I wrote this essay a few years ago. It has received more “we almost published this” letters than any other piece of writing I’ve produced, yet it never makes the final cut. So why not put it here?
Human beings are incapable of playing in the rain. I learned this when I worked for the local public school district. One of my duties in the Title I office involved processing the tests given to children as part of their preschool screening. In the section used to determine a child’s problem solving ability, a question asked, “What do you do when it rains?”
One boy answered, “You can play in the rain if it’s warm and there’s no lightning.” He was marked wrong. Apparently the creators of the test and the answer key knew something I didn’t. I thought people possessed the ability to frolic in falling water. I was also under the mistaken impression that we humans could stomp in puddles, but the kids who mentioned this activity were considered equally wrong. The only things we can do when it rains are: go inside, use an umbrella, or put on a raincoat. According to the test makers anyway.
I’m not criticizing the Title I program. It’s a good thing. It helps kids who need extra assistance prepare for kindergarten, and provides individualized instruction to children who are struggling with reading. The Title I teachers and administrators I saw in my stint as an office grunt were by and large hard working, empathetic and dedicated. But they worked within the public schools, and as far as I know, no part of the public school system escapes the scourge of required standardized testing.
This isn’t a new development, of course. During my own school days, in fourth grade to be exact, I was identified as gifted and placed in a special program. In what area did my gifts lie? Not visual arts; I was about average there. Certainly not music; to this day I can’t carry a tune. My social skills were mediocre at best, so I wasn’t being recognized for my interpersonal abilities. I could do math in my head, and I loved to read. But my real, true gift, my greatest ability, was test taking. I intuitively grasped the formula for multiple-choice tests and I had a talent for figuring out what authority figures liked to hear in the way of answers. Throughout the years of my formal education, I received a lot of praise for my exam marks.
How have I applied this skill in my adult life? I haven’t. I’ve never found an employer willing to hire me to take tests. I don’t field requests to perform the Stanford Binet at parties. Nobody knows or cares what my SAT scores were. My husband didn’t bother to find out before he asked me to marry him. My children don’t care; they just want to know what’s for dinner. All of those numbers everyone made such a big deal about back then turned out to be the most irrelevant facts of my life.
As much emphasis as test scores received when I was in school, things are worse for my own kids. For their generation, it begins when they’re toddlers. Both of my children were enrolled in Parents as Teachers, an early childhood program, free to families, in which a parent educator comes to the home roughly once a month, does educational activities with your child, and gives you information about child development. Like Title I, it’s a good program with many benefits. Then there’s the testing.
My kids, both at the age of two, participated in the Denver II screening, given to check their progress on various developmental milestones. My daughter and son both proved the maxim that tests can be standardized, but children can’t. One of the skills the children were asked to exhibit was block stacking. My daughter, as a toddler, adored building toys. She performed brilliantly on tower making. The problems began when the blocks were put away so she could move on to demonstrating her social and verbal acuity. The parent educator may have thought they were done playing with blocks, but the examinee disagreed. For the remainder of the session, every question posed to my daughter was met with a request for more block play. Finally, the examiner gave up asking her anything.
As my little girl sat happily constructing walls, the parent educator pondered how to “score” her. I looked over the questions and pointed out that my daughter had demonstrated all the listed skills during previous visits. According to the rules, though, she couldn’t be given credit for them if she didn’t do them during the test. On the other hand, the examiner couldn’t well write down that my child was incapable of things she had been observed to do. The parent educator eventually wrote the word “refused” on the lines where the child’s answers were supposed to be recorded. An Alford Plea of sorts, I suppose.
When my son did the same screening three years later, he willingly answered every question. He loved to talk; it was his favorite activity at the time. But he tended to give nonconformist answers. When asked to supply the name of a friend, he said, “Grace (his sister) is my most friend.” Wrong. He was supposed to have given a name from outside the family. In the world of the Denver II, siblings can’t be friends. As his mother, I felt he couldn’t have given a more right answer.
At the time I found it amusing and even endearing, the way my children wouldn’t be boxed in by these silly tests. I stopped laughing when I discovered the scores were to be included in their school records and the numbers used by people who had never even met my children to make decisions about their educations and lives.
This is what makes me all prickly about standardized exams. They don’t produce insight; they produce numbers, which are taken completely out of any context, and then used to define a child. I never met the Title I child who liked playing in the warm rain, but his response gave me the impression of a joyful little boy who also had a level head on his shoulders. Not only did he refuse to allow the weather to spoil his fun, he possessed enough wisdom to evaluate when it was safe to be outside and when it wasn’t. That made him an A#1 problem solver in my book. Unfortunately, what went into his school record likely reflected a different view; perhaps of a boy who was only a three in problem solving, not as clever as those fives. We can’t expect as much from him.
Similarly, my son’s “score” was skewed. In our family, we regard each other as friends. I guess the folks who created the developmental screening didn’t get along so well with their own relations. Too bad they’re the ones who get to say which is the right answer when a difference of opinion arises. Where I saw a sweet, big-hearted boy who adored his sister, the number assigned to him declared he wasn’t quite up to speed with his social awareness, and subsequently he entered school already labeled as a bit deficient.
Then there’s my daughter, who exhibited all the skills they were looking for every day of her life except for test day, when she had something else on her mind. Even if everyone agreed on which questions and answers were necessary and right (a big stretch), a test score still only reflects what the child does during one small portion of one day, ignoring whatever accomplishments she demonstrates the entire rest of the year.
My children have been blessed so far with wonderful teachers, ones who do look beyond the numbers. My daughter’s second grade teacher realized that reading level and emotional maturity are two very different things. Though my daughter could read most of the books in the school, she wasn’t ready for the themes in some of them. The teacher made an extra effort to find books for her that met her needs on all levels. In first grade, my son rarely completed any work assignment. His teacher, drawing on her years of experience, recognized his painfully slow work habits as a product of perfectionism. She had the wisdom to see he didn’t need extra instruction in the subjects at hand, but did need encouragement to take risks. These are the sorts of insights that are at the heart of effective teaching and can never be gained from penciled-in bubbles on an answer sheet.
Yet, thanks in large part to the federal government’s No Child Left Behind Act, these terrific educators are able to spend less and less time educating. One day, looking at my daughter’s heavy homework load, I asked, “If you’re doing all this work at home, what is it you’re doing with your class time?”
“Taking tests,” she said with a world-weary sigh.
A number of philosophers have written about the human tendency to confuse the symbol with the thing it symbolizes. It seems to me this has happened with test scores. They’ve been transformed from a symbol of what students are pursuing – education – into the thing pursued. In the interest of raising scores, students at West Blvd Elementary School, in Columbia, Missouri, are now be required to spend longer days, and more of them, in the classroom than other students in the Columbia Public Schools. The district’s budget is so tight that some teacher positions had to be eliminated; yet money was found to create a new administrative position, “Director of Research, Assessment and Accountability.” A testing czar, in other words.
Posted on the Columbia Public Schools web site is the district’s Assessment Plan, all 49 pages of it. Two pages are devoted to “motivating students to do well on state and district-wide assessments.” Techniques mentioned include treats as rewards (Tootsie Rolls are listed by name), raffles, and motivational assemblies. Another two pages are devoted to test-taking strategies. One of the strategies for multiple choice tests is: Choose a middle answer (B, C, or D) versus a first or last choice when a guess is necessary. This isn’t unique to one school district; it’s a standard tactic for multiple-choice tests. It’s also an admission that a high test score doesn’t necessarily reflect mastery of a particular subject. Mastery of how to work the system maybe.
There are better ways to assess the areas in which a child is doing well and in which they need more help. Some private schools and home school families have pupils build a portfolio throughout the year to provide an overview of what they have learned and accomplished. Daily observations and common sense go a long way as well. I don’t need a test to tell me if my kids can manage fractions. They cook with me in the kitchen and can easily double recipe ingredients from a quarter to a half-cup, from 3/4 to 1 1/2 teaspoons. My daughter has taken several sessions of private weaving lessons with not a single test of any kind. But anyone looking at the pieces she turned out with each successive class could see how much she was learning and improving.
So why do we parents, teachers and school administrators keep participating in what so many of us see as a deeply flawed and harmful practice? Though it makes me cringe to admit it, the honest answer for me is fear. According to federal and state mandates, any school with less than 95% participation gets in trouble. So do the schools where students don’t produce high enough scores. I’ve considered boycotting the MAP (Missouri Assessment Program) by keeping my kids home on testing days. But then I’ll think, “Do I really want our school’s year extended? Do I want to feel responsible if teachers lose their jobs?” No wonder the administration is almost frantic to make sure children show up to take the test. And fill in the correct bubbles.
Another problem with moving away from mass standardized testing toward a more informative and helpful system of assessment is that it would require teachers to pay increased individual attention to each student, which would mean smaller classes, which would mean a need for more money. I’m convinced the resources are there; it’s just that we as a society would have to make a major commitment to changing our priorities. The words from the classic bumper sticker come to mind: It will be a great day when our schools get all the money they need and the air force has to hold a bake sale to buy a bomber. A tall order, but maybe we don’t have to try to accomplish it all at once; we can keep it as an eventual goal.
In fact, simply eliminating standardized testing would be a good start on freeing up material and human resources to be used for better purposes. My local school district’s budget for the past year included more than $170,000 just for testing materials. I don’t know what salary is paid to the new testing administrator. But it looks to me like eliminating the testing budget plus the new administrative position could provide enough money for at least a few more teachers.
And what can parents do to make this start happening? Realistically, many of us struggle just to keep up with the laundry and grocery shopping, and don’t feel equal to the task of reforming an entire culture. For some the answer is private school or homeschooling. For others, those aren’t viable options. Personally, all I know to do is keep talking every chance I get, and encouraging others to do the same. Maybe someday someone will listen.
In the meantime, I do what I can to educate my own children about the realities of standardized testing. I especially like to tell them true stories about “problem” students, such as Thomas Edison, Albert Einstein, and M.C. Escher (who famously flunked out of school because his test scores were too low.) When we talk about the ‘gifted” program and the fact that the school district deems only 2% of students worthy of an enriching educational experience, I give my kids a story problem, “If two percent of students have enrichment provided by the schools, then what percentage of pupils will have to go get what they need for themselves, and which group is learning more about resourcefulness?” And when we get tired of discussing schools and testing, we all go out to play in the rain. Some days I feel like that’s the best thing I can do for my children.