‘Too much testing’ prompts Cambridge teacher to resign

Originally published March 27, 2014 in the Cambridge Chronicle.

A Cambridge Public Schools kindergarten teacher has attracted national attention with a resignation letter condemning standardized testing for taking the joy out of learning.

Susan Sluyter has been an early education teacher at the King Open School for more than 25 years. She said she took a leave of absence this past summer to explore teaching outside the public school system, and on Feb. 12, officially submitted her resignation.

“(The administration) knew I had left to teach someplace else to see how I felt, and I had the right to come back next September if I wanted to,” Sluyter said, adding the deadline to resign was Feb. 15. “That’s why I resigned at that time.”

It wasn’t an easy decision to make, she said. Sluyter knew she wanted to be a teacher since the age of 13. As a teenager, she loved babysitting and being around kids, and although she majored in psychology as an undergrad, Sluyter said she went straight to graduate school at Lesley University to get a master’s degree in education.

There was a time, she said, when the focus of education was on learning. That all changed around 2002 when the No Child Left Behind bill was signed into law by President George Bush. The law required each state to develop a standardized test and for each school to make “adequate yearly progress” towards improvement or else face reduced funding or possible intervention.

Then came additional mandated assessments, she said. There were developmental assessments, math assessments, “Response to Intervention” assessments for students with difficulties learning, a new statewide teaching assessment, and just this year, a pilot program for a new statewide standardized test.

“Over the years, I’ve seen this climate of data fascination seep into our schools and slowly change the ability of educators to teach creatively and respond to children’s social and emotional needs,” Sluyter said in her resignation letter. “When adults muck about too much in the process of learning to read and write, adding additional challenge and pressure too soon, many children begin to feel incompetent and frustrated. They don’t understand. They feel stupid. Joy disappears.”

Her letter wound up on the Washington Post, which first published it on March 23. She was then featured on the Today Show and her story was broadcast through nearly a dozen other news outlets nationwide.

Cambridge School Committee member Patricia Nolan was perplexed as to why her letter drew so much attention. She’s not the first teacher, in Cambridge or otherwise, to express those same frustrations with standardized testing, Nolan said. Nor is she alone among her colleagues feeling the way she does, said Chris Colbath-Hess, president of the Cambridge Educators Association, which represents the city’s public school teachers.

“Do teachers now have concerns about the number of assessments and all of the changes that are happening? Yeah. It’s been out there for a while,” Colbath-Hess said. “I think teachers, administrators, everybody is concerned about the changes around standardized testing.”

Assessing vs. testing

The debate around the need for some standardized measure of assessment – that is comparable across schools and districts – and evaluation measures that can accurately reflect what a student is learning is nothing new.

Sluyter said she’s been using “assessments” since she started teaching. From her perspective, assessing a kindergarten student could mean watching the way he interacts with his classmates in a small group setting. The answers are fed directly back to the teacher and the teacher can then adjust her lesson plan to reflect the needs of her students.

That doesn’t happen with standardized tests, Sluyter said. To start with, the data doesn’t come back for months, usually not until the summer, when the students are long gone. The data doesn’t necessarily get passed on to the student’s next teacher since the classes may be configured differently.

“I don’t know any teacher who finds them useful in teaching,” Sluyter said. “Every year we try to figure out some way to use that data in a way that’s helpful to us as teachers but then the next year, they change the test and it’s all different.”

The focus is on accountability and not responsibility, said Colbath-Hess, and that shifts the focus to what teachers are teaching rather than what students are learning. She said other kinds of assessments that teachers regularly use in the classroom do measure the continued, or stagnated, progress of individual students.

“Standardized tests measure a moment in time but so much of what happens in a classroom is not a moment in time, it’s a progression,” Colbath-Hess said. “Sometimes a skill I taught to a student in third grade won’t be fully realized until the student gets to fifth grade and that just means that with repeated exposure, the student got it. That’s not always what comes out when you measure it in a test.”

Nolan said the Cambridge School Committee has been advocating for years for a different set of measures that could augment the data that comes with standardized testing. As a parent herself, Nolan said she sees the stresses that come with standardized testing firsthand, and she hears the same concerns from teachers.

“What’s frustrating is that the School Committee as a whole has asked for other measures and said clearly that we want accountability, but that we recognize the current measure we use has a lot of limitations,” Nolan said.

At the same time though, Nolan said she uses MCAS scores all the time to judge progress towards goals like closing achievement gaps between the city’s African American and Latino students and their Caucasian and Asian peers. Despite the limitations, Nolan said those are the only tools available to her.

Superintendent Jeff Young also pointed to the achievement gap as one area where standardized testing does shed some light on how certain groups of students are doing compared to others. But he said standardized testing is just one tool that schools can use to assess students’ progress; they shouldn’t occupy so large a place in students’ experience that they become oppressive.

“Like everything in education, what is required here is balance: on the one hand, it is the right thing to educate a whole child, to be attentive to his or her growth, and to nurture his or her experience in school so as to cultivate a lifelong love of learning,” Young said. “At the same time, the fact is that achievement gaps exist in Cambridge, in Massachusetts and in the United States for children of color, students of low-income, students whose first language is not English, and students with disabilities.”

Those gaps are “persistent and pernicious,” Young said, adding schools must work hard to ensure that every child, regardless of background or economic status, has access to excellence in education.

“Those two goals are not either/or,” Young said. “That’s a false dichotomy. The best schools are the ones that see the goals not as either/or but rather as both/and.”

With many of the mandates coming down from the federal and state government, Colbath-Hess said it’s hard not to feel like the measures are completely alien from the needs of a particular district, let alone a particular school.

Could the district simply opt out of standardized testing? Nolan said she’s not sure. She said it would be fruitful to take the time to really find other ways of measuring student progress that assess “the whole child,” rather than rely only on standardized tests. One place to start, she said, would be to talk to teachers about what works in their own classrooms. It’s a sentiment shared by Colbath-Hess, who said Sluyter’s frustrations are a reflection of the stress that’s present in the entire education system.

“The message I think we need to take from that is that it’s time to take a collective look at what we are doing in this system that really serves students and what is a distraction,” Colbath-Hess said. “We do need to find ways to address the persistent achievement gaps, but in my mind, the emphasis on tests has gone too far. We need the flexibility to listen to our educators and ask them what they need to meet the needs of the students they teach.”

In one way, the district has already made strides in that direction, Colbath-Hess said. In addition to $40,000 that has already been allocated, the district’s fiscal 2015 budget allots another $100,000 for consultant Jonathan Saphier of the organization Research for Better Teaching to provide training to administrators, curriculum coordinators, instructional coaches, and a few members of the Cambridge Educators Association on how to measure students’ progress in a more holistic manner.

“It’s about shifting the thinking from what are the teachers doing to what are the students learning,” Colbath-Hess said. “If you think about what’s happening in the classroom and what do we, as teachers, need to make those interactions better, then that’s the kind of conversation that teachers want to have. And, that’s reflective of what Cambridge is trying to do.”


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