

#5 - Attending Georgia Tech

etc.

etc.


Instead of you "pro education" folks who scream for more money - do your homework and find out what works in these uber-successful schools.

ScienceTeacher671
ScienceTeacher671

If we have to continue testing, we'd be better off going back to something proven like the ITBS than spending more and more developing "improved, more rigorous" Georgia tests.  


First, the ITBS is nationally normed, and the GaDOE can't manipulate the scores to make Georgia students appear to be performing  at a higher level than they are (and Yes, Virginia, it CAN be used as a criterion-based test!)


Secondly, unlike the Georgia tests, the ITBS can be used somewhat diagnostically, because unlike the Georgia tests, it shows what skills in English or Math students are excelling on or deficient in.


And yes, teach the students what they need to know and they should do fine. Spending weeks or months on "test taking skills" means you aren't spending that time on teaching content.


JMHO, but I think all this focus on the tests leads to excessive text anxiety in students. 

bu2
bu2

@ScienceTeacher671 


I very much agree with everything but your last sentence.  Its teachers that seem to have excessive text anxiety.  Students have gotten used to it.

Oscellia
Oscellia

I totally agree.

We have forgotten about the children.

Something is going on here and it does not smell good.

class80olddog
class80olddog

I am so tired of hearing complaints against testing - it reminds me of students who haven't studied complaining about getting a low grade on a test.


The truth is that students who have learned the basic material need not fear any testing.  Just like the scrapped GHSGT - ANY decent student passes it easily - my kids referred  to it as "ridiculously easy".


The only ones who fear this testing are the schools who have passed kids along for so long that they are 9th graders reading on a 2nd grade level.

MaryElizabethSings
MaryElizabethSings

@class80olddog


There is an irrational amount of testing done in schools today, Class80.  This degree of testing goes beyond accountability into ideology, and that is not good for students nor for teachers.  I am a supporter of testing for instructional, diagnostic purposes, but too much testing and not enough joy and enthusiasm for genuine learning and teaching is destructive to public education.  It is a matter of achieving balance not for ideology but for the students' growth.

Independent ED
Independent ED

@class80olddog It's not the testing itself that's the issue.  It's the amount of testing and the purpose behind the testing.  We're not testing to gauge what our students know.  We're testing to reduce students and teachers to an arbitrary number that can be crunched and used in the ongoing education debate.  As an educator, I know where my students are.  I can make decisions based on their performance in the classroom throughout the year.  The bureaucracy above my head causes me much more consternation that the kids in our school.  Testing is supposed to be about the kids.  Sadly, it's not anymore.  It's fodder for businesses, politicians, and lobbyists to throw around.


I'm with you on your crusade against attendance, discipline, and social promotion.  The funny thing is, each of these is mostly out of the purview of the classroom teacher.  It's about parents, a culture that devalues education, and educational bureaucracy.  Sadly, it's the students that suffer.  That isn't to shield teachers from blame.  There are some who deserve their lion's share, but I can tell you about the quality of the teacher without a student's test score.  The excessive testing is unnecessary, and it's only getting worse.


This article is spot-on when it comes to the curriculum being a mile wide and an inch deep.  Many often have to resort to covering material rather than truly teaching because, by golly, they've got to be ready for that test that takes place two months before school is out.  Those that dig deeper and help their kids truly develop a curiosity and a love of learning (the main purpose of education, to me, is to foster curiosity and give students the ability to read, study, research, and learn on their own as adults), suffer because when the end of March rolls around, it's time to drop everything and go into test mode for three weeks.

ScienceTeacher671
ScienceTeacher671

@class80olddog ...or the 9th grade teachers who have students reading at such a low grade level that they can't comprehend the test, much less pass it, yet those teachers are evaluated based on their students' scores...

MaryElizabethSings
MaryElizabethSings

@bu2 


The political ideology of the "business free-market model" inserted into every arena of America society, including public service institutions such as education.  Obsessive use of tests for accountability stems from this business model interpretation of what best determines educational success.  In my view, this model contains a limited view of education and a misguided interpretation of how best to use standardized tests within education..

MaryElizabethSings
MaryElizabethSings

"Isn't that the true crime?"

++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++


Yes, it is the "true crime" for any thinking, caring person.  Your article was true in facts and true in spirit.  I imagine you are an amazing teacher.  Something some attorneys, some businessmen, and many Republican legislators, with their business model for public education, will never understand.

EdJohnson
EdJohnson

Thank you, Clara Totenberg Green.  Thank you!  Thank you!  Thank you!


Should any retaliation come your way from APS, I shall want to know about it... edwjohnson@aol.com


JBBrown1968
JBBrown1968

That makes less sense than ever......what are you on??

popacorn
popacorn

Rhett Butler: You're like the thief who isn't the least bit sorry he stole, but is terribly, terribly sorry he's going to jail.

Rhett Butler: My darling, you're such a child. You think that by saying, "I'm sorry," all the past can be corrected.

Scarlett: [to Ashley] Dreams, dreams always dreams with you, never common sense.


I knew I had read some of these APS posts/quotes somewhere before!


JBBrown1968
JBBrown1968

The Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) is up for renewal in Congress, and the anti-reform crowd is once again squandering big money trying to derail it.

With the help of a few partisan newspaper columnists.

The only reform you want is the money.


Astropig
Astropig

"Was the purpose of this legal ordeal to punish the educators whose lives had already been ruined? Was the purpose to deter other teachers when, in fact, the shortest jail sentence would have accomplished that? Believe me, the message was sent loud and clear, long before the criminal prosecution was even initiated"


The purpose of this trial, ma'am, was justice. This wasn't an "oopsie".This went on at APS for almost 9 years! This was a criminal conspiracy to cheat these kids and I agree with Judge Baxter that it was not a victimless crime.This was a machine built to short cut the assessment system for kids that have a lot of disadvantages anyway.Lots of APS teachers and administrators didn't cheat.How do you think they feel now after the humiliation that their system has endured? I simply don't see how anyone can excuse any of what went on here for so long.


Did you see the administrative capos get their sentence last week? Did you see Sharon Davis Williams, Michael Pitts,Dana Evans and Tamara Cotman? They were impassive as the judge gave them stiff sentences. They knew that they had done a lifetime of harm to the kids and they just didn't care. 


I can guarantee you that the last part of your assertion is very much true-The next ringleader that tries something like this will think twice.

newsphile
newsphile

This article is comparing apples to oranges.  As has been stated many times, Judge Baxter does not have authority to change testing requirements.  His job is to give punishment to individuals when a jury of their peers finds them guilty. He did so, after giving them a last opportunity to plead their cases.

Let it go!


bu2
bu2

@newsphile 


Yes and the "rush" to get through really has nothing to do with the test.  Her argument is with what is required by Georgia standards and the requirement that they cover the items in the standards.


I think they probably do try to cover too much.

Uthred
Uthred

The Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) is up for renewal in Congress, and the anti-reform crowd is once again squandering big money trying to derail it.

With the help of a few partisan newspaper columnists.



BCW1
BCW1

This testing opt out movement by parents is gaining strength. In 33 years of education, I have never heard of opting out until now for any reason. So something is wrong with the system!

Wascatlady
Wascatlady

Weigh the pig one more time!  Cut the amount you allow the pig to eat, and cut any vet visits!  But weight that pig again!