OPINION — Since the educational reform started by “No Child Left Behind” in the George W. Bush Era, test scores, not student wellness, have become the obsession.

What lawmakers don’t know are the unintended consequences suffered by both teachers and students as a result of the pressure behind student scores.

I just retired and finished my last year as an elementary teacher and the end-of-year stress that revolves around test prep, test review and test practice. I’m talking about the end-of-year test given to students in grades 3-8, sometimes called the Rise test. This is the highest-stakes test given because teachers, schools, districts and states are evaluated based on these student scores according to current education laws.

Many would be surprised to know that the scores and benchmarks used to label a student as “on grade level” or “below grade level are constantly changing. A student could be one point away from the “on” designation and still be labeled “below.” However unfair the grading, this test is called “high-stakes” because so much is riding on it. According to current law in many states, a school can be labeled ineffective/effective based on just this one test. Some states give the school a grade level based on this same test, A to F. Utah lawmakers just recently did away with school grades after a decade of using them because they were finally (and accurately) deemed punitive.

Tests change radically also. Lawmakers and test makers believe that if you want students to achieve higher learning, which equals higher scores, you need to make the test harder. Increasingly, tests have become even more difficult than classroom curriculum. Teachers are not allowed to see or know exactly what’s included on the test to help their students be successful. Teachers’ hands are tied when it comes to testing. We are told when and how to proctor a test. We are given training on how to monitor and not help test takers in any way. We are warned that certain behaviors can be unlawful. Talk about stress.

Next, let’s talk about student stress. I have watched student anxiety over the end-of-year tests get higher and higher. This can be a result of both teachers and parents trying to influence students to do well. But it can also be the result of harder test questions that students have not been prepared for or taught. While helping students take a benchmark or practice test, I often come across questions that are confusing or poorly explained that stump me, an experienced teacher with a master’s degree.

The test anxiety shows itself in different ways in students. Some students misbehave or check out saying, “I’m not going to even try.” Counselors are busy helping students around test time, making presentations, even giving students calming wristbands that vibrate to help calm nerves. I’ve seen students in tears, students freezing up and not being able to finish tests in the appropriate time. These are often very capable students who under other circumstances would do well on tests.

What about students who are English Language Learners, or designated Learning Disabled? The law is the same for them: no child shall be left untested. Imagine the experience for a Special Education student who is 1-3 grade levels behind or just learning English. It would be like sitting down to take a 2-3-hour test in German. Only I’m an adult and I have more coping skills. What are these students experiencing and learning while taking these tests? How to get it over quickly by clicking through? Saying to themselves, how dumb am I?

I feel like I’m an accessory to child abuse by putting these often emotionally vulnerable students through the pain of Rise testing. The experience has caused students to throw temper tantrums, extreme defiance, and other negative behavior. I can see the faces of some of my students with tears in their eyes in what looks like physical pain because of testing. I have reached out to my legislators to try to convince them to make changes to the laws, explaining what the terrible consequences of this law looks like in my classroom.

These laws will not be questioned because “testing is good and holding students and teachers accountable is the only way to improve education,” as is so often stated as fact. Parents have the right to opt their child out of Rise testing, but very few do. Teachers are not allowed by law to even suggest it. Parents are not allowed in rooms during testing so they may be unaware of the time commitment and the intensity of these tests, especially for students who are behind or have learning disabilities.

Since test scores are so important, how do we raise scores? More testing! So administrators are encouraging/requiring more practice tests (benchmarks) not just near the end of the year, but all year long. The philosophy that more test practice equals higher scores has not been based on what’s best for students. But the unintended consequences of implementing this philosophy has terrible negative impacts on our students and classrooms. The amount of time taken away from curriculum and engaging activities in lieu of test practice is substantial. Teachers become more test implementers than teachers who inspire genuine learning.

I’m not suggesting we do away with standardized testing. Historically, we have always had state testing. Its primary purpose was to gauge whether states were keeping up with each other. The National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) tests students in fourth, eighth and 12th grade and has been given since 1969. Teachers and students were asked to “do their best.” No huge consequences were on the line based on the test results. States could make adjustments needed based on the data.

So the bottom line is, has it worked?  Has increasing the level and importance of testing, improved test scores? According to The Nation’s Report Card online, there were “steeper score declines since 2020 for lower performing students in math compared to higher performers.” Clearly, test-obsessed reform is not even improving scores. The report continues to state that all scores are trending down in Math and Reading.

During my 30-year career I have experienced the very negative consequences this test obsession has had on my students and teaching in general. My question is, how long do we continue stressing children and blaming teachers for low test scores? Could there be other, more complicated factors affecting the lives of our children? Could there be more important goals to achieve for our children than a bump in a statistic? We need a “reform” back to concern for the whole child. The future of our children’s education depends on it. Now those are truly “high stakes.”

Submitted by ELLEN BENNETT, Washington City. Bennett taught for 27 years in Washington County elementary schools. She attended Brigham Young University and graduated from Southern Utah University with a Master’s in Education. Besides teaching kindergarten and first grades, she spent the last 10 years teaching fourth grade at Coral Canyon Elementary.

Letters to the Editor are not the product of St. George News, its editors, staff or news contributors. The matters stated and opinions given are the responsibility of the person submitting them. They do not reflect the product or opinion of St. George News and are given only light edit for technical style and formatting.