Thursday, March 10, 2011

Teens With an Ax to Grind

In the spring of 2005, when my youngest son A.J. took our state’s high-stakes standardized test, the MEAP, (now the MME) he had an ax to grind. Unfortunately, no one really knew how angry he was until after he took the exam. I received a call from the principal requesting a meeting. It seems that my son had chosen to draw a very large and detailed fist with an extended middle finger where his science graph should have been. And, he chose to bubble in his multiple-choice answer sheet with “AC/DC” and “ABBA”, as well. The principal was quite distressed since my son’s unconventional test responses would most definitely effect the school’s test results and would reflect poorly on the district. So, why would he do this? It turned out that A.J. was upset about one of his teacher’s policies that he had tried unsuccessfully to address with the teacher and administration. Feeling he had not been heard, he took his revenge. I had assumed A.J.’s stunt was an isolated incident—until yesterday.
Fast-forward to March 9, 2011. A colleague who supervises pre-service teachers for a nearby university shared a disturbing conversation he overheard while he was visiting a high school classroom that morning.

At the beginning of the class, he was sitting near a group of four young ladies. As Juniors, they had just taken the Michigan Merit Exam (MME) and ACT last week. One of the other adults in the room asked these girls how the testing had gone. One said, “they’re so stupid, I paid attention for the first couple of pages, then I just started bubbling in randomly.” A second girl said, “Yeah, I couldn’t take it seriously, I don’t want (our school) to do well.” One of the other girls responded, “Yeah, if this was for us and they were still giving out the scholarships, I would have taken it seriously.”

What’s particularly interesting to me is that while A.J. decided to take his frustration out on the science exam, it was a foreign language teacher’s policy he was protesting. In addition, the comment above “I don’t want (our school) to do well,” didn’t target a particular teacher or subject area, but apparently the school in general.  

The standardized test movement is based on the assumption that students are actually going to take the test seriously, that the test will measure achievement and will measure teacher effectiveness. Neither A.J.’s performance on the science MEAP, nor that of the girls mentioned above meets those assumptions. This has me wondering, and it raises questions that I believe need to be addressed.

·      Is there any research about whether or not students actually take high-stakes standardized tests seriously?

·      How many teens out there have an ax to grind with the adults in their lives, particularly with their teachers and their schools?

·      How many angry teens would it take for testing results to be corrupted for a given school district?

·      How often does this happen?

·      Do students understand their teachers and school are being held accountable for how well they do on these exams?

Perhaps some understand it only too well. It’s entirely within a teen’s nature to subvert the adults and authorities in their lives. Why would anyone think it’s a good idea to put teacher’s careers and the viability of a school district in their hands?

ClipArt Courtesy FCIT


  1. You've identified a big problem with using standardized testing to judge the effectiveness of teachers. We need to find a better way of monitoring learners' progress. And we must reclaim the narrative.

  2. Love this post! Goes to bigger question. Are they mad about the test or the lack of respect they are receiving because of the test? They are definitely saying loud and clear, "you are not meeting my needs". Maybe its time they write to their leaders...

  3. Tracy,
    You ask good questions. I was talking to my son on Friday and told him about my post. He said he'd forgotten about the teacher's policy, but what he did remember very clearly was that he was very angry about having to take what he referred to as "that stupid test." I'm thinking it's probably a combination of both lack of respect AND needs not being met--and perhaps other factors as well. And, I think they're angry on multiple levels. What a great idea--maybe students should be writing to their legislators and US Dept. of Ed. expressing their views.

    I'm serious when I ask if any research has been done regarding student's attitudes about these tests. If you know or hear of any, let me know. If not, it certainly is work that needs to be done.

  4. If Ten Percent Refuse the Test it’s Over!

    If we can just help parents overcome their fear of saying No to testing, their fear of what will happen if their school doesn’t make AYP, we can end this all now. Only 10% of parents and/or kids have to decline testing and it’s over. -

  5. Great post. I have had similar thoughts, on both sides of the issue. I work with a campus that is just fantastic. It's high -poverty, high-ELL and but by amazing dedication and incredibly hard work, they are successful on the state tests b/c they don't want to let their teachers down. They rise to the occasion and work beyond their capacities. But when we contrast their test scores with other metrics and long term efforts ( not just this one shot high stakes test), we see their actual achievement level is not in line with the test. Another school I know of has a huge test prep program that yields high scores and great press, but the students
    have trouble at the next campus with things that aren't related to test prep. Tests are not what the reformers and general public think they are.

  6. This is a really interesting article for a few reasons. Now, I'm not a huge fan of high stakes testing, but this trend does reveal a few things that are going on.

    1. High stakes testing not only evaluates students achievement levels in various subjects, but also their personal motivation. Students who are upset about attending school, dislike their school, or simply feel detached or antagonized by their teachers have very little incentive to do well. After all, they've been informed that the test do very little to reflect on themselves, but rather play a large roll in their teachers and schools evaluations. Far from being seen as a fault, shouldn't teachers go out of their way to engage students? If students are taking their unhappiness out on the tests, shouldn't schools be held at least partially responsible for their conduct?

    2. Teacher's attitudes are directly communicated to students, even unintentionally. I've spoken with plenty of teachers who have either explicitly stated their dislike of testing to their students, or discuss it among their peers. The idea that these attitudes aren't understood by students is pretty wishful thinking. When students understand that teachers don't value the tests, or think the tests are "stupid", how can we expect them to take these tests seriously? Testing has very real problems with evaluating student ability, but if both students and teachers valued them more students probably wouldn't bubble in random answers quite so quickly.

    Since teachers have such an ax to grind with the tests, can we really expect the students not to do the same?

    1. Thank you for your thoughtful comments. You raise some interesting points. Both schools are among the highest performing high schools in the state (one is a local public high school, the other is a public charter school in a different community) Both schools and their teachers take much pride in that distinction, so I never considered that it might be teacher attitude that contributed to these incidents.

  7. (I'm not trying to be anonymous but I can't seem to make your system take my wordpress user name. You can find me at
    I am late to the party but was pointed here on Twitter. I would carefully echo Duncan's points. We are in the middle of a million dollar 4 year study about the attitudes towards STEM education in our state and one very interesting thing we have found is how closely student thought and opinion mirror teacher opinion on school issues. Family also is important in most issues but in academic matters, like math and science, elementary and middle school teachers play an important role. I believe it's likely that the same is true for testing.

  8. A couple years ago, we were discussing our state science assessment and a student asked me "is this the test that gets you fired if we do poorly?"

    1. Tracie, Thanks for the comment--it has me wondering if another unintended consequence of high-stakes standardized testing, from the organizational theory perspective, will be "power shift"from teachers to students. A power shift often happens, and is even expected, during change in an organization, but that power is shifted between mature adults. A power shift at this level would shift power to children from adults. Of course, no one knows the outcomes yet--we are in the midst of one giant experiment.

  9. My daughter loves taking tests, but she hates standardized tests. She calls them cruel and unusual punishment and she's not joking.
    Here are her main complaints:
    1. The tests insult her intelligence. Problems like "Which of the following is a prefix:" (un was the correct choice) or "Use your knowledge of the prefix il, to determine the meaning of illegal." Both of these questions appeared on 7th grade standardized tests.
    2. She always finishes the test early and has been told that she must sit quietly for the rest of the time. She is hyperactive in body and brain, and sitting quietly is nearly impossible for her. This year she cried during that time, because she was not allowed a book or paper. She nearly couldn't take it.
    3. Usually, the test is proceeded by at least a month of review. She doesn't need to review grade-level material. She has a strong intellectual need to learn new things. This is torture.
    What she would really like is to do away with high stakes tests and appropriately challenge every student. However, assuming that high stakes standardized tests are here to stay, here are her proposed solutions:

    1. Test students using a adaptive tests that provide questions that are just right for their level.
    2. Allow students to read and write quietly after they hand in their test.
    3. Eliminate review for those students who can demonstrate that they don't need it. Allow them the opportunity to learn something new every day.

  10. This dynamic was anticipated by the testing industrial complex. The result was pep rallies where the administration and teachers are forced to try to get the kids excited about doing well on the tests. Prizes and bribes are common tools. Long story short it's brain washing of our kids to get them to comply with a Taylorist testing regime. Search "test prep pep rally ideas" to be horrified down to the soles of your shoes.