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More Than A Number? Educators On What Standardized Testing Means


I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. We are continuing our focus on education this hour. Later, we'll have a closer look at why some Memphis schools remain separated by race and class decades after a court ordered them to integrate. But first, we hear from educators. It's no secret that teaching is a rewarding job, but it's also a tough one. Some say it's getting tougher, what with crowded classrooms, troubled students and standardized tests.

We wanted to get a view from the frontlines, so joining us now are three experienced educators. Rafe Esquith is a fifth grade teacher at Hobart Elementary School in Los Angeles. He's also the author of a number of books, including his most recent, "Real Talk for Real Teachers." Tequila Pennington-Calwise is a third grade teacher at Euclid Park Elementary School in Cleveland. She's also founder of Lady Bound. That's a mentoring program for middle school girls. And Elissa Malespina is a librarian at South Orange Middle School in New Jersey. She's also a former high school teacher. Welcome to you all. Thank you all so much for joining us.

ELISSA MALESPINA: Thank you for having me.

TEQUILA PENNINGTON-CALWISE: Thank you for having me.

RAFE ESQUITH: Thanks for having us on.

MARTIN: And, you know, altogether, you all have six decades of experience in education. So, Rafe, I'll start with you. You've been in the classroom for almost 30 years, just you yourself. Now as somebody who's seen a lot of national policies come and go, I wanted to just ask you what you make of Secretary Duncan's comments that education is the civil rights issue of our time. Do you agree with that?

ESQUITH: I agree with it. It's a wonderful sentiment, but as a teacher on the frontlines, I don't think that sentiment actually takes place in professional development meetings and in too many classrooms.

MARTIN: Why do you say that?

ESQUITH: Well, because when the secretary says we want to move beyond an overemphasis of standardized testing, that's not really what's happening. Now with Common Core, we are being buried in more tests, and it's really an Orwellian nightmare where we hear the politicians say, we have to move beyond tests, but that's not what's really happening.

Real teachers know that a real assessment of a student is not the test at the end of the year, but the skills that I have given that child that they're going to be using for the rest of their lives. And until we make that a reality, we're going to be here five years from now, with the newest system of standards, still arguing about the same problems.

MARTIN: Common Core, just for folks who are not aware of it - we didn't get into this in any detail with the secretary - but it is a set of standards that's meant to bring American schools more in line with the education levels of other industrial countries, and also to be sure that the standards are pretty even across the country, the underlying assumption being that, you know, all Americans need to know certain things in order to compete, you know, internationally, and in the years to come. Now, Tequila, you've said that a lot of the accountability initiatives like Common Core have actually helped your classroom over the years. Do you want to talk about that?

PENNINGTON-CALWISE: I believe that they've helped my classroom because I've made sure that I was at the forefront of all of the training and any type of in-services that have come about. But I do agree with him that it is a huge emphasis on testing. We are constantly assessing the children with high stakes assessments, and they pretty much burnout by the end of the year.

You get an attitude of, I could care less about this test, when the test means everything in terms of how they go on to the next grade or, you know, what type of programs they can get into for middle school or high school. So it has helped me professionally because I make sure that I'm doing everything that I need to do to stay on board and make sure that my kids are able to, you know, hang with the program.

MARTIN: Elissa, what about you?

MALESPINA: I come at it from a little bit of a different perspective as a librarian. But as a mom, too, I see that our children are much more than a number, and our teachers are much more than a number because what's happening now is our teachers are being graded on their test scores. And as a librarian, I don't - you know, like, I am not directly affected by the children every day, but I'm going to have to come up with a student growth assessment that will be sort of based on my test scores and my evaluation will be based on that. We hear so many examples of teachers being based on test scores. One of my dear friends just got back his scores from - and he's a principal - and got back his scores, and he is much more than the nine that he, you know, got.

And I know that because I know what he does every day in his classroom. So we can't really judge people by a number. I know my son is more than the number that he - you know, his test score is. And we're only looking at two things. We're looking at English, and we're looking at math. We're not looking at the total child. Social studies, art, music - all of those make up a whole child, and that is not what we're testing children on.

MARTIN: Social skills, resiliency...

MALESPINA: ...Yes...

MARTIN: ...The ability to recover from a setback, you know, that kind of thing. Rafe, what about you? What is it that - we've heard so much in recent years about, you know, high-stakes testing, good or bad, you know, many people are ambivalent about it. On the one hand, they don't want kids being sort of hidden away or their issues or their deficiencies kind of being hidden away. They want their kids to be able to compete not just nationally, but kind of internationally.

On the other hand, I think a lot of parents and a lot of educators are very well acquainted with the issue of burnout and so forth. Rafe, is there - as an educator, are there solutions that teachers are talking about to kind of balance these two competing ideas that perhaps aren't making it into the conversations that you wish people would hear?

ESQUITH: Oh, there are solutions. I mean, that's why I wrote "Real Talk." I mean, I'm in my 31st year, and what I have learned is - I go to the trainings, and, Michel, every teacher wants to assess the students. I assess my students all the time. We want to be held accountable. Students should be held accountable as long as we understand that a test score is that small snapshot of the total picture. But in a good classroom, matters of integrity, honor, character - those are the skills and the values that my students internalize. The secretary talked about going to college.

Let's make two points about that. First of all, college is not for everybody, and I have very happy and successful students who didn't want to go to college, who are mechanics and machinists and they make a lot more money than I do. Second of all, many of our students - more than half of them who go to college - don't finish college. So clearly, even with all these supposedly improving systems, our kids don't have the real skills to finish college because college is more than simply a regurgitation of facts that you put down on a standardized test, and that is exactly what we're turning our schools into. A good teacher is a buffer to show the students, yes, we're going to take these tests because it's part of a flawed system, but I'm also going to show you really important, essential skills that you'll be using for the rest of your life...

MARTIN: But, Rafe...

ESQUITH: ...And that's...

MARTIN: ...Let me push you on this question, though, of...

ESQUITH: Please.

MARTIN: ...How do you address the desire, the need, to be sure that kids are getting what they're supposed to get, without over-relying on the tests that so many people are now concerned about?

ESQUITH: One of...

MARTIN: What's your better idea?

ESQUITH: One of my better ideas is that there's a very secret weapon that teachers need to be using in their classroom, and that's their former students. I have an army of former students who come back from college all the time, who are very successful in a variety of careers, to show my younger students a vision of what's possible. That's the real motivation, not that you have a 95, but to meet kids who come from their streets, who are immigrants from their countries, who are doing very well because they have adopted some of the values that good teachers have shown them. Kids need to have a real vision, and a number on a test, I think, both of our other speakers pointed out that kids are getting tired of it. How many times can an eight-year-old get up for the big game?

And I have to laugh because I went to a Common Core meeting and the opening line of the meeting was that my primary job as a teacher is to get my 10-year-olds ready to compete in the international workforce. Really? A 10-year-old? I'm trying to get him to be a happy, well adjusted, excited individual who loves coming to school, loves working with his peers and loves to learn. I really don't think he needs to be getting ready for the international workforce when he's 10.

MARTIN: Let me pick up on something that you said and ask Tequila this. And if you're just joining us, we are continuing our look at the nation's schools. We are talking solely about education this hour, and today, we're talking right now with a panel of educators. Together, they have six decades of experience in the classroom. That's altogether. I wanted to go back to this question you talked about of bringing the real world into the classroom. Tequila, you also mentor middle school students. You do this on your own time.


MARTIN: And I just have to ask, you know, do you think that that's something that people should be required to do, and if they're not, I mean, how do you bring that in without investing so much of yourself? I mean, we talk so much about work-life balance in other fields, I don't know that you have any. How do you bring that in while still having a life for yourself?

PENNINGTON-CALWISE: It's difficult, but, you know, I'm doing it from my heart. And I can't necessarily say that a person should be required to do it because when you're required to do something that you really don't believe in, you don't really do a good job at it. And when you're mentoring youth, you really need to have a huge heart and be able to do it. I'm the owner and CEO of Lady Bound and it's an afterschool program that I started on my own about seven years ago, and we basically do every type of, you know, thing that happens to do with emotional and social growth with our ladies.

It's a very difficult time in their lives right now. Transitioning from middle school to high school is hard and it's very stressful. So the types of pressures that our ladies are facing is very different from what we faced. And Lady Bound basically teaches them how to cope and how to handle life's issues effectively - most of all, how to avoid, conquer and overcome the social and emotional obstacles that other people fail at and...

MARTIN: Do you think that that should be part of the school day, though, or do you feel that you really can't have those kinds of real conversations at school?

PENNINGTON-CALWISE: Absolutely, I think it can be both. There are very, very many opportunities in the school day where you can teach a child something emotionally. Just today, I had a student that was upset because he was given a consequence for his behavior, and I had to point out that, you know, in a real life, when you have a job and your boss tells you that you did something wrong and you get an attitude and put your head down at work, what's going to happen?

And the other kids were like, well, you're going to get fired. And so those are real consequences and those are situations that we have to teach children how to cope emotionally. This is becoming our new crisis. This social-emotional piece is becoming a crisis in our school system, and it's something that can be done during school as well as done after school.

MARTIN: There's so many things we could talk about. I did want to spend a couple more minutes talking about technology. Elissa, this is a particularly good issue for you, I think, as a librarian because you probably have hands-on experience with technology. We got a clip - as we mentioned, we've been reaching out on Twitter and via Facebook to get opinions from other people.


MARTIN: Eliza Barry (ph) is a grad student and she worries that teachers aren't keeping up with technology as well as their students, and I just want to play a short clip from her.


ELIZA BARRY: I've surpassed what most of the teachers are even able to do with new media at a very young age. I only see this issue getting worse because most of the teachers are only at, I would say, about an elementary school level of technological proficiency, and as they get older and technology moves faster, I don't really see them being able to keep up.

MARTIN: Elissa, what do you say to that? It's kind of harsh, actually,'s a little bit harsh, but, I mean...

MALESPINA: It was a little harsh, but...

MARTIN: Well, what do you think?

MALESPINA: I see what she's saying and it's not - it's the fact that we are being thrown with so many things, that technology training is not happening like it should be in our schools. And what's happening is that teachers are getting overwhelmed with everything, and so we have to show the teachers the benefit that technology can be placed in a classroom. We can't just put a computer in there and say, oh, the kids will figure it out, because then it just becomes basically a word processor or a brick. You need to have ongoing, differentiated, professional development for teachers, and that's the one thing that isn't happening as much in our schools as we should.

There's a great model called the SAMR model for professional development and technology integration that we need to really move it to where our kids are really the ones producing the media. And to have teachers do that is an ongoing process, and there are some - you know, a lot of the teachers are not technology or digital natives. So they need to learn and you need to be - there has to be mentoring of teachers, and you have to, you know, walk them through. And once you show them, you know, something that you've done, then they're like, wait, I want to do that, too. And so if there's coaches and people in the schools that they can go to to learn how to use technology, then you see it happening.

Because our kids are digital natives, they know how to use this stuff. They don't always know how to use it correctly, but they know how to use it. So we want to get them to where they're really stretching the limits and producing things and doing Google Hangouts and using Edmodo and using all these tools that are out there. And, you know, teachers can do that. They just need that little extra help.

MARTIN: Well, before we let you go, we have about three minutes left, so I want to ask you to share - the beginning of the school year is a time of, you know, hope and trepidation. And I wanted to ask each of you in turn, and Elissa, I'll start with you. More hope or more trepidation for this school year?

MALESPINA: More hope, I can always go in with hope. I always believe in hope. And I'm hoping that my students and, you know, my teachers can - we're doing a lot of cool stuff in my school. So we're really trying to push technology and the limits of technology. So we're going to be doing lots of Google Hangouts and breaking down classroom walls. And so, for me, it's hope because I can't wait to collaborate with all of these people.


MALESPINA: And I think my students will too.

MARTIN: Tequila, what about you? Are you thinking more hope or more trepidation as the school year begins?

PENNINGTON-CALWISE: I definitely have more hope. I have a very optimistic attitude so I hope that my students enjoy third grade. I hope that they learn to the highest of their potential and I hope that they're happy. I hope that they feel loved. I hope that they feel safe, and I just really feel blessed to be able to share my experiences with them and to create a great year. So that third grade will be memorable for them, so they'll look back at their third grade memories and they can smile and say that was cool, we had fun.

MARTIN: Rafe, what about you?

ESQUITH: Always hope, optimism is the foundation of all good teaching. I do want to remind teachers, though, that you're not always going to succeed, even the best teachers fail all the time. And I also want to point out about technology, sometimes we think that we - 'cause we're great at technology we're becoming scholars. It's becoming overemphasized. Let's never forget that Shakespeare wrote Hamlet with a goose feather and he didn't need technology for that. So let's not confuse being technologically savvy with real scholarship.

MARTIN: Well, real talk, OK. Rafe Esquith is a fifth grade teacher in Los Angeles. He's the author of "Real Talk for Real Teachers." He joined us from NPR West in Culver City, California. Elissa Malespina is a middle school librarian in New Jersey, she was at NPR's New York bureau. Tequila Pennington-Calwise is a third grade teacher in Cleveland. She joined us at member station WCPN. Thank you all so much for joining us. Let's check in a couple months into the school year and you can tell us how you're doing.

MALESPINA: Oh, that would be awesome


MALESPINA: Thank you.

ESQUITH: Thanks, Michel.

MALESPINA: Thank you so much for having me.

PENNINGTON-CALWISE: Thank you, Michel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.