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'My students and I are worth more than a bubble test can ever assess'

Sherry Coulombe has been a Gwinnett County music teacher for 15 years. She made these comments at the Capitol earlier this week. The comments have been edited for print.

She addresses Georgia's use of tests to ascertain the effectiveness of art and music teachers.

By Sherry Coulombe

Years ago, I read “The Joy of Music” by composer Leonard Bernstein. I read it in high school when I needed a new perspective, and, like many teenagers, a change in attitude. The message that stuck out to me from Bernstein's book is that the arts, especially music, provides something that is not tangible, nor is it measurable. We call this “something” an “aesthetic experience.”

Sir Ken Robinson so eloquently describes the difference between Aesthetics and An-Aesthetics:

An aesthetic experience is one in which your senses are operating at their peak. When you are present in the current moment. When you are resonating with the excitement of this thing that you are experiencing. When you are fully alive.

An an-aesthetic is when you shut your senses off, and deaden yourself to what is happening. We are getting our children through education by an-aesthetizing them.

We should be doing the exact opposite. We should not be putting them to sleep. We should be waking them up to what they have inside of themselves.

My students are creating these “awakening experiences” every day in my classroom. While learning their academic knowledge and skills, attending to their learning objectives and student performance goals, my students are most importantly learning about something so intrinsic that, in itself, it is immeasurable.

Music challenges my students to think critically and outside the box. Music challenges my students to learn interpersonal skills and work with others as a unified team. Music class teaches my students how to not just perform a piece of music, but to do so with refined skill and emotion. It is that emotion or aesthetical experience that we cannot measure on a standardized “bubble-in” test.

How can we demand from our students to have excellence and pride in their daily performance in class, yet not be able fairly judge them or their progress they attain through standardized testing?

My goal as an educator is not just to make my students successful, but to stretch their minds and challenge them to reach a potential they did not realize was attainable. If educators are expected to differentiate our instruction to meet the needs of students, then please explain to me why we cannot differentiate evaluative methods to demonstrate what our students can actually do?

If “one-size fits all” is not an appropriate approach to teaching and learning, a single standardized bubble test shall also not be an appropriate vessel to evaluate student and teacher performance. These bubble tests cannot effectively measure creativity and excellence in performance.

I teach way more than a bubble test can measure.

Earlier this month, I was honored to present a concert with my J.G. Dyer Elementary School chorus and percussion ensemble at the Jimmy Carter Presidential Library and Museum in honor of President Jimmy Carter and Rosalynn Carter. For this performance, my kids prepared 12 pieces, six of which were learned and perfected in a month’s time. One of these six pieces was a commissioned piece, “Let Us Seed This Earth” written last month to be performed for this event in honor of President Carter.

This group of 80 students ages 8 to 11 rehearsed countless hours before and after school. I do not get compensated for all that extra time. My ensembles are not composed of students who are auditioned and cut. It is my philosophy that if students have music in their hearts, they shall be allowed to perform.

Music teachers often volunteer numerous direct student contact hours in order to give them experiences that no other teacher in the school can provide. The planning and organization of providing such unique and special opportunities require so much extra work outside of our paid teaching day.

Not one ounce of the work my students poured into this special concert can be measured on a standardized test.  All the work I put into this concert will not show up on any “growth model” put out by the Governor’s Office of Student Achievement. Under the current evaluation module, many arts teachers around the great state of Georgia are going unrecognized and not receiving credit for all they do on a daily basis. They are judged, rather, on the same things a classroom teacher is evaluated on. It is like trying to fit a square peg in a round hole.

We have gone from a culture where “No Child Was Supposed to be Left Behind” to one where “No Child is Left Untested.” When my students are grown and have jobs and kids of their own, do you think any of them will look back and remember the tests they were forced to take?  No, but they will remember the day they played for a president.

The overemphasis on testing is crippling arts and music and physical education in our schools.  Children can’t be children in many counties throughout Georgia because recess has been cut short for test prep. Luckily for the children in my school, recess and physical education are valued as a crucial part of each students’ day. In general, principals cannot commit the time or resources to programs that aren’t tested when 70 percent of their own evaluation rest test scores.

If I was worried about my evaluation, I could have spent my time teaching to the SLO or SPG test that my students are going to have to take to prove I am an excellent teacher. Instead, I create opportunities for them during and outside of the traditional school day.

Many teachers will not be allowed to create these opportunities because it is not easy to make “data models” out of them. I must thank my administration for believing and trusting in me to keep providing these experiences and opportunities for our students at Dyer Elementary.

Self-worth and intrinsic value are constantly being judged within our evaluation system, whether it is student or teacher evaluations. Students are being pressured daily to perform to these tests.

I want to leave you with a poem titled “My Own Worth”  by Ric S. Bastasa.

when you begin

to measure the length of my


with a tape

or weigh me with

your own scales

or wrap me with your

cloth to assess the

volume of my being

when the numbers

come from your mouth

i begin to feel

the limitless bounds

of my incoming


for you are just my peer

my co-equal

and here you are

measuring me by

your own

standards and i ask

the world:


who are you?

My kids are worth more than any bubble test can assess. I, too, am worth more than any bubble test.  It is time to pop this bubble, and let us do what we have been trained to do. Let us teach our children to be the best that they can be.

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About the Author

Maureen Downey has written editorials and opinion pieces about local, state and federal education policy since the 1990s.