The real issues with standardized testing

The following article was written by Russ Brown, a high school teacher at Poudre High in Fort Collins and member of the Poudre Education Association, and submitted to CEA’s Pathways to Achievement blog by the author.

Russ Brown

Russ Brown

Standardized testing.  The words send shivers down the spines of numerous professional educators and create dread in the hearts of students across the United States.  Recently, there have been stories of teachers leaving the profession due to the heavy emphasis on standardized or out-and-out refusing to administer the tests to their students even if it means they will be fired.  Yet, the question of why the US has this obsession with standardized testing remains a largely unexplored topic.

Superficial answers

Many will point to the federal mandates of “No Child Left Behind” and “Race to the Top” as the source of the standardized testing mania.  Yet, this still does not address why these policies heavily emphasized standard testing.  Others will declare that the need for standardized rests of the poor performance of US students on international examinations.  However, nations such as Finland have achieved high results without emphasizing standardized testing so the answer must be deeper.

A flawed philosophy

When someone really looks deeply into the standardized testing mania, a deeply flawed philosophy (or world view) emerges.  The foundation for the push for standardized testing, whether the proponents recognize it or not, comes from a view that students are products of the educational system.  In the students-as-products view, testing (just like with any assembly-line product) is necessary to ensure the quality of the product.  Teachers are semi-skilled workers whose job performance can be measured by their students’ performance on standardized testing.  The reason this is flawed is that students have no responsibility for or any ownership over their own education.  This explains why those teachers who care deeply are speaking out against the emphasis on standardized testing.


Some people will counter that students are not products of the education system by proclaiming that they are, instead, consumers.  In this philosophy, students (along with their parents) are catered to by the education system.  The market place will select those schools that are successful from those which fail the students.  In this marketing standardized testing plays a major role but, in the case of students-as-consumers, the use of standardized testing is to assist the consumers in finding the “best” schools (i.e. the ones with the highest test scores).  However, the consumer motif suffers from many of the same flaws as the student-as-product view.  In both views, students have no control over their education.  They also have no responsibility for their education; if something goes wrong it has to be the teacher’s fault.  After all, the customer is always right, which can be a dicey proposition especially if that consumer is a thirteen-year-old.

A better view

Rather than viewing students as products or consumers, a better way to look at them is to consider students-as-clients of the education system.  In the client view, students have control and responsibility for their education.  This view is consistent with other professional service occupations, such as physicians, attorneys, nurses, and mental health professionals.  For example, if a doctor tells his client (patient) to reduce the use of salt or risk having an unsafe blood pressure level then we cannot hold the doctor accountable if the patient willfully ignores the course of treatment.  Likewise, if students willfully ignore, or even sabotage, the attempts of a teacher then it is dubious policy to hold the teacher solely responsible for those students’ behavior.

The relationship of the student-as-client view to standardized testing is an interesting one.  There is an assumption that students are always trying to do their best on the standardized test.  Yet, having graded AP US Government exams for College Board, I came across dozens of answer booklets that were completely blank with no attempt at an answer given.  If these students, who had the possibility to earn college credit as an incentive, put forth less than their best effort it is reasonable to expect that on other lower stakes tests, such as the PISA, students are not trying to perform at their best levels.  Only the student-as-client view allows for the reality that students do not always try their best on standardized tests.

In addition, not only do students have responsibility for their education, but they should have ownership over it.  However, it is quite difficult for students to have any sense of ownership when the curriculum is being dictated by a standardized test (or series of tests) over which the students, along with their teachers and parents, have no control over.  Simply put, there is a severely limited role for standardized testing when accepting that students are clients.  This means that standardized testing cannot be a driver when seeking to make improvements to the education system.


The reliance on standardized testing as a driver of reform is akin to a contractor building a house without doing a soil test.  The house of reform will fail until policy makers, the media, and the public at large recognize that the soil around the house is the view that students are not products or consumers, but rather clients of the education system.  Only then, will the misguided mania of standardized testing be brought under control and we can move towards a system that will better meet our children’s needs in the 21st century.


Art therapist suggests “put down the guns, pick up the crayons”

Originally posted on John Wilson’s Unleashed blog by Deb Shoemaker, MAAT, ATR-Registered Art Therapist, LPC – Licensed Professional Counselor, who has a private practice in Wilmington, NC.

School started back on January 2nd in my county after a two week winter break. On that same morning I drove by my neighborhood elementary school as I do every weekday; and, as I always do, I looked at the school as I drove by it. On this particular morning I saw a sheriff’s car parked in the front lot. The sun reflected off the metal, calling even more attention to it and the armed uniformed officer standing at the school entrance. It was then that I became very sad.

Our local Board of Education had elected over the holiday break to mandate law enforcement officers in each of the elementary schools in our small, quiet resort town. This initiative was in reaction to the devastating massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School. The intent? To provide safety for our children.

I am a professional art therapist in private practice. Many of my clients are students in these schools. More guns, more security? These cannot be the only solutions, I thought. In fact, more guns and more tightened security only serve as reactionary Band Aids. They are not solutions to the problem at all. I’m not sure the whole problem has even been identified.

What is needed is for stakeholders to further examine the issues, to put magnifiers on the tragic events that have impacted our children, our schools and our nation. A great starting place is to ask, “What exactly lead someone like Adam Lanza to carry out that horrific act (killing 20 children, six adults and himself) on that morning?” A Band Aid won’t fix that problem; it will only make it worse because it gives the false perception of safety. A Band Aid hides the injury.

As it turns out, in the past two weeks, Arne Duncan, Secretary of Education, agrees that more guns and tauten security is not the only solution. He cautioned that firearms alone do not make schools safer…and an overwhelming majority of teachers are echoing that thought with pleas for more resources, stating that they do not want more guns in their schools. Duncan iterates that ‘fear prevents students from making the most of their time in the classroom.’ I would venture to say that the same is true for educators. Furthermore, Duncan reports that security officers at schools does not translate to reduced violence, citing former Chicago Public Schools Chief Executive Officer, “I had schools who used to have nine security folks…I put all that money into nine social workers and I saw huge reductions in violence.”

The National Rifle Association-NRA-has indicated that they would like to help reduce (gun-related) violence in schools. Then let them fund school art therapy programs. Instead of placing more guns and fear in our children’s schools, place mental health professionals and art supplies in our schools. According to experts, currently less than 20% of students with mental health problems are receiving treatment for or even have access to mental health services, mostly because they cannot afford the services.

Teachers may and can be trained to identify students who have mental health issues and needs (they already do this), but they are professional educators not mental health professionals. Thus, the argument to make therapists accessible to students in their schools.

Art Therapy is the ideal application of such. It provides a two-prong solution: trauma recovery and prevention. With professional facilitation, drawing provides a safe outlet to communicate what children often have no words to describe, and it engages children in the active involvement in their own healing, providing a sense of control.

Art Therapy is a viable solution.

Adults just need to put down their guns, which only serve to model weapons as a solution, and students need to pick up their crayons and start drawing.


John Wilson is the former NEA Executive Director. He writes for EdWeek Blogs as “Unleashed.” Read more Wilson blogs.

TELL Colorado Survey begins February 6

As educators know, there is a clear connection between teaching conditions and student learning. This is why CEA is working with statewide partners for the third time to offer the TELL Colorado Survey to teachers from February 6 to March 6. We want to find out more about Colorado’s K-12 schools from the people who know them the best.

The TELL Colorado Survey is an anonymous, online survey which gives teachers and other licensed school-based educators the opportunity to tell their perceptions of the teaching and learning conditions in their schools. The survey data will provide educators, schools, districts, the Legislature, Colorado Department of Education (CDE), and CEA and its partners with information we can all use to improve our schools and support pro-education policies.

The TELL Colorado Survey (TELL stands for Teaching, Empowering, Leading, and Learning) was offered in 2009 and 2011, supported by funding from the Legislature. State-based versions of the survey are offered in a dozen other states in partnership with The New Teacher Center. CEA is working with CDE, CASE, CASB, the League of Charter Schools, and the Colorado Federation of Teachers on this year’s survey.

The TELL Colorado survey takes about 20-30 minutes and addresses issues of time, empowerment, leadership, resources, student conduct, community engagement, professional development, and mentoring. In their schools during the last week of January, educators will get individual letters with personal codes for taking the survey. After the close of the survey on March 6, The New Teacher Center will analyze data from all the schools that have sufficient participation for a written, school level report. Through this analysis, each school will have its own data to use in school improvement planning. The initial data will be available beginning in April.

Reading: the new pop sound for kids in the Springs

The commitment and drive of public school educators is celebrated each November during American Education Week (this year, Nov. 12 – 16).  For the Colorado Education Association, it’s a time to appreciate the inspiring efforts our members make on behalf of Colorado students, such as Rita Merrigan’s summer book bus in Gunnison and Anne Djokic’s morning student meeting in Clifton.  Now for your consideration, the unlikely turn of a 4th grade teacher into a hip-hop producer in Colorado Springs.

Jeremy Spartz will be the first to tell you he has no business being in the music business.

Jeremy Spartz oversees a student’s progress on Lyrics2Learn

“I don’t have a really extensive background in music,” admits Spartz, a Colorado Springs Education Association member who teaches fourth grade at Martinez Elementary School.  “But my entire family has always been very musical.  I’m the black sheep that way, but somehow it’s caught up to me.”

Music caught up to Spartz to the tune of 150 compositions, in which he sets the text of original poems and stories in motion to synthesized beats in an online literacy program called Lyrics2Learn.  Nearly all the teachers at Martinez are now having their students read along to the text that flashes up on their computer screens as they hear the lyrics and music through their headphones.

“They don’t even realize that they’re reading.  They think they’re singing,” said Teresa Wastler, a second grade teacher and Colorado Springs EA members who helped Spartz write many of the songs in Lyrics2Learn. 

A student reads along with a Lyrics2Learn lesson

Research has documented the solid learning connections young kids make when lessons are tied to music – that’s why we sing our ABC’s.  Spartz, however, said he couldn’t find a computer program that used a student’s natural interest in music to improve reading fluency.

“Kids didn’t have a really engaging, fun way to try and become more fluent” on the computer said Spartz.  “To get kids engaged and get them interested in reading is half the battle.  Once they become interested, they basically take off on their own.”

Sydney is one of Spartz’s fourth graders who’s taking off on a new appreciation of reading.  Her mother, Michele Wolfe, said Sydney was not reading at grade level in third grade.

“I was told if your child doesn’t know how to read by the third grade, the rest of their education is going to be a challenge,” said Wolfe.  “It was scary as a parent thinking she was not up to par.  What do you do?  What resources are available and where do you go?”

Sydney is greeted by the program’s animated notebook

Sydney was placed into Spartz’s Lyrics2Learn pilot at the end of last school year because “she can learn the words to a song in a heartbeat and tell you what the song means,” according to Wolfe.  She says Sydney’s love of music has now transcended into a love of reading through Lyrics2Learn.

“Sydney has improved in her reading, we’ve seen her numbers improve,” said Wolfe.  “She actually likes picking up a book now and trying to read, where before, she didn’t.  So I have seen a lot of improvement in just her interest and excitement in reading.”

Spartz feeds into that excitement by creating Lyrics2Learn lessons that resonate with his students.  On this visit to Martinez, the lesson of the day was entitled ‘The Coliseum’. 

“So they get to learn about gladiators and a lot of action.  Usually the kids are really into anything that’s exciting, so I try to write about things that they’re naturally into anyway,” Spartz said.  He blends the adventures with musical beats the kids enjoy, including heavy doses of rap and hip-hop.

“There’s a lot of hip-hop,” Spartz said with a laugh.  It’s not a style hit with all of his fellow teachers, but he finds, “Hip-hop really lends itself to fluency and speaking along with the flow, which is really what we’re trying to get them to do, find the rhythm of their voice.”

The Lyrics2Learn rhythm follows the students home.  The ease of online access makes the dread mention of ‘homework’ a little easier on the ears for Martinez students.

“When I say, ‘We have homework tonight – it’s Lyrics2Learn,’ they say ‘Yes!’  They absolutely love it,” said Wastler.  “Parents like the fact that their kids like doing the homework.  It’s not a fight with them, it’s not a struggle.”

“They’re very excited to do it,” said Andrew Norkoli, Colorado Spring EA member and third grade teacher.  “The fact that they’re wanting to do it is a huge help, because if they’re wanting to do it then they tend to work harder, and during that time we’re going to see more growth.”

Spartz, Wastler and Norkoli say they are seeing strides in fluency and comprehension growth made by students who previously struggled with reading.

“That is really exciting to see,” said Wastler of improved attitudes and rising test scores in reading.  “When they think they can do it, when they have that success of being able to do it, then it’s just going to keep building.”

Sparts reviews student papers at the end of class

Lyrics2Learn is beginning to build for Spartz outside of Colorado Springs.  He’s seeing interest back in his home state of Minnesota as he shows the program to teachers there, and even has exported the program to a school in Dublin, Ireland.  Not bad for someone who doesn’t know how to play a musical instrument. 

“It’s fabulous, because he’s actually given hope and some encouraging advise to us, and encouraging progress with our child by doing this,” said Wolfe of Spartz and his creation, Lyrics2Learn.  “It’s been a real encouragement to my husband and I as parents to see how Sydney can progress by just one person taking an interest and doing things just a little bit different.”

“We’re just going to see where it goes.  It’s a lot of fun and a big project,” said Spartz.  “Hopefully it makes a difference and gets a lot of kids into literacy who weren’t before.”

Hear Jeremy Spartz, Michele Wolfe and others talk about the magic of music in literacy, and watch Lyrics2Learn at work in Martinez Elementary, at this link to the CEA YouTube channel.

Working toward the best implementation of educator effectiveness

By CEA Pres. Kerrie Dallman

Research consistently shows effective teaching is the single most important factor in school that advances student learning. Yet in some Colorado school districts, teacher evaluations have not provided the necessary feedback for educators to improve their practice and increase their effectiveness.

This is changing.

In 2010, the Colorado Legislature passed Senate Bill 191, a groundbreaking law that intends to improve student learning by increasing teaching effectiveness in the classroom. During this school year, our members are learning the ropes of the state model evaluation system in a pilot project across 27 school districts.  They are providing feedback that will define how the system rolls out across the state, just as principals did in last year’s pilot.

Soon after the law’s passage, the Colorado Education Association engaged the education community in our state to help build a model educator evaluation system under this law, despite our objections to some of its provisions.  We were pleased to develop a shared understanding with our partners that teacher participation in the law’s implementation is essential. The law will not accomplish its goals to promote student learning and achievement absent the teachers’ voice.

The respect Coloradans have for teachers gives CEA a proactive leadership role in creating a fair evaluation system that uses multiple measures of student learning, improves teachers’ practice through meaningful feedback and leads to more opportunity for student growth.

We have made significant contributions, including:

  • Serving more than 500 man hours on the State Council on Educator Effectiveness, where I was honored to work with other teachers, administrators and education leaders in drafting the 2012 rubric for evaluating Colorado teachers.
  • Attending nearly 150 hours of meetings with many stakeholders, from community groups to school districts, to discuss smooth implementation of the system.
  • Conducting more than 60 training sessions with thousands of teachers, principals, administrators and school board members for a deeper understanding of the new state model evaluation system.

Our most ambitious venture was to co-host a two-day “191 Summit” last March with the Colorado Association of School Executives and the Colorado Association of School Boards. More than 500 teachers, administrators and school board members representing 95 districts teamed up to assess their readiness and create action plans.

More often, we lead behind the scenes on technical issues, such as when some of our most accomplished members volunteered to help the Colorado Department of Education select teacher videos that will one day train evaluators to recognize qualities of great teaching.  Whether in big-picture ideas or fine details, teacher insights have proven invaluable in designing an evaluation system targeted to improved instruction.

While CEA is working hard to implement SB-191, our strong objections to parts of the law that caused us to oppose the bill are still unresolved. Some adjustments are needed in the legislature to ensure the law will be implemented as intended.

Those include:

  • Clearly defining terms and ensuring the law is consistent in its use of terminology to avoid needless conflict between administrators and educators.
  • Crafting comprehensive evaluations for the majority of educators who don’t teach subjects within the state’s standardized tests.
  • Guarding against unfair use of the law to remove well-performing teachers for reasons outside student instruction, or to systematically remove experienced teachers to cut costs.

Teachers want meaningful evaluations to improve their practice because they desire a deeper understanding of the subjects they teach and they want to learn innovative strategies for instruction and assessment. Comprehensive evaluations will help teachers identify and put into practice the knowledge and skills associated with effective teaching.

The great potential of Senate Bill 191 to improve quality teaching and student learning is exciting for the teaching profession in Colorado, which is why CEA is so focused on the successful introduction of these evaluations into our classrooms. We are showing our teachers how to own their evaluations and share their successes with fellow professionals.

We are also encouraging everyone in Colorado public education to work together for the best statewide evaluation system we can make for our teachers and our students. By sharing leadership, responsibility and accountability on this issue, we can provide the world-class education every Colorado child deserves from all of us.

Aurora EA social studies teacher named 2013 Colorado Teacher of the Year

AURORA, Colo. – Amanda Westenberg, a social studies teacher at Rangeview High School in Aurora and member of the Aurora Education Association, was named the 2013 Colorado Teacher of the Year by State Education Commissioner Robert Hammond in front of the student body at a school assembly, Oct. 26, 2012.

Hammond told the Rangeview students that Westenberg “is always striving to improve her instructional practices and help her students find relevance in their education.” 

Hammond presents the award to Westenberg

Pointing to Westenberg’s recent trips to Japan and China for international education opportunities, Hammond added, “She uses this experience to make her lessons interactive and engaging, without sacrificing rigor or applicability.”

Kerrie Dallman, president of the Colorado Education Association, was one of several state education leaders at the assembly to congratulate Westenberg.  A fellow social studies teacher in Arvada, Dallman said Westenberg exemplifies the qualities of great teaching that really matter to students.

“What matters is what teachers actually do in the classroom everyday with students.  It’s about that perfect marriage of rigor, relevance and relationships, all brought together with student engagement,” Dallman said in her remarks.  “How teachers interact with their students, how they deliver instruction, how they’re constantly seeking best practices and even better practices – that’s what matters.”

Student engagement made the difference for Westenberg with Jada Boyd, a Rangeview senior who admitted she “hated history” when starting Westenberg’s class as a sophomore.  Jada told her fellow students at the assembly how “Amanda Westenberg has truly changed my life.”

Jada and Westenberg share a smile at the ceremony

Calling Westenberg “one of the most vibrant teachers I had ever met,” Jada related how her teacher found ways to make history class enjoyable through games, debates and projects. 

“For History Day, I found myself working harder than I ever had,” said Jada.  “[Westenberg] never gave up on her students.  To this day, I find myself looking back at the website I created under her instruction as an accomplishment.  I was proud of myself for working hard, and she was proud too.”

John Barry, superintendent of Aurora Public Schools, spoke of his pride in Westenberg and how “having a global perspective, and having Amanda be able to bring that to us, is a rich gift.

“Every adult will always remember the teacher or teachers who had an incredible impact on their lives.  We all reflect on that,” Barry continued.  “Amanda represents 2,000 teachers in the school district here in Aurora.  Our teachers and staff are here, because like Amanda, they care about all of you becoming successful adults in this global economy.”


Westenberg, Dallman, CEA Teaching & Learning Dir. Linda Barker, and Aurora EA Pres Amy Nichols after the ceremony

“Today is not a moment to honor one teacher, but rather, a time to honor the teaching profession,” Westenberg said in accepting the award.  She told the students they inspired her to be the best teacher she could be.

“Every teacher is someone’s favorite because of the connection that he or she made with the student,” said Westenberg.  “What inspires us teachers is the opportunity to make that connection, so that our students can learn in part because of the strong teacher-student bond that is formed.  At Rangeview, we teachers are inspired.”

Westenberg, an eight-year veteran teacher, serves as the social studies department chair and is currently developing interactive advanced placement curriculum.  She will meet with the president at the White House as part of the National Teacher of the Year Program and receive many professional development opportunities, including attendance at the U.S. Space & Rocket Center’s annual International Space Camp in Huntsville, Ala.

The three other finalists for the 2013 Colorado Teacher of the Year award are CEA members Karen Johnson (STEM Magnet Lab School, Northglenn) and Theresa Collins (Centaurus High School, Lafayette), and Hollyanna Bates (Dillon Valley Elementary School, Dillon).

Clifton gathers Stars for higher motivation, achievement

A business morning meeting is usually entered into with a small sigh and a large cup of coffee, but that’s because the vast majority of them don’t start with a rousing chorus of You Are My Sunshine.

That’s how they start at Clifton Elementary School, just outside Grand Junction, Colo. Students file into their school gym for the “Gathering of the Stars” morning meeting at 8:23. All grades come together every morning to sing, clap, chant and keep up with rapid hand motions as best they can. But don’t dismiss their gathering as 17 minutes of fun and games. This morning meeting is all business.

“It provides immediate focus, gets the kids thinking about school,” said Anne Djokic, fresh off leading the 371st iteration of the morning meeting  for her 450 Clifton Stars. “They have more purpose, and as adults we know the more purposeful we feel, the more we’re going to accomplish. The better we feel about ourselves, the more we’re going to learn.”

The morning meeting song list is silly, yet serious.

“The songs have important jobs to do for the children,” said Djokic. “Watch this,” she says, launching into a chorus of Waddaly Atcha with motions, bringing each of her hands up to the opposite ear.

“Some students have a hard time, at first, crossing over the opposite ear,” said Djokic after the demonstration. She said that simple movement allows different parts of the child’s brain “to awaken and share information, and heightens their ability to retain information.”

Djokic said her program of fast-paced, changing activities meets a goal to physically wake students up and get them going. The routine, though, is “physiologically exciting for learners” in a very intentional way.

“This type of activity – the singing, the moving, the Peel Banana, Peel Peel Banana,” said Djokic, breaking into another catchy tune, “alerts and engages the part of the brain that allows students, for two hours after they’ve had this morning assembly, to call upon and have more recall of new information that they receive.”

The next item on the morning meeting agenda is vocabulary.

“The vocabulary comes right after the mind is awake, and that’s why we reinforce it right after that first round of singing,” said Djokic.

“Predict!” shouts Djokic. The students yell back, “P-R-E-D-I-C-T – Tell me what the next will be.”

Djokic and her vocab choir breeze through 24 verbs, those high-frequency words the students are likely to see on state exams, in a few minutes.

The morning pre-class schedule, which starts with hot breakfast for all and quiet study time, hasn’t always been the Clifton way. A few years back, the Stars were not shining so brightly in the morning, wandering aimlessly on the playground, in and out of trouble.

“Our discipline issues – we were handling five, six or more a day,” said Principal Michelle Mansheim. “We went from over 100 issues in our first year to zero. We don’t have any, because the kids aren’t out on the playground.”

Discipline wasn’t the only challenge at that time. The morning meeting and other initiatives began at Clifton in response to low test scores. Three years ago, the school was placed in ‘transformation’ status by the state and received a federal School Improvement Grant to better meet the needs of students. Teachers like Djokic received intensive training and tools from a consulting firm. Principal Mansheim visited other schools, including one in Tulsa, Okla. that was running a successful morning meeting.

“We loved the energy that it brought to the children and to the teachers, and we said, ‘We’re going to do that,’” said Mansheim.

“That very first year, our math scores skyrocketed because we became a team. We became a community. The children identified with ‘Clifton Stars’,” said Djokic. “They just exceeded the expectation for a first year transformation school.”

The second half of the morning meeting instills a sense of community in the school. Djokic recognizes birthdays, honors those who have performed good deeds, and has a couple children lead the student body and faculty in the Pledge of Allegiance.

“Everyone who loves the children is in the same room at the same time, and that’s the message that we give to kids, that all of you are all of our children,” said Mansheim. “It’s not classes of children, but a school of children.”

“When I step in front of that group, no matter how I feel walking in, I feel great. I feel excited,” said Djokic. “We move from song to song and activity to activity to engage the students, and I feel that they deserve something as high quality as I can dish up.

“It is such a valuable way to spend 17 minutes every morning,” Djokic added.