On Keystone Testing: A Philadelphia Teacher’s Reflection

Early last week, I stripped the walls of my classroom bare. I took down the flags students had created to represent themselves, I took down the project we’d been working on since February - a Literacy through Photography project that gives a complex vision of student identities - and that has inspired considerable pride and interest in my students. I took down the maps, the art, even my calendar. I moved the desks out of the large square we normally use, into sterile rows. It’s not the end of the year, though it may feel like it. For the second time this year, it’s Keystone season.


Classroom: Before and After

For six days spread over two weeks, our school is disrupted. From 8 to 11:30, we are in testing rooms. For the rest of the day, we run through 30-minute classes. The attitude from students is that these days don’t count - and the feeling around school is that the year is already over. It’s a shame, considering our last day of classes is June 18. It’s not an illusion for students - grades close June 9 and the Keystones aren’t fully finished until May 27 (including students being pulled for makeups).

The day before testing began, I had a circle with my students in order to give them space to express their feelings about testing. As an introductory activity, I gave each student 3 post-its, and had them write a thought or feeling about standardized testing in general and the Keystones specifically on each. Then, I had them stick their post-its on the wall on a scale of “Positive” to “Negative”. Below are the results from each of my classes.


Student thoughts on testing. (Left side = Strongly Positive, Right side = Strongly Negative)

As you can see, the results leaned strongly negative. The most common word was “hate”, followed by “stupid”, “boring”, and “pointless”. In addition to variations on these common words, there were also words like “stressful”, “anxious”, and “scared”. And I can hear the critique: Sure, but no kid is going to love or even like a test.

From my students, though, I see something different. Through the conversation that followed this brainstorming, I got the real sense that my students believe these tests to be harmful to them - and really not supportive of their best interests or their visions of the future.

If you look at our school results, you can see that as the case. No more than 20 percent of our students passed any exam, and under 10 percent passed Biology and Algebra. For our 10th graders, this is a graduation requirement. The “project” replacement requires staff our school doesn’t have. There is a disaster looming when this test becomes a graduation requirement in two years.

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From: http://paschoolperformance.org/Profile/6830

I think it’s appropriate that we strip our walls during these days of testing (I was even told by a School District of Philadelphia observer that I needed to erase the date from the board during testing) - because testing forces me as a teacher to strip all value from my practice. I suddenly have to become more authoritarian, uncaring, robotic. These are things I try to push out of my teaching practice, but on these days I feel forced by the state to bring them back in.

Assessments, what we ask students to do, should have real value in this world. What is the value of sitting silently and filling in bubbles? I feel more like a prison guard these days - patrolling the room, unable to speak with or support kids, escorting students to the bathroom. The most meaningful words for nearly 3 hours of my day are “Be quiet”, “No talking”. Even though I’ve spent most of my time doing nothing, I feel drained.

It’s hard for me to continue to subject my students to something they hate - and not because it’s hard, but because they feel it is hurting them and not spending their time wisely. Keystone testing only deepens the disengagement of many of my students with the education system. It is certainly not a motivating factor. This morning, we have 129 students present in the building out of 479. That’s 27%.

There’s a far better way we can be spending our time - activities that empower students, enrich their lives, and make them come alive. We need to opt into opportunities for self-actualization, and opt out of this system of testing that is psychologically harmful, and isn’t preparing our students for success in their visions of their futures.

Out of fear for my job, I continue to proctor this exam. I keep quiet about my feelings on the tests in front of my students in the classroom. But, I’m not sure how much longer I can continue this way. After 6 days of testing, with my soul drained, I’ll hang the student work back on the wall, move my desks back into a square, and get back to real education.


Charlie McGeehan is an educator at Kensington CAPA High School, and a member of the Caucus of Working Educators. He can be found @cmcgeeiii on Twitter, and charlie.mcgeehan@gmail.com.