LEAPs Backward: High-Stakes Tests Are Seriously Failing Children

In solidarity with teachers, administrators, parents, and students in Louisiana who feel oppressed and frustrated by state standardized tests that are being administrated this week, I'm posting an essay a day about unlearning what I was taught in my first two years of teaching. Today's post is an introduction to this series. I want to emphasize that while I have some strong opinions about the LEAP test and the way in which it is administered, I have nothing but the utmost respect and admiration for teachers in this city and nationwide. I believe that together we have the power to change this damaging system, and I truly hope we do.

If you are a teacher in Louisiana, this is a big week for you. All week, you will have just two words on your mind; you will wake up every morning with two words on your lips; you will hear two words echoing throughout the hallways at whichever school you happen to work: LEAP Test.

The LEAP is the annual assessment that is given to students across Louisiana grades three through eight. In fourth and eighth grade, the test is especially important, since it determines who will pass on to the next grade. The LEAP is the reason why I taught reading to 21-year-old sophomores in my first year of teaching. The LEAP is also important for other, less immediately obvious reasons: like so many other high-stakes tests in the country, the number of students who pass the LEAP in fourth grade factors in to the number of prison cells the state prepares for the future

It's an eerie experience to walk into a school building in New Orleans on the first day of the LEAP. It's quiet in there -- unnatural quiet; alien quiet. The hallways are dotted with grown-ups guarding all the doors; if you want to visit a classroom, you have to come to the school at a specifically noted time. Bathroom breaks are meticulously planned and heavily monitored. You're not allowed to eat anything. You're not allowed to get sick. You're not allowed to need to go outside to get a breath of air. And maybe the craziest thing of all is that the kids put up with all of this.

If you've been to a school on any other day of the year, you'd know why that's so unbelievable. Kids and teachers alike struggle at school. It is not uncommon to hear lots of yelling on any typical day of the week -- again, from kids and teachers alike. There's running around, arguing, and general mayhem at a lot of public (charter or otherwise) schools in New Orleans. Except this week. This week the halls are like cemeteries. 

Last week, I visited a school as a substitute and was asked to administer a few (non high-stakes) tests to Kindergarteners. Since I am Special Education-certified, I was asked if I could give the test to kids who have "one-on-one testing accommodations" (that means that by law, they receive all their assessments alone, with a teacher administering). The three kids I tested were kids I knew well: they are ordinarily bouncy, messy, enthusiastic, bright-eyed, and difficult to keep still. To spend time with these kids is a joy on par with rediscovering sugary cereal after years of only buying the fiber kind. ("OH YEAH! Capn' Crunch is THE BEST. I forgot.") I expected that testing these children would be a challenge: the test I was giving them required them to do difficult work, and to bubble in answers on an answer document. I expected them to get bored with it, jump up, and want to play with the plastic bag of foam blocks in the corner of the testing room.

Instead, all three kids acted like they'd been heavily sedated. They sat quietly at the desk, listening to the questions, and glumly bubbling in the wrong answers. When it was all over, they all kind of stumbled back to class looking morose. One girl was crying. In hind's sight, I shouldn't have been surprised.

I shouldn't have been surprised because starting on the first day of Kindergarten, kids are told about tests like these. As soon as they can hold a pencil, someone shows them how to appropriately bubble in an answer document. They practice it every day. They are told that these tests are important, like, really important, like, if-they're-not-taken-seriously-moms-are-going-to-be-called-level important. Beginning at the age of five, kids in New Orleans are taught, above everything else, how to sit still and shut up when it is time to take a test.

This is not teachers' faults. I have never met a teacher who has said, "I love the LEAP. I look forward to it all year." This is not administrators' faults. I have never heard an administrator say, "This school is all about passing the LEAP. We believe the LEAP is the most important thing in a child's education." And this is not the test's fault, either. Last week I went to see Lisa Delpit, the author of Other People's Children, speak at UNO. On the subject of standardized testing she said, "These tests are not inherently wrong or bad. It's what we do with them that is the problem."

Here is what we do with them. We use them to determine how much a teacher gets paid. We use them to determine how functional a school is, and how desirable it is to go there. We use them to assign value judgements to children. I heard three fourth grade boys on the playground at a school last week teasing another boy by saying, "You're unsat! You're unsat!" "Unsat" is short of "unsatisfactory" (which is the lowest score you can get on the LEAP), and although these kids hadn't taken the test yet, they had sure as hell internalized what it was going to mean. 

Study after study has shown that this high-stakes testing culture directly feeds what is called the school-to-prison pipeline. With a few exceptions (the rich certainly do want to stay rich), no one wants that. But we put up with it. We are all told that we have to.

Walk into a school this week, and it is difficult not to draw parallels to a prison. The schools I work at call this "all hands on deck": Everyone one has to comply with all the rules exactly as they are handed down, to keep kids "safe" and "honest." But unfortunately, that all results in a world where no one trusts anyone, compliance is law, and oh yeah: kids hate going to school. 

Martin Luther King was good at saying smart things that my generation has carried around as gospel since we were old enough to know the difference between right and wrong. Most famously he said, "I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character." Unfortunately, we have lost sight of how to determine the content of a person's character. These days, we do it by the numbers: How well can you answer a question about gerunds? How articulately can you explain how you solved a word problem? If you can't do those things, the content of your character is plebeian. Build another prison bed. You do not belong in this society.

I know you might think that I'm being extreme here. Surely no one thinks that way! Surely everyone realizes that test scores do not define a person's character! Surely there aren't people out there who judge children based on their ability to pass a test!

But there are people out there who believe that these tests determine the worth of a child. They are people I talk to every single day, and who have expressed to me again and again that LEAP test scores dictate how smart, worthy, and good a person is. They are people who believe that these tests matter more than anything else kids do at school, and they've told me so repeatedly. And these are people whose opinions matter. Because the people who believe this so deeply are the very children who have to take the tests.