A Year of Teaching to a High Stakes Test

I spent one year teaching at a Title I HISD school. This is my story. I wish that I could say that this was a rare, freakish situation. It was not. This is going on everywhere. Not always to this degree, but there are at least trace elements of this in every school. And poor kids and the schools that serve them suffer the most. Opt out of STAAR. It's the only way to change this toxic system.


Written in the summer of 2014

As we waited in line for the copy machine one morning during second period, one of my fellow teachers announced loudly enough for everyone to hear her: “This year cannot end soon enough for me. I can’t take this place much longer.”

She said it firmly, without her usual smile. There were murmurs of agreement, and she continued. “On my way to work every morning, when I get close to this building, my stomach starts to hurt.”

I nodded because I knew exactly what she meant. For me, driving to school in the mornings sometimes felt akin to moving my hand toward the burner of a lit stove, knowing that I would have to leave my hand on the hot plate all day. Sometimes, the heat would be turned up, sometimes down, but it would always be on. Usually I could bear it, but only just.

When I was hired to teach seventh grade at a Title I public middle school, I thought that the greatest challenge I would face while teaching there would be the students, 93% of which are classified as “economically disadvantaged.” And of course, seventh graders in general, regardless of socioeconomic status, are not known for being a springtime picnic.

In some ways, I was right. My students were a tough crowd. They experienced all the normal emotional upheavals that one would expect of middle school students. Many of them did not seem to be particularly concerned with how well they did in school. Some were mean. Some felt entitled to good grades but did not want to work for them. Some had fits of defiance that often subsided the minute after they began. Most could not see the relationship between their bad actions and the consequences that followed.

All that being said, there were good moments with them as well. Moments when they raised their hands and asked and answered questions because they were genuinely excited about what they were learning. Moments when they confided in me. Moments when they were funny. Moments when they were smart. Moments when they were proud of themselves for learning something, doing something right, grasping something. Moments when they worked hard. Every day there were at least a few of these moments, and when I took time to notice these, things became more bearable.

Though I knew coming in that the students would be challenging, I was not at all prepared for the real problems I would be facing, which mostly involved adults. When I accepted the job, I felt lucky to have been hired. The school had a good reputation, the principal was highly regarded in the district, the building was clean and new, and the hallways appeared safe. The faculty was young and vibrant.

At teacher orientation, the first few yellow warning flags began to pop up. First of all, I began to notice just how young the faculty really was. There didn’t seem to be any old timers in the mix. In fact, the longest tenure I could find amongst the teachers that I spoke to was three years. Second year teachers, it appeared, were treated like seasoned veterans.

When one of the new teachers asked a second year veteran why there had been so many new hires that year, she responded with, “Oh, you’ll see.” And then, before we could press her for more information, she shook her head and walked away.

Things continued to deteriorate when the students arrived. The school, it turned out, was run like a prison, and the teachers were expected to act as the jailers. School hours were from 7:45 a.m. to 3:15 p.m., and every day, my students went the whole day without any break or recess. They got twenty minutes to eat lunch, but they were restricted to sitting at assigned tables in the cafeteria. Once they had their food, they were not allowed at any point to get up, run around, play, or hang out with friends. When they got too loud, the punishment was “silent lunch.”

As a result, student behavior deteriorated very predictably throughout the day, most noticeably after lunch because the kids had so much pent up energy. I became truly alarmed when I learned that a good percentage of my students were not even taking PE. Middle school students in Texas are only required to take PE for two out of the three years. This meant that many of my students got no physical activity at all during the day, except for walking from class to class. Some of my students who had failed their STAAR tests the previous year were not even allowed to take elective classes. Instead of art or band, they took two extra reading classes every day.

As an English teacher, I had each of my classes for ninety minutes every day. (Math, as the other highly tested subject, also got ninety minute periods.) However, I was not allowed to give my students a break, not even a bathroom break, during the entire ninety minute block. The administrators at my school emphasized and enforced “bell to bell instruction.” We were to “maximize instructional time,” allowing no room for breaks or any other funny business.

During the first week of school, unaware of this expectation, I gave my students a short break in the middle of class, and just as my students were standing up, an administrator walked in. When I explained to her why they were out of their seats, she snapped at the student in front of her, “Well! You must have learned a lot already if you deserve a break! What did you learn?” The student floundered around for an answer, but the message (intended for me) was clear.

If school was a prison for the kids, it was no better for the teachers, and I watched this take its toll not just on me, but also on my colleagues. As the year went on, we grew quieter, less bold, more washed out. People kept their cards close. It was not an atmosphere of collaboration but of shifting alliances and of trying to stay out of trouble. Asking for help was a sign of weakness, and appearing weak was a death wish. By the end of the year, we grew closer, not out of shared ideas but out of shared misery.

Most of the administrators were mean and petty and ruled by intimidation. The first week of school, all new teachers were dive-bombed by a horde of five or six administrators who barged into our classrooms unannounced to observe whatever was happening. Fortunately, things were always running smoothly when they happened to dive-bomb me, but I heard stories of some teachers’ classes being interrupted and the teachers being criticized soundly in front of their students. In some cases, the principal actually took over the class and began teaching it herself.

The teacher evaluation process was also a nightmare. The seventh grade assistant principal was my evaluator, and all visits to my classroom were unannounced. I was used to getting strong evaluations at my previous jobs, but I saw very quickly that this was not going to be the case at this job. My evaluator stuck to a district-issued rubric which was vague and arbitrary and filled with jargon. I was berated for not having my objective written correctly on the board and for not demonstrating in a very specific way that I had high expectations for my students. I do not recall him ever giving me a single piece of positive feedback. He rated me as an OK, but not great teacher. Based on what I had heard from colleagues, this was pretty well par for the course.

I learned later in the year that my school “hemorrhages” teachers after every school year, and that low evaluations is one way that the principal can keep people tied to the school. It becomes much more intimidating to look for another job when you are concerned that you won’t get a good recommendation from your current supervisor. Rumors abounded that the principal would try to sabotage people who wanted to leave by giving them poor recommendations.

Though it became quickly evident that my new job was not all I had imagined it to be, I still subscribed to the old “shut your door” mentality of teaching and believed I would be able to do my own thing in my own classroom. I had big plans for teaching reading and writing which had worked beautifully in my previous six years as a teacher.

But at this new school, the day after my students had begun brainstorming moments in their lives which had been truly important to them, my principal came storming into the seventh grade English meeting and shouted at us at the top of her lungs that last year’s writing scores had been unacceptable, and that we clearly did not know what we were doing. She told us that now we needed to do things her way.

Her way meant that we were now to give our students a number of standardized test prompts and have them write in response to those. In other words, instead of my students writing a personal narrative about a moment in their lives that was actually important to them, they would be writing a personal narrative in response to a STAAR test prompt, such as, “Write about a time you overcame a challenge,” or “Write about a time you made a decision.”

Writing, which had once been my favorite thing to teach, quickly became my least favorite. Instead of becoming independent writers who loved and felt empowered by what they were doing, my students became dependent on me to teach them formulaic ways of responding to formulaic questions. I was miserable and so were they.

Before taking the job, I had been told over and over again that public school teachers “teach to the test.” I had always believed that it was the teachers who were choosing to teach to the test because they misguidedly thought that that was the most effective way to do things. But this past year, I realized that it was not the teachers who were behind it at all. I myself often taught to a test, not because I wanted to, but because I was forced to.

Ironically for a school that valued “high expectations” for its students, the principal did not seem to think that our students were capable of authentically learning and then later demonstrating this learning on a standardized test. All learning had to be in the context of the test or it didn’t count. Our students didn’t read books. They read test passages. We were meant to use our planning time to analyze old test questions and look for words and phrasings that might trip them up.

The principal instructed us to administer mock STAAR tests to our students twice every two weeks. She explained that if they did not have enough experience with the test, they wouldn’t know what to do with themselves on test day. Each mock STAAR test took my kids three ninety minute class periods to complete. Then, to make certain that we were doing the mock tests and taking them seriously enough, the principal ordered that the averages of our students’ scores on each test be posted in giant print in the seventh grade hallway with our (the teachers’) names under them. The assumption was that teachers with poor scores would be humiliated enough to work harder to bring their students’ scores up.

Public humiliation was one of my principal’s tactics of choice. She often shrilly reprimanded teachers in front of their students and colleagues. She once tried to bully me into doing a job I was not contractually obligated to do by claiming that I had promised to do it during my original job interview. My colleagues squirmed uncomfortably in their seats as she grilled me.

Her lack of professionalism was sometimes quite impressive. For example, during one seventh grade English team meeting, she falsely accused my team of making a minor logistical error. In the course of shouting at us, she uttered the following words: “Do you think I’m r*tarded?! You must think I’m r*tarded! Since these people think I’m r*tarded, let’s get this all down in writing so that they’ll know exactly what to do next time.” In spite of the fact that she was the principal of a school where a number of students actually did have Down syndrome and other intellectual disabilities, she thought nothing of throwing this word around in front of four teachers and three other administrators.

Though my principal was clearly steering the ship, the bizarreness did not stop with her. The work environment was always unpredictable, and never in a good way. One morning, my class was loudly interrupted by a brute squad of two administrators and one police officer. As they stormed into the room, I assumed it would be a drug raid. The students were ordered to step away from their desks and keep their hands at their sides. Then they were commanded to surrender any Sharpies that they were harboring. The students looked as confused as I did, but the brute squad was not smiling. The unfortunate ones who gave up their Sharpies were then sent promptly to the office for the “Saturday Morning Special,” which was my assistant principal’s jovial and affectionate name for Saturday morning detention.

This assistant principal, who was also my evaluator, had a number of affectionate names for the punishments he doled out. Along with the Saturday Morning Special, he also had “the VIP table,” which was where kids misbehaving at lunch would be sent to eat silently before receiving the Saturday Morning Special. To me, this seemed the equivalent of a prison warden ordering inmates to head back to their “penthouse suites” when it was time to go back to their cells. Or telling them they could have “a little time for themselves” before sending them to solitary confinement. In other words, the kind of humor that only makes the bully laugh.

By spring, every single member of my seventh grade English team had given notice that we would not be returning to the school the following year. We lived in fear because rumor had it that teachers who admitted that they were not coming back were considered disloyal and had huge targets on their backs. Retaliation could apparently take the form of bad evaluations or foot dragging with transfer forms—things which could compromise one’s ability to get a new job. Luckily for us, their revenge was minor. They told us that our lesson plans, which they had not looked at all year, were below par and needed to be completely rewritten. It could have been much worse, but we didn’t breathe easily until we all had our new contracts signed and in front of us.

I have never been happier to leave a job than I was to leave that one, but, in spite of everything, I’m glad I stuck it out. First of all, I am genuinely proud of myself for surviving. And second of all, I could not possibly have understood or even believed what today’s public school teachers are going through if I had not experienced it for myself.  Speaking to other teachers at other schools in my district, I quickly realized that my experience and the environment at my school were not in any way exceptional.  The other teachers were dealing with the exact same things at their own schools.  Most of them were wondering how to make it through the year, and the majority of them were considering the possibility of leaving the profession altogether.  A general refrain was, "I'm not allowed to teach anymore."

During this year, I saw the unintended consequences of high stakes standardized testing, consequences which created a toxic environment for students, teachers, administrators, and parents. When my colleague felt sick to her stomach driving to work every morning, when my suicidal student couldn’t find a time to meet with the counselor because the counselor was too busy readying the campus for the upcoming STAAR test, when the assistant principal wouldn’t move a victim out of the same class as her bullies because he didn’t want to have schedule disruptions so close to the STAAR test, these were some unintended consequences of “accountability.”

Certainly we want to “hold schools accountable.” But the system that was designed on paper to deliver this accountability, when put into actual practice, is bringing human beings to their knees. The new schools that we have created are cruel, and they are unprecedented.

I don’t claim to have the answer to the accountability question. But I do know that we need to start by listening to public school teachers, students, parents, and administrators who see the consequences of these systems every day. If you are outside of the system, you may very well have an opinion, but you haven’t seen the cut marks and the bloodshot pot smoke eyes of the students who are barely hanging on. You haven’t heard the confidence slowly leak out of the voices of your colleagues as the year trudges by. You haven’t watched once rational adults grow petty and mean with just a little bit of power. If you are outside the system, the best thing you can possibly do is to put your opinions to the side. Your job now is to listen.

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