Testing has a very profound impact on school climate. For the students, standardized testing creates a climate of fear for the students who take the test seriously (we’ll talk briefly about the ones who don’t in a bit). We constantly drill into the student’s heads that how they do on the test will affect their whole future. We tell them if they do bad on the test they will have to repeat a grade (in many cases this is regardless of what their actual grades are), they may not get into the high school they want or may be denied entrance to college. This creates considerable anxiety on the student’s behalf and no one is at their best when they are overly anxious. For the students that do not care about the test we use coercion or bribery. We threaten them with severely disciplinary action if they disrupt the test or we offer them gift cards or free food if they do well. We are creating a culture of student who expects to get something for doing what they should be doing in the first place. Is it a surprise then when this type of mentality is absorbed by the student and then expected in non-testing situations? There are also relatively few long term studies on the effects of high stakes testing. So in effect we are using the students as guniea pigs in an involuntary experiment. If this were a new drug wouldn’t you want to see some signifigant studies before putting it into wide usage or using it on your own child?
It is, however, on the school and the school staff that the most dire consequences of testing are felt. The school itself is subject to sanctions to a failing school label if the students do not perform to a certain level. I am not saying that there are no bad schools or that we do not need evaluation but we should use criteria that are fair. For example, with a lot of school funding still based on property taxes, suburbs have more resources than urban schools. If an urban school, which has the fewer resources, is labeled a failing school, they can have what little resources they have stripped away. How is a school supposed to do better with fewer resources? Many schools are so worried by this that they find reasons to suspend or expel low test scoring students in order to bolster their scores. They hide behind zero tolerance policies but the real reason is the test score, the policy is just the excuse.
The school staff have the worst end of the testing stick. A teacher can lose his or her job if they fail to show appropriate test results. So if a fourth grade class does extremely poor, the assumption is that the fourth grade teacher is a bad teacher and should face a sanction of some kind. What this fails to take into account is that the students that teacher now has passed through grades one through three and the fourth grade teacher may be sanctioned for failings that may be the fault of the previous teachers. To avoid being labeled a “bad teacher”, many teachers have resorted to becoming drill sergeants in the classroom and focusing on only what the test covers. This removes the opportunity for the students to take an active part in their education and leads the teacher to view what was once considered a good discussion question as an annoyance that gets in the way. After all, the teacher is no longer trying to educate the student but to pass the test so he or she can keep their job. Time spent on teaching the test is time wasted, it could have been spent on helping the students become critical thinkers. This has led to several downturns in the classroom.
The first is cheating on the test by the teacher, whether it is through inappropriately coaching the students to actually filling in or changing answers. The second is that it has led to a breakdown in cooperation between teachers. Teachers are now competing against each other for the better score. In many cases their pay may be tied to their performance so they need to outperform their colleagues. Many teachers quit rather than work in this kind of atmosphere. This leads to the opposite result of what those in favor of testing desire. If the teachers who really care about education quit, then the ones replacing them are often not as good and see teaching more as a job than a calling. In short, we will lose the good teachers that testing proponents claim we will be left with.