To the Editor:
It’s that time of year again. The students in Berkeley’s public schools are undergoing the annual round of standardized tests of achievement. Teachers like myself are also undergoing an annual ordeal: administering the tests. For us, this process begins with signing away our academic freedom and our sense of responsibility as educators, in essence handing over our classrooms for several weeks to a testing corporation.
Pressure increases each year on students and on teachers to get a high score for their school. Schools can be financially rewarded or punished by the state according to students’ average test scores, a process that exacerbates the disparity between rich suburban and poor urban school districts.
The test format used by California for the past four years is the Stanford Achievement Test Version 9, also known as the SAT-9, along with several other additional test segments. Every year, about a month before administering this test, we are asked to sign a Security Agreement. The stated aim of this agreement is to prevent teachers from copying or repeating any of the test items, thereby altering the objectivity of the data.
But what does the signing of this agreement really mean for teachers, students, and parents? This security agreement prevents teachers from discussing the contents of the test at all, thereby infringing on our right to free speech and limiting parents’ right to know what is on the tests. The “high-stakes” nature of the current testing system, where so much rides on test averages has created an atmosphere of intimidation and fear for teachers.
If you are a teacher who is opposed to the testing craze or if you encounter one of the many test items that doesn’t make sense or is culturally or racially biased, there is nothing you can do about it. When you sign the agreement, you essentially waive your right to be critical of the test. And if you are a teacher and you want to keep your job, you’d better sign the form. I recently talked to one of the lawyers from the California Federation of Teachers about refusing to sign this form. He agreed that the requirement to sign the form seemed unfair, but he told me that I’d better not make waves about signing. If I didn’t sign the form, then administered the test, then disclosed contents of the test to parents, the press, or anyone else, I should expect to find myself “flipping burgers next fall.”
It’s not that I think every single test question is bogus. Many of the test questions do test the kinds of skills that I teach to my students, albeit in a limited multiple-choice format. But I feel that parents and the public have a right to know exactly how students are tested. Academic freedom guarantees that teachers have the right to use their knowledge and training, as well as their conscience to further educational goals above all else. The testing system prevents us from doing that.
All this secrecy leads one to ask the question, “Why is Harcourt Educational Measurement so sensitive about the contents of this test?” Perhaps it’s because this company, a subsidiary of multinational Reed Elsevier, makes $12 million per year off of California tax payers through the sale of its testing materials.
I’m a teacher. I want to teach in the best way I know how. I don’t want to teach to a test. I don’t want to give up my right to criticize the contents of this test, which were created by a huge corporation somewhere, far away from my classroom, from my school, from my district, and perhaps even far from my state. Yet I want to keep my job next year.
- Martha Hoppe