Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Thoughts on Standardized Testing...or No Child Left Behind... I am. Planning to write. I have a number of things on my mind and I'm not really sure which I will choose to write about...but here goes nothing. If nothing else I am hopefully sharpening those writing skills I keep blathering about.

First, I have to say that I have found myself shaking my head in amusement or disgust a number of times today. I'm not really sure which emotion is being evoked, but either will do I guess. First, I have to say that what my beloved husband shared with me today makes me want to laugh out loud long and hard. He has recently gone from being a pariah at work to being the hero of the day. The funny/disgusting part? He hasn't changed what he has done and continues to do at work one iota. The only difference? His boss' boss publicly complimented something that he did. His direct boss had previously reamed him for doing exactly what he was being praised for. But now that boss' boss is complimenting the work, Steve is to be high-fived. Steve is ALLLLLL RIGGGGHT. Until the next whim, right? Perhaps he is working for Dr. Jekyll...or Mr. Hyde.

The second thing I am disgusted/amused with is our public school system and this "No Child Left Behind" crap. The complete idiocy of the standardized testing that is in place. Where I am its called MCAS...and it has become the public school's religion, it's ridiculous. I have several reasons for feeling standardized testing is a load of crap, but here are a couple of my latest reasons. First, my daughter is in fourth grade. This is the first year that MCAS is "serious" and the grade counts. Not the first year that she has been forcefed MCAS til she was having nightmares about it, but the first year it "counts." Allison averages about two hours a night of homework, and that's not including the "Study Island" packet they sent home at the beginning of the year to "help" her study for MCAS. She has no learning disabilities, is quite intelligent, has a terrific vocabulary and reading ability and is very responsible. She stays on task quite well for a 9 year old, and does not need testing of any kind so far as I can see. Her last two quarters showed straight A's on her report card. She even got a letter from the school commending her for her academic performance. So why two hours of homework a night? Simple: because in order to cover all the material that needs to be covered to test for MCAS, she has to do two hours of homework a night.

How is she supposed to be able to be a kid with that kind of pressure? She gets on the bus in the morning around 8am, is in school until 2:30pm and doesn't get dropped off at her bus stop until after 3pm. Most days she comes home, has a snack, and does her homework until dinner unless its Tuesday. If it's Tuesday she has a friend over until dinner and does her homework after. Figuring in things like emptying the trash (her chore), showering, brushing her teeth and any extracurricular activities she may have, how is she supposed to have time to just be 9 and think about what 9 year olds like to think about? This Spring is going to be crazy. She has soccer, softball and karate to add into the mix.

I know what you are thinking...well, just eliminate some of her activities. But if I do that she doesn't get enough physical activity to stay physically fit. We can't have that. Plus the activities give her the opportunity to interact with kids her own age outside of school. She needs that. In school they don't have time to actually socialize...they aren't supposed to talk too much remember? They have to pay attention to the teacher so they can learn all their lessons for MCAS. They have abbreviated recesses so they can spend more time learning for MCAS.

I was at my sons' karate class the other day conversing with another mother who is a third grade school teacher in another town. She was telling me that her town, for budget reasons, is being forced to cut 20% from every town budget, including the schools. What this is going to translate into for her is that she could lose her job. She doesn't have tenure. Even if she doesn't lose her job, she was telling me that her principal said that she may have 40 children in her class next year. Can you imagine that? Forty children in a class? How does any learning take place in that kind of environment? Forty children ages seven and eight? At that point its really only crowd control. She was sharing how because of MCAS she has to gut her curriculum too. She can't do most of the enrichment aspects of her lessons because she has to ensure that she has time to teach everything that MCAS demands she teach. To forty students. Yeah. Right.

If that example doesn't scare you, think of this one. I was speaking to another mom tonight, while I was at a meal assembly place (think Dream Dinners). She was telling me that her 9 year old daughter broke her right arm playing basketball. Well, actually her thumb. In two places. She has had her arm in a cast for four weeks. The school keeps asking this mom when her daughter will be out of the cast. Mom has been saying, "I don't know, the doctor is making that decision, and he and I are talking next week." The school's response? "We need her score from MCAS, she can't miss the test." See, her daughter is one of the upper level students and they are afraid of blowing the curve for their school. So because they are concerned about what her missing test score would do to their funding, they are pressuring this little girl about getting out of the cast. I asked mom about whether the school is making special accommodations for her injury, since the cast is on her writing arm. "You have to jump through hoops," she tells me. First, you have to get an explicit note from the doctor outlining what accommodations are necessary. Then, the note must be faxed to "the state," whatever that means. Assuming you get approved for these accommodations, the school must hire someone to transcribe this little girl's responses. According to mom, the transcriptionist must write down exactly what this little girl says for her answer. If she clears her throat, "Ahem!" they transcribe that as part of the test. If she says, "Um..." they write that down. And by the way, they DO NOT write down commas, spaces, capitalizations, or any other grammatical piece unless this little girl specifically tells them to. Geez, no pressure on this little girl, eh? I'm not sure I could pass that test, nevermind a 9 year old.

What the hell is wrong with us? Why are we putting this kind of pressure on our children to perform? Why do our children need to lose their childhoods to prove that they are competitive, smart and talented? Instead of ensuring our children's futures, we are dooming them to becoming monkeys pushing buttons... We are forcing larger class sizes, less creativity from our teachers, and more conformity. Anyone who is different for any reason is being crushed under the wheels of standardized testing. Why can't we offer more room for creative thinking? Why can't we encourage learning through play, which according to Jean Piaget, is the best vehicle for educating the young?

Is there a place for testing of some sort? I think so. But it should be modified somehow. Perhaps the testing should be of the teachers and what they know. Maybe we should have teachers prepared to have a visit from some board or group to observe their teaching style on a regular basis (every three years?), review their lesson plans and comment on the interactions they see between students. Maybe they could look at a portfolio of work made up of various students' assignments and test the teachers. Perhaps this board could review teachers' gradebooks and assess what percentage of the students in the class are succeeding...maybe THAT could be used to evaluate a teacher's effectiveness in the classroom. This board could make the rounds and review various teachers and render decisions about their license to teach.

Maybe if we did that there would be less teachers in the system that play political football with our children's educational needs. Less children who get put off, as a couple of my friends are experiencing, because the school just doesn't want to deal with them. Fewer teachers who want to pass the buck because of a lack of funds, lack of interest or just plain lack of talent. Let those who are burnt out step aside. Those who aren't suited to the job of teaching young children need not apply. And those that pay lip service to wanting to educate our young will be revealed for the snake-oil salesmen that they are.

And lest you think I am making light of the job of being a teacher, allow me to tell you that no I do not. My father taught middle school Spanish for many years. He taught in a tough school system. Often he could not send home textbooks because he knew if he did they would never come back. Many of his students would be out until 3 or 4 in the morning, running with gangs or whatever. If he tried to have a parent/teacher conference it was laughable most times he told me. Of the few parents that DID actually come, most of them would look at him like he was crazy if he tried to suggest that anything going on at home had anything to do with the education of their child. It was, after all, his job to educate their children, not theirs. They had to work for a living, they couldn't do his job for him.

Teachers are often not given the tools they need to do the job they need and want to do. They have to learn to do much and accomplish much with very little. But they have to keep on keeping on. They need to take joy in the victories, no matter how small, and not become jaded and indifferent to the failures in the system. That is their charge. That is their responsibility. And I think we should take it very seriously if the pressure of that responsibility is being shifted onto our children, who are still learning how to learn. That is what I believe standardized testing is doing. And I am disgusted.

My five things:

1.) I am grateful that my daughter has no learning disabilities
2.) I am grateful for childhood
3.) I am grateful that public education isn't the only choice available
4.) I am grateful for a sense of humor
5.) I am grateful for my keyboard

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