Why a Very Brave Child Fears Standardized Tests

What are we doing to our children? You would think a third grader living with cystic fibrosis who is a competitive swimmer would not be distressed about having to take standardized tests. After all, she handles blood draws, throat cultures, medications, and treatments like a pro. She's never nervous in a swim meet. Yet the prospect of sitting for hours of standardized tests this month makes her very anxious and worried.

Why would she fear taking a test more than the procedures she endures for CF or the competitiveness of a swimming race? Perhaps it's because her school and teacher have been prepping her for so many hours. Perhaps it's because there have been pep rallies encouraging the kids to try hard. Perhaps it's because notes have been coming home about getting enough sleep, eating a good breakfast, and sending energy snacks to school for testing days. Perhaps it's because the consequence of failing the reading portion in her state is summer school and possibly retention. The message is quite clear: This is a HUGE DEAL.

I recently attended a meeting about opting out of taking the PARCC test in Illinois. It was the same meeting I attended last year. The encouraging news was that over 40,000 children opted out of taking PARCC last school year. Obviously, this caught the attention of the Illinois State Board of Education (ISBE) because the board is conducting an inquiry into why so many chose not to participate. Most likely, ISBE thinks the investigation and interviews of administrators, parents, and even students will discourage folks from wanting their children to refuse the test again this month.

This tactic may be working, as there is much less chatter among parents about opting their children out of PARCC. Of course, the state conveniently neglected to pass the proposed bill that establishes a process for parents to do so. Once again, the kids have to refuse every time the test is presented.

Recently, I received a letter from a veteran teacher who is the only adult in his school questioning why PARCC is being given again. Unlike year one, this second round is happening amidst total indifference. This is despite the fact that he didn't receive the results from last year's test until after parent-teacher conferences this year, so he couldn't even tell parents how their children did on last year's test. When the results did arrive, they consisted of a single page spreadsheet of numbers. There was nothing meaningful about how individual students did on the test to inform his instruction. The school system paid over $600 to Pearson, just for a spreadsheet for one classroom. Multiply that by the number of classrooms in the school district. That's your tax money at work.

Illinois is in the second year of a four-year, no bid contract with Pearson, the test developer, to the tune of $57 million. Considering Chicago Public Schools are nearly bankrupt, our state has no budget, and there is no money for education that truly impacts student learning, this is a sad and scandalous state of affairs.

But here's the thing. Aside from the six states and Washington, DC that are left in the PARCC consortium, the other 44 states have not abandoned the commitment to high stakes standardized testing to ensure "accountability." We are still mired in the mentality that children and schools must meet standards and that the scores on these tests actually correlate with school quality and are a fair way to evaluate teacher effectiveness.

Even worse than the waste of money, even worse than teaching to pass a test of dubious merit, our love affair with standardized testing is driving our children crazy. As long as we persist in treating our children with the same pressure that we have come to accept in our own lives, we will be raising a generation of anxious kids who do not believe they are more then a score. We will be making brave little third graders anxious with worry about doing well on meaningless tests.

Standardized tests are the performance review of childhood. The results matter, not for their learning but to measure how well they are doing their job as consumers of information. If they don't measure up, since we can't fire the kids from being students, we penalize their teachers and close their "underperforming" schools. Because these test scores have huge consequences, we spend vast amounts of time teaching kids how to get the right answers. What we don't teach them is how to think or how learning can be fun.