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Talking Back to the Test: A Third Grader Speaks Up

As long as my daughter is in school in a town and state and nation where this is the law, I suppose she'll have to comply. But we're never going to pretend that we think this is a valuable tool.
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Over family dinner one recent night, as we all talked about our days, my daughter, not yet 9, casually mentioned that she had told her entire class something about the MCAS -- our state's version of the standardized tests that public school students are required to take. This is what she announced: "My dads say that the MCAS only tests one kind of learning and it's not my kind."

On the one hand, I was immensely proud of her for speaking up, saying something a lot of her nervous classmates could stand to hear. I was also thrilled to have proof that she actually listens to us -- which is hardly a given for our easily-distracted child. I began calling her MCatniss, a nod to the heroine of The Hunger Games, while my husband joked that she was the Norma Rae of testing, but it all made me a bit nervous: the rebel heroines of both book and film have a rough go of it. I didn't necessarily want her generating ill will from those invested in making sure that the MCAS is successful for our school.

There are a lot of people who care about MCAS. A few years ago, when our particular school had some of the highest test scores in the state, people began moving to the surrounding neighborhoods for just that reason. We're not those people, not by a long shot. We got the school that came with the only condo that accepted our bid when we were new parents; honestly, test scores were the furthest thing from our minds in months when we were still sleep-deprived and diaper-weary.

Now, of course, we're more than aware of the test culture. You can't not be. Kids start fearing it even before they get to third grade (the first year MCAS is required), and when the official dates approach, it's all the kids talk about (coining lovely phrases like "Murdering Children at School" to explain the acronym). Our daughter was hardly immune to the talk; in fact, she was feeling the heat because of her learning style. She is a fantastic reader with a wide vocabulary and a creative mind, but she is not good at sitting still, following multi-step directions or memorization. And guess which of the attributes in the previous sentence are measured by a standardized test?

When she fretted about it, we didn't hide our opinions, which didn't emerge from thin air. We're educators and, between us, have worked with every age from preschool through graduate school. We both feel like the current zeitgeist in education devalues many kinds of intelligence, rewarding only a kind of uniformity that necessarily leaves nonconforming learners behind. The tests seem designed to provide what a corporate setting would call "deliverables," a set of outcomes determined from the top, and often well removed from the experience of those tasked with completion.

We are not alone in this, of course. Movements to opt out of the test have occurred around the country, including not only parents but also teachers. However, in this regard, my state's laws are fairly sneaky; they say no child may be absent on the day of the test without applicable truancy penalties, but they actually have no provision to forcibly compel any child to complete the test. (And indeed they even forbid most private school students, as well as all those home-schooled, from taking the test at all.)

When our daughter said she wanted to go to school but skip the test, we told her that our understanding was that most schools don't allow that either; if she was present, she would have to sit there anyway, stuck staring at the test all day. That was supposed to sound boring but, to her, it seemed like a fine plan; she went to school the day before MCAS and told her teacher that this was what she intended to do. (We found this out when we got a call from our perplexed school principal, a truly wonderful educator who must by now be dead sick of this debate.)

That night, we encouraged our suddenly too-vocal rebel not to worry about the test, but instead to just try to enjoy the parts that were interesting to her and not to sweat the rest. She considered this and then said she was glad there were at least a few "smart kids" in the class to help keep the scores high. After we pointed out that she is smart herself, we asked why she cared so much. Her answer was that she likes her teacher. While that's a sweet sentiment, it's also a bit galling: like many kids, she was enduring several weeks of stress because she didn't want to fail a grown-up.

That, I'm afraid, is the truth of all these standardized tests. The people who need them are not the kids, who do not actively benefit from them in any way. Her teacher only needs the tests to go well because the school needs the test to go well and the school only needs it because the state commands it. The state, in turn, is reacting to the directives of the government. So from the third graders forward, everyone involved passes the rationale upwards to the one place where no one is tested at all.

As long as my daughter is in school in a town and state and nation where this is the law, I suppose she'll have to comply. But we're never going to pretend that we think this is a valuable tool. And if she's the kid at school who makes the others question how much testing actually says about them, we can live with that, especially if her peers worry less and relax more. Maybe, without such pressure, some of them will do even better. Either way, I think she's my new hero.