Pom-poms swish through the air as a mass of children, sitting cross-legged on the cafeteria floor at Smyrna’s Teasley Elementary School, join the chant from their teachers turned cheerleaders: Pump, pump, pump it up! Pump that testing spirit up!
Every April, cheers echo across the state on the eve of Georgia’s Super Bowl of testing. Pep rally DJs swagger and rap in crowded gyms: Imma be, imma be, imma imma imma be! Imma be doin’ my best! Imma be passin’ that test! Or to the tune of “Y-M-C-A”: It’s fun to take the C-R-C-T! It’s fun to take the C-R-C-T!
The next day, children walk into schools that are much more sober. Brown butcher paper covers the bright posters, the word wall, the daily calendar, and even the classroom clock. Desks have been turned around from their clusters to face the front of the room. With forced cheerfulness, teachers explain that this is the “testing classroom” and promise that things will soon return to normal after the children prove how smart they are.
Even six- and seven-year-olds get it. This is a time of winners and losers. The winning schools will be called “distinguished,” or maybe even “platinum” or “gold.” Teachers will be considered “effective”—or not—based on how their students perform. Some children who fail will not progress to the next grade. Some schools will be labeled “needs improvement”—the scarlet letter that leads to school transfers, angry parents, even declining property values. It’s all riding on one standardized test: the state’s Criterion-Referenced Competency Test, based on Georgia’s curriculum and given every year to grades one through eight.
Every teacher has stories of children who bit their fingernails to the nub, who threw up on a test booklet out of fear, who walked away feeling like a personal failure. A middle schooler spent the weekend crying after learning she had failed the math portion, then came back to tell her teacher, “I realized I’m really not a bad person. I’m really a good person.”
Given annually since 2000, the CRCT measures the “quality” of Georgia’s schools. It is a measure that has fundamentally altered what is taught in Georgia classrooms. To help their students pass the CRCT, teachers feel compelled to prep them with testing strategies and to focus—sometimes relentlessly—on the content most likely to be tested. That means an emphasis on concrete, multiple-choice tasks rather than creative teaching and critical thinking.
“Every day [teachers] face these decisions about whether they’re going to compromise their standards as a teacher for what they know works for kids to get a test score,” says Bill Wraga, an education professor at the University of Georgia.
Testing is a necessary part of education, and a test based on clear standards can be a guidepost for teachers. The CRCT sheds light on schools or subgroups of children who aren’t keeping up with their peers. If the goal is to help all children achieve at higher levels, “testing is the means we have available to measure whether or not we’re doing that,” says Kathleen Mathers, executive director of the Governor’s Office of Student Achievement. But has the means become the end?
Melissa Fincher, who oversees testing for the Georgia Department of Education, says good teaching should result in the knowledge needed to pass the test. But she sighs and acknowledges, “I’d love for curriculum to drive instruction as opposed to the test [driving it]. In the perfect world, that would be the case.” She pauses and adds, “There’s a fine balance there that can get off-kilter very easily.”
Perspective seems to have skewed at some Atlanta public schools, where concern about possible CRCT cheating in fifty-eight schools, including “serious” allegations against twelve, are still being investigated by state and federal officials. Yet allegations of cheating, first brought to light in 2009 by the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, are not the only scandal of the CRCT.
If the test scores go up, are our children smarter—or just better at taking the test? Are teachers doing a better job of teaching—or of test prep? “Let’s really think about the impact of these policies on teaching and on children,” says Janna Dresden, a former kindergarten and first-grade teacher who now heads the Office of School Engagement at the University of Georgia College of Education. “The morale of the teaching profession is just so low. It’s really sad. In the ten years I was in the classroom, there was a dramatic shift. Teachers and children are the victims in all this.”