Test

Illustration by Samantha Schuyler

In many ways, Lawton M. Chiles Elementary School kindergarten teacher Susan Bowles is the textbook definition of a lifelong educator.

“I have wanted to teach school since I was four,” Bowles recounted. “My Aunt Doris took me to school with her a couple of times when I was that age, just for the afternoon. I loved being in her classroom.”

Coming from a family of teachers, including her mom, aunt and several cousins, Bowles has enjoyed a 26-year long teaching career, with sixteen of those years spent at Chiles. When speaking to her, Bowles makes no attempt at underplaying the enthusiasm she possesses for her job.

“I love teaching kindergarten because I have a strong maternal instinct,” Bowles said. “A kindergarten classroom is a joyful place to be.”

Given her passion and experience, it may come as a surprise to some to learn that Bowles recently put her decade-spanning career on the line in what she called a deliberate “act of civil disobedience.”

In early September, Bowles shared a letter on Facebook to the parents of her students announcing her refusal to administer the Florida Assessments for Instruction in Reading (FAIR) test to her students.

In her letter, Bowles expressed frustration with the nature of FairTest, which required kindergarten students to sit at a computer for up to 60 minutes at a time, multiple times a year. When describing the effects of the test on her curriculum, it is clear Bowles feels the time spent on FairTest not only represents precious teaching time lost, but is symptomatic of a larger problem within Florida schools, namely, a standardized test-centric culture.

“Teaching has changed considerably since I first began,” Bowles said. “I had a lot more freedom until No Child Left Behind and [former Florida Governor] Jeb Bush decided that teachers were ineffective and that testing would fix the system.”

Bowles feels the time spent on FairTest not only represents precious teaching time lost, but is symptomatic of a larger problem within Florida schools, namely, a standardized test-centric culture.

These requirements take necessary time away from the very teachers who need to be preparing their students. According to Bowles, standards such as these are developmentally inappropriate for students who are built up to fail.  “So many requirements take precious time away [from when] we could be preparing for our students… The standards are developmentally inappropriate, and children are being frustrated and made to feel like failures when they just haven’t reached that developmental stage to be successful in what is being required.”

Bowles is far from alone in her feelings. Her letter generated strong social media support and would be shared over 300 times on Facebook by frustrated educators and parents nationwide, all of whom expressed a desire for change in what they perceived to be a defective educational system.

This notion that the American educational system is broken and needs fixing is not particularly new. As class sizes have swelled over the years, school budgets have been slashed and American students have struggled to keep pace with competitive international standards.

More pressure than ever has been placed on the shoulders of both the federal and state governments to answer one central question: How can the education and enrichment of America’s youth be optimized?

In the last decade, it would appear that standardized testing has been accepted as the best answer.

Her letter generated strong social media support and would be shared over 300 times on Facebook by frustrated educators and parents nationwide, all of whom expressed a desire for change in what they perceived to be a defective educational system.

With the implementation of President George W. Bush’s No Child Left Behind act in 2002, which established that K-12 students in each state must show relative degrees of aptitude on state-provided exams in order for states to receive federal funding for education, standardized testing has become more prevalent than ever before in American schools, with Florida in particular leading the way.

Established in 1998, the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test (FCAT) has been the standard by which students in third through 11th grades have been measured for years. Since the implementation of both the FCAT and No Child Left Behind, standardized tests provided by Florida and third parties have not only increased, but their scope has been expanded as well, with comprehensive tests for kindergarten students becoming more commonplace.

Sue Legg, Ph.D., the education chair for the Florida League of Women Voters Study on School Choice, has studied standardized testing extensively and says there are a number of problems with the degree to which standardized tests have become institutionalized within the Florida school curriculum.

“The biggest concern is the impact of excessive testing,” Legg said. “Test scores are used in ways that harm rather than improve education. In order to provide more test preparation time, fewer courses are offered.”

In addition to decrying the increasing limitation of opportunities available to students in the name of test preparation, Legg voiced concerns echoing Bowles’, specifically the effect of test-culture on student morale and ability.

“As teaching to the test increases, instruction for some may be less about critical thinking than it is about drill and practice,” Legg said. “Now new critical thinking tests will drive scores down. Students are not prepared. Teachers get discouraged.”

Despite the grimness of the current situation, it would appear as though the efforts of Bowles and Florida’s constituency are effecting change.

In an article published by The Heartland Institute on November 7, it was noted that FairTest had been suspended for a year. Although not officially acknowledged to be the work of Bowles’ act of civil disobedience, the news generated by her actions makes it all but implicit.  Given this chain of events, it is not all that surprising to hear that Bowles would do it all over again.

“The overall response has been extremely positive,” Bowles said. “This past Sunday my pastor was preaching about what matters most in life.  The following seemed to sum up well what I have learned through this. He said, ‘An individual has enormous power in YES and NO.’”