Sunday, April 14, 2013

Test and detest

I had been warned.

Every parent I knew who had gone before me had cautioned about third grade.

That was the year their school-loving children started getting belly aches and saying they'd rather sit in the dark and listen to opera music than go to class.

“It's the tests,” they explained. The state's English Language Arts and Math standardized tests got them all nerved up.

The tests, which assess student understanding of state-determined learning standards, are also used by the federal government as part of its accountability system, the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001.

Every fiber of my don't-worry-about-the-recital-just-enjoy-the-dance being HATES the idea that tests are served up as the main course for months in the bakery that is school.

Yet, here we are, a dozen years later – pressure is mounting, school funds are shrinking and it is test companies that are by and large determining how student understanding is evaluated.

It's enough to make anyone's stomach twist into knots.

As the days draw closer to Ittybit's first foray into the world of No. 2 pencils and perfectly filled-in ovals, she started to complain of stress and worry.

Her homework started to include thick packets of practice questions. Things, she said, her teacher didn't have time to go over in class.

She was worried.

What if she did horribly? Would she be demoted to the second grade? Would her teacher lose her job? Would the principal shut down the school?

Tests nerve everyone up.

Yet, no matter how many times we told her to relax, told her her score would neither affect her grade nor jeopardize her standing as a third-grader heading for the promised land of fourth grade, she was not convinced.

“This is all anyone cares about,” she said. “All they do is talk about how we have to be ready for the test.”

I shrug my shoulders and weigh my options.

Do I tell her not to care about the test?

It's true, I am unconcerned about the results. In my mind, calculating achievement by standardized testing is akin to trying to use a cookie-cutter to form teaspoon-dropped cookies … one shouldn't expect uniform results. But that doesn't mean I don't care.

Do I tell her she can refuse to take the test?

According to grassroots groups and postings showing up in social media networks, students can formally refuse the tests, and schools can assess student abilities using other classroom accomplishments. Her portfolio of work, the chapter tests and periodic projects. But that the consequences to schools and to the students are somewhat unclear.

“You have options,” I tell her. “You don't need to take the tests. It's not the only way.”

She listens as I explain about what happens if we formally refuse.

Ultimately, it's a choice that requires some amount of civil disobedience.

But the idea of disobedience, civil or otherwise, at this tender age horrifies her.

What would she do while her friends sat at their desks, rat-tat-tatting their pencils and biting their nails to the quick?


Totally unacceptable. “Totes” as her prematurely tween self is wont to say.

She's not ready to take up this fight. Not this way, at any rate.

She'll take the test and do her best not to worry. Maybe when it's all over she'll write a strongly worded letter that explains how the same recipe with different ingredients isn't always palatable:

“I see it like trying to bake chocolate chip cookies using a little of everything you have in pantry,” she tells me with a grin. “Sure, you might end up with bacon chip ginger snaps, but it doesn't necessarily mean you've failed. It just means you may have to wait for the right person to eat them ...

“Like dad.”

I smile.

“Has anyone ever told you that you are a smart cookie?”

“Oh, totes … all the time.”




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