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Fear, Frustration, Failure and State Tests

ScantronThis will be the fourth year that my students and I have suffered through the New York State high-stakes elementary school tests.  Although the mayor and the chancellor tell us this year’s tests are all new, my stories from the classroom are similar to years past.

As a new teacher and New York City transplant, I was astonished to discover 3rd-, 4th- and 5th-grade students were held over based on their scores from a series of limited assessments.  After that realization, I was much less surprised to see the effect of these tests in the classroom.  Both schools I have worked at ended regular instruction in early February to opt for test prep units designed to milk a few extra points on the state exams. Students’ and teachers’ health began to slowly decline around the same time of year, and behavioral incidents began to rise.

In my own classroom, I have fought to ameliorate the stresses of testing season by reminding my students how hard they have worked and telling them that their only job on state testing days is to try their best. But my efforts have been less than successful. One year a 9-year-old 4th grader asked me if it was okay to put the classroom trash can near her desk in case she got sick to her stomach during her English language arts exam.  The next year a mental block caused a little boy to flip his desk over in a moment of panic and frustration while trying to craft an extended-response essay. Just last week, Natashi, a girl in my 5th-grade class who has only been in the country for two years and is still transitioning to English, asked me whether I would be disappointed in her if she tried her best and still wasn’t able to pass. “What if I just need another year in 5th grade to keep practicing, Mr. Thompson?” she said to me with tears in her eyes.

With a broken heart and tears in my own eyes, I turned to Natashi and told her I would always be proud of her. “You have fought so hard this year!  I will be proud of you no matter what score you get!” Natashi feigned a smile and asked to go to the bathroom to wash the tears off her cheeks.

My students, Natashi included, have been attending an extended-day program on Tuesdays and Wednesdays after school all year long. We have spent the last few months keeping students late on Mondays and Fridays for an hour and a half of extra instruction focused on test sophistication.  For the past two months, we have asked students to come to school from 9 a.m. to noon on Saturdays for extra help to boost scores on their state tests.

Still, all the Common Core-aligned data I collect are telling me that my students are not showing mastery on the vast majority of Common Core standards. Many of the “grade level” reading passages and math problems I share with my students are far beyond their ability levels. The confusion these tasks generate leads to an overwhelming sense of failure among my students. And, of course, when my students feel like they are failing, I feel like a failure myself.

Should it surprise any of us that high-stakes tests, coupled with new standards, little-to-no teacher training, and no citywide curricula are a recipe for disaster? Should cheating scandals, state test boycotts, low teacher retention rates, and teary-eyed students come as a shock to the American educational system?  Should I be surprised that my students score 30 percent lower than last year, as predicted by many educational experts? No!

The only surprising part about this whole process is the process itself. We have created a demoralizing atmosphere of fear, frustration and failure for teachers and students. I will always be proud of the hard work my students put into their education, and I sincerely believe they will succeed regardless of what their state test scores suggest. But if the mayor or the chancellor were ever to come up to me like Natashi did to ask whether I was proud of the reforms they had made to education, my answer to them would be quite different from my answer to her.

Mr. Thompson is the pseudonym of a fourth-year elementary school teacher in Brooklyn. A version of this post first appeared on the UFT blog edwize.org, where “New Teacher Diaries” is a regular feature. If you’re interested in writing a New Teacher Diary entry for edwize, send an email to edwize@uft.org.



  • 1 Lorraine
    · Apr 18, 2013 at 11:05 pm

    Very well said and sadly so true. We need to stop the madness. The children are under too much stress as well as parents and teachers. This is not what a childs school day should be like.

  • 2 phyllis c muray
    · Apr 20, 2013 at 4:12 am

    :On April 16, 2013 three 5th graders approached me in anguish and said,”Pray for us. We are taking the state test today.’ After decades of teaching, it is sad to see how high stakes testing has become the source of much anxiety among students, educators and parents. However, I believe the 3 gifted students, who approached me, have the right idea. Prayer just may be the right answer. May God hear their cries.

  • 3 Patrika Sherwood
    · Apr 30, 2013 at 4:15 pm

    After reading fear, frustration, failure and state tests, I can’t blame any student of their emotions because as a former educator who was forced out of teaching, I know their needs to be a criminal investigation within the entire nyc doe administration to aligning jail time for those responsible.