High Costs for High Stakes

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This week marks the start of high stakes testing at my school.  The students have been at DEFCON 2, probably as a result of their teachers exhibiting high anxiety levels. This is the most stressful time of year for my students.  They are worried about everything; whether they will pass, what it will mean if they don’t, will it impact their grades, if they fail, will they be retained? and on and on the list of stressors goes.  Keep in mind, these students have been taking these high stakes tests since 3rd grade and the answers to their questions have never changed.

This year, we get an added bonus – expedited retakes.  Our state has decided that if a student fails within a certain range, they will be immediately remediated and retested, in the hopes they will pass the second time.  Here is the problem: the tests do not reflect how real readers read and real writers write. My students choose their own books to read and for the most part, the topics they write about. Yes, I teach skills, strategies, and grammar but it takes place within the context of authentic texts, and for writing, from their own pieces.  This is considered best practice for English instruction in middle schools. The tests could not be further removed from that practice.  Instead they are an endurance test – how many boring passages can we cram into one test with questions designed not to find if you are a thoughtful reader, but whether you are a clever test-taker?

We tell our students that they are not to worry about the test but to do their best.  Each September, though, one of the first things we do is to check if they passed the test in the previous grade.  As long as the success of students (and their teachers) rests on the results of the tests, they will remain high stakes but I don’t want Pearson to determine the success of my students. That success is a conversation between each of my students, their parents, and me. That success is looking at their portfolios and documenting all the excellent decisions they made in 7th grade that resulted in a powerful writing piece, or a book they adored.  That success is seeing them dance and sing with the students in the self-contained class who join us for brain break every Friday. That success is seeing them stomp and cheer for one another in our annual Poetry Slam. That success is seeing them conduct their student led conferences with their parents, where they articulate exactly what success means to them, with evidence to prove it.

As part of our testing review this year, we had the students write poems entitled, ‘I Am Not the Test’ to help them remember where their worth truly lies.  Here are some samples:

I am not the test 

but I am joyful, athletic, and

musical. I am

outgoing, kind and comedic,

I am not the test, 

but I am intelligent, happy, 

and theatrical.

I am not the test.



I’m not the test.

I’m awesome and funny.

I’m smart and cool.

I’m not stupid or

boring. I have lots

of friends.

I’m not a loser.

I’m a winner.



I am not the test…

I am the basketball player,

The guy who’s 6 feet tall, 196.9 pounds,

And can jump 23.7 inches.

I am the trumpet player,

Who can say no to too many concerts.

I am the helpful, smart, kind boy

Who knows determination, who can work hard,

Who you can rely on.

I am the guy who can touch the 9’ rim.

I am the 140 pound weight lifter.

I am NOT the test.



I am not the test.

You can test failure,

You can test soil,

But you can’t test me.

I am strong.

Sometimes I’m wrong.

But you can’t test me.



I am not the test,

You cannot test emotions.

You cannot test sports.

You can test boring math but

All you get is a number.

Good grades mean more than a bad SOL grade.

Good is such a strong word,

But bad is stronger.

Calling someone bad

Just because of your grade on a test

Is not fair because

I am not the test.



I am not the test.

I am an independent person.

I take care of those around me.

I have the ability to pick you up if you fall.

I am not the test.

I am not a number.

I am not an item with a label.

I am not one to judge.

I am not the test.

I am the crazy laugher, the over-thinker.

I am the one always taking pictures.

I am one to love nature.

I am not the test.



I am not the test…

But I am smart.

I always challenge myself

To reach for the moon,

And, someday, I’ll land on it.


I can play the piano,

When I play the notes and

Sing along, beautiful harmonies

Float from my fingers like leaves

Caught in the wind of song.


I can act.

When I was Alice

I looked in every rabbit hole,

And I stepped into her shoes.

I was in Wonderland, singing with the Tweedles.


I always stay true to myself

I can’t let other people

Tell me who I am

I will always be me,

I am not a test.


What will be the cost for Megan, or Billy, or Logan if they happen not to pass the test? Will they look back and say, ‘That was the year I failed.”?  After a year of hard work, moments of brilliance, perseverance, and creative writing, will they be able to remember that they are NOT the test?  High stakes, indeed.