Parent perspective: Notes from the testing cusp

As the mother of two children and the wife of a NYSUT member, blogger Alana Reynolds has some thoughts about testing.

Fed up with the state’s obsession with testing? Sign the petition at testing.nysut.org.

My oldest kid is in second grade and, as the school year winds down, we’ve started talking about next year.  Recently, I asked him what he thought third grade would be like. He talked about things like moving upstairs, getting the teacher that he really likes, more science projects and then he said, “I’ll have to start taking the Test.” The Test. Capital T.

child with legosI asked him a little more about what that meant and confinement seemed to be his main concern — no surprise from a world-class fidgeter. “You have to sit and be quiet for, like, three hours and you can’t even go to the bathroom!” I asked him how he felt about the actual test. He shrugged, “A little worried, but mostly fine.” But you know what he didn’t say? “OH MY GOSH, I CAN’T WAIT FOR THE STATE TEST! IT’S GONNA BE AWESOME!” And this is the main point for me. When he is thinking about school next year the biggest feature for him isn’t a juicy carrot that is exciting and motivating, but instead a pretty lame stick that nobody wants.

Our elementary school seems to have a pretty healthy attitude about state testing. Most of the teachers, especially third-grade teachers, seem to take it all in stride and not put too much pressure on the kids. (So much so that my friend’s third-grade daughter was pooh-poohing the “State Test” earlier this year because, as she said, “I know my states, all of them!”) Parental attitudes run the gamut but very few are calling for revolt … yet.

I wonder if all that will change in the near future since the tests are much more high-stake this year. This is the first year that state and local assessments will account for 40 percent of a teacher’s evaluation. This is also the first year that the kids are being tested according to the more rigorous Common Core standards. Test scores are expected to plunge statewide and I can’t imagine that this won’t have an effect on our school and others. Nobody likes to hear that they did poorly, no matter what the situation is. I am worried that next year, the first year that my kid is in testing, there will be more pressure to raise scores. This could equal test prep taking up even more instructional time, more prep homework, and more stress for the kids.

It’s hard to not have the attitude that this is the last really fun year of school for my son. I know that this is mostly a projection of my anxiety and not reality. I trust the teachers at his school and I know that there are plenty of great things ahead. I just fear the drudge-factor. My son loves all the things that aren’t tested: science, music and art. I am worried that there will be less and less time for these experiential studies and way more time bent over worksheets. I even see it spilling over into my daughter’s experience. She is in kindergarten and, for the first time, is bringing me homework. Two years ago, when my son had the same teacher, there was no homework aside from reading to him. Now there are math worksheets that start preparing these kindergartners for concepts they will be tested on down the road. The level of comprehension expected from them is, quite frankly, ridiculous. Does she need to know what a parallelogram is now? (You should hear her try to pronounce it.) If I had known the level of the academic shift for these early grades, I think my husband and I would have been more inclined to wait to start our fall baby in kindergarten after she turned 5.

When it comes to options to challenging this brave new world of high-stakes testing, it seems like there aren’t many good ones. Opting out from testing is something I definitely support but I don’t think I would choose it yet for my son, for a variety of reasons. One is that I’d rather work on the issue in a way that doesn’t unintentionally punish our school, our district or our teachers. I will personally keep the opt-out choice as a last resort; if the state completely ignores the pushback from parents, educators and administrators on this issue then I think many others and I will feel it’s time to take that path. Right now, I plan on writing local legislators and working with institutions like the teacher unions and national education groups as well as local grass-root efforts to make sure that Albany is aware of the real-life effects of its good intentions. I’m hopeful that these kinds of actions will have an impact but, because of all the political and corporate pressure behind the Common Core and the testing culture, it’s obvious to me that it will be an uphill fight. Just getting through our local school board bureaucracy can be a total energy-suck so it’s going to take a lot of commitment and a deep bench. In the meantime, I plan on giving my little guinea pigs an awesome summer — one full of carrots — and taking it day by day next year.

Fed up with the state’s obsession with testing? Sign the petition at testing.nysut.org.

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