The young mother's voice shook with anxiety. She had just gotten her son's third-grade test results from his school, and he had scored at the absolute bottom level in reading, and only a little bit higher in math.
"All year," she said, "my son got mostly B's on his homework and report cards. I monitored every one. And now I learn that all of that was a lie."
Like many other low-income mothers of color in America's urban centers, this Portland mother knew what low performance, especially in reading, meant for her son's future. She'd even heard that Oregon's prison planners used third-grade reading test data to determine how many new cells to add.
If she and her son's school couldn't find a way to turn those results around -- and soon -- she feared they amounted to a virtual death sentence.
I hear her words -- and remember the fear in her eyes -- every time I hear about yet another effort to eliminate the longstanding federal requirement that children in American public schools be tested once per year in grades three-eight and at least once in high school. Proponents of this change argue that students should be tested only once, each during elementary, middle, and high school, if that often.
I can only imagine how frightened that Portland mother would be if she didn't have an objective check on what her son's school told her at least by the following year -- but, instead, had to wait all the way until he hit eighth grade. In the meantime, all she would have are the grades that research and experience tell us too often paint a too rosy picture of student performance.
Yes, I get that a lot of the anti-testing voices are from affluent parents. Certainly, when the results of state tests just reinforce the message (one they so often get) that their children are sailing along just fine, getting that reaffirmed next year doesn't seem so important.
And I also get that a lot of the push to eliminate annual testing comes from officials in teachers unions, who hurl charges about children crying during testing because these stories are infinitely more compelling than giving voice to the real source of their opposition: data from the tests being used, for the first time, to identify teachers who just plain aren't good at the core job of growing the knowledge and skills of their students and exit them from the profession. The real worry? That judges in dismissal cases will find it much harder to discount the evidence provided by multiple years of objective data showing below-normal growth than the much more subjective observations of school principals.
But that so many policymakers don't see through all this -- and can't imagine the anxiety of that mother and millions like her who can't afford to wait five years for an honest evaluation of their children's preparation for the future -- is worrisome.
Certainly, the proliferation of district- and school-level tests beyond the main annual state tests has gotten to be a real problem, taking up time that could otherwise be used for instruction. But let's go after that problem, not make annual tests the target.
It is true, too, that too many of the old state tests were mind-numbing, fill-in-the-bubble exercises that focused on the small things rather than the things that are most important for our children to learn. But let's remember, that's what the new Common Core State Standards -- and the new multi-state assessment consortia -- were designed to replace. To throw that terrific work out just as it is beginning to be put into place is simply moronic.
So please, before you jump on to yet another phony bandwagon, stop and think. Put yourself in the shoes of that young Portland mother and ask yourself: "If the test showed that my son or daughter was performing well below the level necessary to have a decent set of life options, how long would I be willing to wait for another objective check on progress?"
And instead of believing the claims about the damage done by annual testing, take a look for yourself at the polling on what parents think. Because a clear majority of parents think current levels of testing are about right, with only 1 in 4 believing their children take too many tests.
Parents want to be partners in their children's education, but they can't do that very well without honest information about how their children are doing. Yes, grades on homework and report cards tell part of the story. But especially in poor communities and communities of color, where educators are most likely to lower their expectations of students, those grades don't always tell an honest story, with parents left thinking their children are doing fine when they really aren't. Let's make sure these parents get the objective information they need.