Alaska’s Favorite Backhoe Operator

(As previously published in Telicom).

I’m not sure if it really was a backhoe operator that did it—that was just one story I got, right around the time it all happened. There were a lot of stories floating around, but the final and official version was that a “construction worker” accidentally severed a key fiber-optic cable, thousands of miles away—in Kansas.

And that’s when we all learned the truth, even though nobody actually said it: we could only think the truth. And the truth was that the giant test we’d been preparing for all year was not actually necessary after all.

Rewind a bit to avoid confusion: our schools have to take standardized tests, right? It’s a federal law. And we take the officially gigantic ones in the spring. The tests for Alaska in the spring of 2016 were called the “AMP” tests. It was our second year of the AMP, and the first year the scores actually counted for something. Or the first year they were supposed to count (the previous year of tests didn’t count for school ratings and the like—they were only for calibration purposes). But during that first week of official testing in 2016, that one key cable, that cable that came out of the Achievement and Assessment Institute at the University of Kansas, was cut. Tests in progress had to stop.

When tests began again the next day, the connection was spotty. Students that had already started the tests the previous day were answering the same questions again, which is just not done in standardized testing. And because it would be impossible for all students to take the test under standardized conditions, it was cancelled. Cancelled!

The students silently cheered. The teachers silently cheered. The administrators silently feared—what was going to happen? Punishment? Withdrawal of federal funding?

Now that it’s been over seven months since the cancellation, we know exactly what happens when a state does not give the supposedly mandatory standardized test: nothing. Absolutely nothing. Of course, we have a pretty good excuse for why we didn’t do it. But this school year, we’ll probably have a new test. And since it’s a new test, our first year of scores on the new test won’t count for school ratings or anything of the sort—we need that first year’s scores in order to know whether or not students are getting better at that test when we give it again the following year. We need to recalibrate. So then it will be a total of three years in a row that we have no useful data coming from our spring tests.

The horror! How could we possibly know if our students are learning without the high-stakes tests? How could we live in such a world?

The answer is simple: we live quite happily.

My own students never had the chance to take the AMP-of-doom this past spring. Because we only have one computer lab in the school, one class would take the tests one week, another class would take them the next week, and so on. Since my class didn’t get the computer lab during that first week, my students didn’t have to experience the frustration that some of the others did. But their reaction to the news told me everything I need to know.

And it was so innocent, so honest, that I couldn’t help but join them in my gratitude. When I told them that the test had been canceled because a backhoe operator had cut that ever-important cable, they smiled. They exchanged high fives. Literally every single student was thrilled that they wouldn’t have to be taking the standardized test—even the ones that had been planning on trying their best. I have a hunch that they were only going to try hard for our sakes, to be nice to us, the teachers. We clearly worried about the tests, spending so much time on test prep. Students (at least my students) tend to be kind and compassionate, so it would not surprise me if that is the only reason they try at all.

Because for the most part, they just do the test. They endure it. If their only motivation is kindness for their teachers, then we (as teachers) are in big trouble. If they don’t try hard out of kindness, where does that leave us? Very few try for their own sakes. Most have no incentive at all. If anything, the length of the test (and the boredom it induces) is disincentive to try hard. If we want them to do well, we need to give them a good reason to try hard. The recent study “Do Students Show What They Know on Standardized Tests?” (Livingston et al 2016) suggests that all it takes is $90 per student. Ninety dollars and they magically try hard and show seriously improved performance.

If (in order for a standardized test to be considered valid) we must have standardized testing conditions, then we should seriously consider 90 or even 100 dollars per student in order to make sure that they have standardized motivation. Livingston’s study (among others) proves that student motivation is a huge factor in performance. We do our best to make sure our students have a quiet testing space, that they are well fed, that they have regular breaks, that they can’t cheat off of each other (Seriously? We think they want to do that?), and so on. We make the most standardized environment possible, but those are only external factors. The biggest factor in performance is internal, in the mind of each student, asking: Why do I need to do this? If the answer is “For $100,” then we know they’ll try hard.

The reaction of my class (and classes all over the state) told us all we need to know: they don’t want to do the test. And if they don’t want to do it, they won’t try hard. Our scores will always be a gamble. If it is truly important to have standardized conditions, logic tells us that money (as an incentive) or other extrinsic motivations are necessary to ensure motivation across the board. We’ve tried similar carrots before. In my current school, students are promised a fun, school-wide field trip if everyone is present on all testing days for their class. In a previous school, the principal promised a prize drawing if we made AYP [adequate yearly progress]: student names in a hat, the one that gets picked gets $100. That, and the school gets an ice cream party (and we made AYP!). It’s no mystery that we need extrinsic motivation when it comes to standardized testing. So let’s call the bluff. Educators need to lobby for cash incentives and we’ll see the results we want to see. We do want to see every student’s test scores improving, don’t we?

One of my students suggested writing a “thank you” letter to the construction worker in question. I agreed and thought it would be a great idea. The only problem is that we’ve been unable to find out exactly who it was, and this is unfortunate—it would have been excellent practice in letter writing, a real-life application of some of our writing standards. But we cannot do this. If we were able to do this, if the mystery worker’s address were known, I imagine a mailbox filling with cards and letters, crayon drawings showing a stick figure sitting on a tractor, hard hat on, smiling, yellow sun in the corner, severed cable with crayon-dot sparks clouded around the ends. “Thank you,” they would read, “for freeing us from the test!” These would nicely balance the magnificent chewing-out that our hero no doubt received on the day of the incident.

Of course, thank you cards weren’t the only suggestion. Other students suggested that we pay the worker to do it again next year. And, if we could find out it was, we probably would. Maybe we could do a little bit of crowdfunding. Imagine that: teachers and students all over the state pitching in, hoping desperately that someone with the ability to take such action would willingly throw his shoe into the machine. But that won’t be possible, as the state has decided to find another test vendor for the next round.

It’s still possible, though.

No matter which vendor is chosen, there will be somebody very much like that backhoe operator, perhaps somebody that can clumsily walk around in the server room with a recently-sharpened axe. The heat in there will be so dreadful that he will inevitably get light-headed and fall into some of the servers, axe first. Repeatedly. If we can find this person, then we can be liberated for yet another year. And what will happen as a result of that fiasco?

Again: nothing.

If the opt-out movement grows and testing thresholds fall below 95% (thereby invalidating our scores), what would happen?


All we need is a good excuse. As long as it isn’t the fault of teachers or administrators, we can find clever ways of getting around the test, year after year. If it keeps happening, how long will it take until they just give up and decide to let us teach?

That is impossible to know. But I do know this: if things continue on their present trajectory, I’m likely to retire early. Unless this new federal law results in some seriously positive changes, I’m out of here in another year or two (as it stands right now, I’ve seen no noticeable changes since NCLB, at least not at the classroom level). And that’s okay—I’m young enough to start another career. Teaching was a great way to help kids, but there’s a profession I’ve been considering, one that sounds like a lot of fun, one that can help kids just as much—if not more—than being a teacher:

Backhoe operator.

I think I’d look pretty good in a hard hat.


John A. List, Jeffrey A Livingston and Susanne Neckermann. “Do Students Show What They Know on Standardized Tests?” working papers (2016)
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