Seattle teacher Sean Riley writes about the impact of standardized testing on students and teachers.

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From the mighty Puget Sound to the rolling Palouse, it’s testing season in our public schools. Thousands of young scholars are rolling up their sleeves like mini Rosie the Riveters, ready to determine central ideas and examine congruencies to prove they have what it takes to join the grand ranks of us, the taxpaying citizens of the United States of America.

Roll on, Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium, roll on!

At this very moment, our children are typing away on 2008 Dells with missing keys, HPs with limp batteries, and sporadically — the ones you see in press photos — 2016 ChromeBooks. (You know how you’ll see a 1992 Honda Civic that is Bondoed in twelve places, missing a side-view mirror, with one light out, but it has tricked-out rims? That’s our schools!)

Real-time description of testing: English Language Learners type away for six hours believing this might be the route to the American dream. (Bless them!) Modern-day Bartlebys click at random knowing it’s not. (Bless you, too!) Some opt out altogether. I hear one say, “I’m not taking the test. I’m going to private school next year.” That’s the spirit, my young Abbie Hoffman!

For those of us who entered the teaching profession hoping to be the next John Keating, this month prompts the kind of reflection the tests don’t provide our students.

My annual question: What happened to me?

How’d I go from walking Seattle U’s quad reciting Neruda and dreaming of fecund, lemon-scented Mediterranean romance to analyzing data so that I provide scaffolding to differentiated subgroups to enrich all students’ learning of specific learning outcomes?

Am I but a passive player acting out the era’s neoliberal values? Is good teaching more mechanical than I want to admit? Or worse, am I just getting old?

How did we get to this place of constant testing?

Oh, you’re asking me? Ha! I don’t know.

It’s the new double-dutch song. Morass here, morass there, morass morass everywhere! I heard it a week ago when the kids last got a recess.

The Opt-Out movement — the push for kids to resist corporate infiltration of our schools and instead wander the halls flaunting to their peers how they’re going to get a killer personal statement for Berkeley out of this — has convincing arguments, the biggest being — and I think we can all agree — tests are for nerds.

But, look, I’m a Seattleite, so I respect all points of view inside a morass.

Alas, what if not testing is actually the cruel, neoliberal thing to do? Standards-aligned tests were, in theory, a means to slip some sort of learning past cantakerous (not to mention discriminatory and racist) state education systems.

Fourteen years ago, the federal government’s No Child Left Behind Act took control of education and was all, “Get your acts together, states! Why can’t you be more like Finland?”

A few months ago, NCLB collapsed through the fort’s doors like Leo in The Revenant, crumpled into the snow, and moaned to the states, “Our bad. Take it back.”

And now we have the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA). Its theme, the very theme of our wildly unromantic epoch: accountability.

How do we measure student learning? Rigor? Emotions? How do we measure emotions?

John Keating just rolled over in his grave.

Art Thiel, famed regional sports writer, once said it was amazing that for decades the newspaper business depended on 10-year-olds getting up early and delivering papers by bicycle. I’m still astonished how much of school funding rests on millions of little, adorable fingers that type ever so poorly.

I get it, technocrats, it should be simple: If we put in a cup of Common Core and a tablespoon of teacher evaluation and a sprinkle of some other well-intentioned and massively underfunded reform, kids should pass a test!

Unfortunately, children and teenagers are so annoyingly unreliable.

Alas, if they aren’t going to step up, we adults must. So, let’s measure what goes into schools more than what comes out. If we hold adults accountable for providing rich curriculum, high standards, strong professional development, social-emotional education, culturally competent and diverse teachers, play, racially integrated classes, lead-free water, and money, then guess what?

The kids will be fine.


Sean Riley is a National Board Certified language arts teacher in Seattle Public Schools. This is his eleventh year teaching. He recently published a feature on segregation in Seattle’s schools for The Stranger and gave a five-minute talk for Ignite Education Lab.