dianne salerni author
dianne salerni author

If you want a funny and yet completely on-the-mark and disturbing look at standardized testing in our country, you should skip my post and watch this John Oliver clip instead. It’s long, but worth watching all the same. (Hey, my post is long too.)


I’m going to tell you my personal experience with standardized testing, specifically the PSSA (Pennsylvania System of School Assessment).

The test is constantly changing, so for teachers and students, it’s a moving target. We get a list of “eligible content” and a few “sample questions,” but we never know what our students will be asked to do from year to year. The teachers never see the test unless we sneak peeks over our students’ shoulders while they take it.

From the moment the test booklets enter our building, we go into high-security lockdown. In my building, teachers are recruited to put barcode labels on the test booklets, but there are always administrators in the room watching to make sure no teacher opens a booklet to see the questions inside.

Proctors for the test are required to watch a training video, pass a test, and sign a security document. One of my favorite parts of the video were the DO and DON’T scenarios.

DON’T: A teacher stands at a podium, monitoring students. A boy raises his hand. The teacher walks over and stands beside him.

The boy says, “I don’t understand what the question is asking.”

The teacher puts a hand on his shoulder. “Do you remember the strategies we used in class?” He nods. “Try one of those.” She pats him on the back and returns to the podium.

DO: A teacher stands at a podium, monitoring students. A boy raises his hand. The teacher walks over and stands a distance away, so she doesn’t have a view of the test.

The boy says, “I don’t understand what the question is asking.”

The teacher says, “I can’t help you,” and returns to the podium.

I always wondered why she didn’t just stay at her podium and give him the finger when he raised his hand. The attitude was pretty much the same, and it would’ve saved her some steps.

The state testing agency sent agents out for surprise security inspections. They might peer at you through the window or walk in, sit down, and watch you for the entire test period. One of the things they would be looking for is any deviation from the test instructions.

We had to read from a script. For many years, the first section of the PSSA consisted of a Math test with a multiple-answer section and TWO open-ended questions. The directions called for the teacher to have the students open their test booklets to see the multiple-answer section and the FIRST open-ended problem. In the directions, we read that there were TWO open-ended problems, but since each one was two pages long with multiple parts, many students incorrectly assumed that both problems were contained on the facing pages they were looking at. The directions did not allow us to tell them to turn the page and see that there were more questions.

As you can imagine, many, many students accidentally skipped the second open-ended problem. After years of teachers complaining to the state, the PSSA directions finally changed. In my last year of teaching, we weren’t allowed to show the students any of the pages. We just wrote the page numbers on the board (pages 6-9) and left the kids to find the problems on their own.

If we saw a student accidentally skip part of the test, we were not allowed to tell them. Whenever they indicated they were finished, we had to take the test. Even if they’d only spent 15 minutes on a test that was meant to take an hour. (And there’s always one of those kids in every class.)

Students are instructed NOT to talk about the test questions to each other, to their teachers, or to their parents. As John Oliver says in the video, the test has all the transparency of Fight Club. As teachers, we tried to prepare the students as best we could, based on the stated eligible content. We taught fifth graders both climax and turning point, because we never knew which term would be on the test. We made them distinguish between third person limited and third person omniscient, even though some adult writers can’t tell the difference. (Seriously, I’ve seen Big 5 published books making mistakes in that area.) The PA Common Core mistakenly uses the term Point of View both in its correct sense (1st person, 2nd person, 3rd person) and also as a synonym for Author’s Perspective, so that’s what we teach them, even though it is wrong and confusing to the students. And when a math open-ended question says they can either show or explain their work – we’ve never got a straight answer out of the state whether points are taken off if they don’t do both.

So that’s the test. School funding rides on it. Teacher evaluations and salaries are hinged on it. And now kids in my school district will be getting less physical education, music, art, computers, science, history, and geography so they can work harder to prepare for it because their scores have been trending down.

I’ll ask my daughter’s question again: “Do you think it might be the test that’s to blame?”

I haven’t written much on my blog about why I left teaching last year. I meant to. I even have a document in my blog file labeled Why I Had to Leave with a long list of topics to write about. I was furious about being driven out of my profession by the choices made by my school district. After I was gone, however, and facing my new career as a full time writer, I decided it would be better not to burn any bridges.

This week, however, I learned from my former co-workers that my school district (still my district because I live in it and my daughters attend school there) is making some changes to personnel and student schedules.

You know what? See that bridge? Burn, baby, burn.

burning bridge

photo credit: burning via photopin (license)

I didn’t think our district could sink much lower than they did last year when they fired all the custodians (members of our community, some of whom had worked in our schools for decades), outsourced the cleaning, and used the saved money to create a new administrative position and promote a principal into it.  In other words, they put their lowest paid employees out of work and gave a raise to one of their highest paid employees.

But yes, they can go lower.

Last week – during Teacher Appreciation Week – they announced that they will be eliminating 6-8 positions for physical education teachers and drastically reducing the elementary P.E. program. They are also eliminating the intermediate science lab positions and slashing the music, art, and computer programs. All this so they can devote more of the school day to preparing students for the state tests.

You see, test scores have been trending downward in our elementary and middle schools. Over the past several years, our district has done a lot of things to improve test scores, such as:

  • Institute MAP testing 3x per year to track student progress
  • Analyze students by their scores on various assessments
  • Adopt the Common Core Curriculum
  • Standardize all assessments given to students in reading and math
  • Reduce instruction in science, history, and geography to provide more instructional time for state-tested subjects

Since student scores continue to decline, our district has decided we need more test prep. My fourteen-year-old daughter’s response to this decision was: “You mean, since all the test prep didn’t work, they’re going to do more of it? Doesn’t it occur to them that kids did better on the tests when they did less test prep and, you know, taught stuff?”

Again, she’s fourteen. And she saw this. Immediately.

Then she went on to say: “Does it ever occur to them that the problem is the test?”

Yeah, about that test … I have a lot to say on that subject. But that’s going to have to wait until Wednesday when I tell you about the test – the test teachers never get to see – the test students aren’t allowed to talk about – the test that changes every year – that drives our entire education system.

But today, I’d like to finish up by defending the teaching staff at my former school — they are dedicated, hard-working individuals who put in countless hours working under stressful conditions while going above and beyond for their students — and our PTA, who have always, always supported teachers and students and generously provided us with anything we asked for.

It’s the leadership in our district and the leadership in our state government that I’m pointing the finger at here. The people who view students as data points.

Why did I have to leave? Because 26 years ago, I became a teacher to teach students — not plot data points.



Yes, Homer Simpson is an exemplary model of doing something really stupid and realizing his mistake only when it’s too late to fix it. I hope that’s what Diane Ravitch is feeling these days – not that it will do any good for the rest of us.

Ravitch served in President Bush’s Education Department and was one of the leading advocates of the No Child Left Behind law that has afflicted public education for the last decade. Schools across the country scramble to meet the rigorous testing standards with insufficient funding, and every year the bar is raised higher and higher. By the year 2014, schools are supposed to make certain 100% of the students score proficient or above on every test – and continue to do so forevermore. That’s 100%. Even special education students. Even students who don’t speak English and can’t read the test.

Recently, however, Ravitch has come to realize that she may have made a mistake. She now calls the hallmarks of NCLB (standardized testing and charter schools) “faddish trends” which are undermining our school system. She suddenly noticed that the emphasis on reading and math testing has squeezed out history, art, music, and physical education. Ravitch is surprised to discover that her system of accountability has caused “test cramming and bean counting” to replace quality education. I don’t know if she’s noticed yet that non-English speakers are having a little trouble passing the test, but obviously her learning curve is kind of shallow. NCLB is a Frankenstein monster.

Slap your forehead, Ms. Ravitch. We could have told you this a long time ago. In fact, I think we did tell you. Now, how are you going to get rid of the monster?

The whole story about Ravitch’s change of heart can be found in this New York Times article. Thank you, Dr. Al Past, for bringing it to my attention.

Anyone who is a teacher will be familiar with Process Writing as taught in the classroom. It consists of steps labeled Pre-Writing, Drafting, Conferencing, Revising, Editing, and Publishing. These steps are often recursive, as writers may conference several times, revise, and sometimes even go back to re-drafting before moving on to the next step. Teachers also know how difficult it is to get some students to buy into this process. Many of them want to toss their work into the teacher’s in-box after dotting the last period, without a backwards glance.

I gained a little credibility with some of these students when I was able to prove to them that the real process of publication does in fact follow this model.

Peer Conferencing: I shared my manuscript with family, friends, and fellow authors while I worked on it. The demand from certain people became great enough that I sent out each chapter by email as it was completed. My students laughed when I told them that my husband was my toughest critic. When Mr. Salerni says it’s no good, I scramble to revise!

Teacher Conferencing: I carefully consider all the feedback I get from my early readers, but I don’t necessarily address every single one of their comments. However, when my editors at Sourcebooks give me feedback – or when the producer collaborating with me on the screenplay wants changes – I definitely complete the revisions as required. “You might ignore some peer feedback,” I tell my students, “but when your teacher tells you something must be changed (insert stern teacher glare here), you’d better change it before handing in your work!”

Editing: This endless task is something that students just don’t want to do. “It doesn’t have any mistakes,” they tell me. I have explained to my class that I’ve read We Hear the Dead about fifty times, and I am still finding things to change. I recently received my final proof pages and noticed a paragraph where I used the word “all” four times within two sentences. “It’s not technically a mistake,” I explained to the students, “but it sounds bad, and I can improve it.”

One of my smart cookies challenged me at the end of my lesson, saying, “Yeah, Mrs. Salerni, but when we’re done, we have to turn our work in to you for grades. When your book gets published, you don’t get grades.”

“Yes, I do,” I answered him promptly. “They’re called reviews.”

Reading in today’s society tends to be a social activity. People share books, recommend them, discuss them, blog about them, and list them on virtual library sites. However, across the nation, NCLB requires states to test reading in isolation. Students must make sense of text without the support of peer readers and answer questions that are judged by someone far away – someone who will never meet the test-taker or listen to an explanation of his answer.

Sadly, a lot of schools have given up teaching novels in favor of more test practice. I find this a worrisome trend, considering the downward spiral of American interest in reading. A recent New Yorker article reported that in a survey conducted by the National Endowment for the Arts in 2002 only 47% of the participants had read a work of creative literature in the previous twelve months. That’s over half the participants admitting to not a single book in a year. Perhaps this explains why parents at a community event this fall complained about my school’s summer reading assignments. “It’s supposed to be vacation!” one parent said to me indignantly, knowing I was a teacher at her child’s school. She was unashamed to complain about the burden of reading a book over the 10-week summer vacation.

Luckily, my school still values reading books for the joy of reading, and although we have to balance our reading instruction with rigorous test preparation, we do ask students to read over the summer. We also maintain a place in the classroom for the social discussion of books – rather than simply hammering the students with worksheets, multiple-choice questions, and essays written in isolation.

Again, I ask myself, what is the true definition of literacy?

Could it possibly include the look on the students’ faces when we come back from the Book Fair? Should the definition of reading mention the way in which kids hug their newly purchased books to their chests with joy and anticipation? Why doesn’t the state come in and assess the contented sigh and subsequent silence that descends upon the classroom when I toss my lesson plans out the window and say, “Let’s all read the books we bought at the Fair today, okay?”

I asked my students: “What did Natasha say about men walking on the moon?”

Chad had an answer. “She said it never happened. She told Toughboy that his teachers were lying, because it was impossible for men to walk on the moon.”

“Were you surprised by what she said?” This was the more important follow-up question, requiring inference and analysis.

“I wasn’t,” volunteered Carlotta. “Natasha always has something negative to say, especially when she doesn’t know the real answer.”

“Yeah,” added Loren, “and she really hates modern technology. I wasn’t surprised either.”

We were discussing Winter Camp by Kirkpatrick Hill. Elsewhere in my classroom, the other fifth grade students were preparing for their own reading group meetings. One boy, who was reading Call it Courage, had just Googled the longitude and latitude of the island Hikueru and was trying to locate it on our world map. Students with The Music of Dolphins were supposed to be reading independently, but Dallas and Andy had their heads together, whispering excitedly about the chapter where Mila breaks the TV with a chair. I should have been pleased with my students’ enthusiastic involvement with their literature. But instead, I was worried.

Were my current classroom activities adequately preparing students for the upcoming state test?

Every state in the country has its own set of assessments, mandated by the No Child Left Behind law. In Pennsylvania, we face the PSSAs, a daunting battery of tests composed of multiple choice and open-ended responses. The fifth grade test is disproportionately difficult, and more points are required to reach “proficiency” at this grade level than any other—including eleventh grade.

A person might think that any meaningful instruction provided in the classroom would help students score well on a test of reading skills. However, experience has shown me that children must practice with activities that greatly resemble the assessment in order to meet the testing standards. This is because the paper and pencil tasks do not really reflect what readers do with books on a daily basis. In real life we converse about books and learn from other readers — witness the proliferation of community book clubs and social networking sites such as Goodreads, Shelfari, and LibraryThing.

Real readers rarely answer questions in isolation for an anonymous and distant judge who offers no appeal.

It all comes down to your definition of literacy.

Our repeated test practice turns up plenty of potential trouble spots. Many of my students have had trouble with a PSSA practice item which asks: Identify the turning point in this passage. Support your answer with three examples from the text. Since there is only one turning point, students can’t fathom how to give three examples. In conversation, students can prove their understanding of “turning point,” but they are confused by the written prompt and do not score well on this exercise.

I also observe students stumped by terms used on the PSSA that don’t match the ones they learned in class. One English Language Learner was lost when the test asked for “characteristics” instead of “character traits.” Another student didn’t realize that the word “passage” meant the text. Talking to these students could have cleared up these problems and enabled them to show off their abilities. Too bad it violates test validity for me to clarify a question.

English Language Learners especially have it rough in Pennsylvania. The state allows them only one year before requiring that they take the Reading PSSA — and pass. Proficiency means being able to make inferences, identify text structure in a non-fiction passage, and distinguish between similes and metaphors. I’ve had the honor of teaching many highly intelligent, non-native English speakers, but none who could reach that level of expertise in a single year.

So, how do schools and teachers balance what we believe about reading with what gets tested? To be continued in Part Two …