Is An End to Testing Madness Closer Than We Think?

Testing season is winding down for now, along with the polar vortex (we hope). As spring attempts to emerge, is it possible we are waking up to the folly we have accepted as education policy since No Child Left Behind became law in January 2002 (only to be followed by Race to the Top)? Is it possible the "opt out of testing" movement is for real?

On March 11, 2014, two members of Congress, Chris Gibson and Kyrsten Sinema, did something totally against the trend for American politicians these days. They introduced the Student Testing Improvement and Accountability Act, legislation designed to reduce the number of federally mandated tests.

It’s no secret our country has become extremely focused on assessment for the past dozen years. Many educators agree too much standardized testing can be harmful. A backlash is building against the Common Core State Standards and the tests that accompany them. Hopefully, we are realizing how current educational policy, driven by politicians and businessmen rather than educators, actually hurts our kids by forcing a lot of creative and diverse square pegs into education’s round holes. This is an upsetting trend at any age, but subjecting very young children to these standardized tests crosses a line for me. 

The National Education Association website, Education Votes, asks its readers to share their stories about testing. Here’s mine.

When I was a preschool director, a parent whose child was a total delight in my program shared a very sad story with me. When her child started kindergarten in public school, he was tested and found to be lacking the skills that would make him a reader by the end of kindergarten, a goal for all children in the academic and testing frenzy that has gripped our educational system for the past dozen years. Thus, he was placed in a special reading program at age five. 

This program failed to teach him to read, and after six months, he received help from the school’s reading specialist under a different instructional model. His mother felt the individual attention from the reading teacher was helping when she received the following form letter (not even personally addressed to her) from the Assistant Superintendent of School Operations:

Your child received a report card that indicates he/she does not meet standards (grade of F) in reading, math and/or language arts or is not meeting standards (grade of F) in five out of eight courses including reading, language arts and math. According to the retention and promotion policy, if a student does not meet standards by trimester three, retention will take place and the student is required to attend tuition free summer school.

Needless to say, the parent was heartsick but also justifiably angry. She felt kindergarten failed her child and not the other way around. She questioned the value of repeating the same experience that had already failed to teach her child and wondered if her child was being punished for not being developmentally ready to learn to read by age six, which is still within normal expectations. 

That was 10 years ago, and little has changed. In fact, in some ways, the trend toward standardization, high stakes testing and developmentally inappropriate education that started with No Child Left Behind under President Bush has been accelerated by Race to the Top and the Common Core curriculum under President Obama. Our schools have set standards and expectations for kindergarten that were more appropriate for first (and sometimes second) grade. Sadly, I have heard stories like this one many more times.  

Some five-year-olds don’t "test well" at the start of kindergarten simply because they are too shy or nervous to give the correct/expected answers or because they had a cold that day. How sad to be labeled a potential “reading failure” before even starting one’s formal education. How tragic to be introduced to the joys of reading and literature under pressure to meet standards. When will we learn to value our square pegs for their unique personalities and learning styles rather than pounding them into round holes with the hammer of a standardized, one-size-fits-all education?

“Differentiation” is the buzzword these days. It is supposedly the way to address the wide array of abilities and learning styles in a classroom. The teacher is theoretically supposed to create individualized learning experiences for 25 children, all of whom are expected to end up “meeting standards” (learning the same amount of measurable information) by the end of the year. Anyone who thinks even the most dedicated and gifted teacher can achieve this has never set foot in a classroom. Sadly, many children have teachers who are unable to do more than follow the same curriculum lockstep for every child. And sadly, many of our precious “square pegs” are definitely left behind.

I wish every parent whose child is being failed by our schools would remember one of my favorite quotes by Pablo Casals in which he tells us this is what we should teach our children:

“Do you know what you are? You are a marvel! You are unique. In all the world there is no other child exactly like you…You may become a Shakespeare, a Michelangelo, a Beethoven. You have the capacity for anything. Yes, you are a marvel!”

Because I believe every child is a marvel, it breaks my heart to think of all that lost potential. There must be a way to value and honor what is unique and precious in every child. Passing the Student Testing and Accountability Act would be a good place to start.    


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