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the evil of state-mandated school testing

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This piece originally appeared on my site, A Small Victory.

My son, DJ, has started fourth grade and thus we begin the year of “teaching to the tests.” There are three state mandated tests in this grade. The entire curriculum is built around exams that have no bearing whatsover on your child’s grades or future.

The English Language Assessment Test (ELA) takes place from February 4-6. This means from September through February, the classroom focus will be on reading, reading and listening comprehension and writing skills. I am not saying this is a bad thing; I just think it narrows the curriculum down to the point where other skills are going unused.

Fourth grade teachers, at least in this district, have admitted that the state tests take time away from other aspects of the classroom; they especially diminish the room to be creative in class lessons. Emphasis is placed on the skills needed for whichever test is coming up, and there is very little leeway in expanding lessons.

Once the ELA tests are over, it’s on to the math test, which takes place from May 6-8, quickly followed by the science test, the written portion of which takes place on May 13, with the performance portion coming up the following week.

These kids are nine and ten years old. The dates of the tests are drilled home to them, the impending tests are announced over and over again (we must finish this book before May, class!), the reasons for certain assignments announced (you will need this skill for your test!), and when you put it all together you end up with some seriously stressed out children.

You say, there’s six hours in the school day, surely they can set aside an hour a day just to concentrate on the test skill so the other lessons can go on unimpeded. Not really.

Figure in an hour for lunch and recess and an hour for “specials” time, meaning art or gym or music. Take off another half hour for the fifteen minutes spent getting unpacked and settled in the morning, and the fifteen minutes gathering up belongings in the afternoon. That’s 2 1/2 hours off of the day.

Then we have what they call “push-in” teachers, who come into the classroom for specialized reading or math lessons. That’s another 45 minutes or so that the teacher does not have control of the classroom.

There are kids, like my son, who are pulled out for speech or other special services. Kids are pulled out for drama or band.

Add that all up and you are left with about three hours of teaching time in the classroom. In that three hours they must not only teach the lessons planned for that day, but fill those lessons with test-specific subjects.

It’s no wonder DJ comes home with enough homework to kill the entire night. And it’s no wonder that he’s feeling stressed, only three weeks into the school year.

The spectre of even more mandated testing hangs over schools like a cloud of doom. Bush calls for tests, tests, tests. Why? What do these tests do but determine whether a district is using their state money (the distribution of which is another rant completely) to its best advantage? What does my son, who spends his entire year studying and prepping for these exams, get out of it? Will a good grade on the ELA be refecleted on his report card? No. Sure, he’s learning valuable skills, but at the expense of quality in the classroom.

I’ve been through this already with my daughter, Natalie. I know what to expect when the testing dates approach. Natalie developed a twitch two days before the test. She threw up the night before. These dates and acronyms are repeated over and over to the students all year long; when the dates are coming close, the teachers emphasize the skills needed to pass. Nine and ten year old kids should not be put under this kind of pressure. One teacher told his students that if they didn’t pass the test, the district would lose state aid.

Teachers admit that the emphasis on these tests take so much time away from the important lessons children should take from the classroom; the lessons that are taught when engaging in interactive, creative assignments with their fellow students. There’s no room for that kind of “frivilous” activity in the fourth grade classroom now.

The adminstrators are not seeing the forest for the trees. Instead of viewing each school as part of a whole district, they need to see each student as part of a whole school. Stop filling our classrooms with nervousness and fear and let the kids just learn without that kind of pressure, at least at this age.

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About Michele Catalano

  • The Theory

    agreed. though, i never suffered though any of that because i just resigned myself to horrible test scores. no throwing up for me…


  • Paul

    Do these tests determine whether students pass or fail their grade? If not, screw the test. If so, I’d start looking for alternatives to public schools (if it’s practical).

  • I rather suspect that over time the schools will learn a happy medium between the tests and “other” aspects of education.

    On the other hand, having witnessed first hand schools where kids walk out functionally illiterate, I can’t find it in my heart to join the chorus of those who think that demanding measurable results is evil.

  • Dean, my problem isn’t with the tests specifically, it’s that a) they aren’t measuring the proper things – they have no bearing on whether a student passes or fails – and b) they cram too many of them into one year and the test becomes the focus of the school term. The students definitely lose something in the proccess.

  • Sounds like what’s needed is a better test, or abandoning the public schools like I will should I ever be blessed with children.

  • Every time I read another story about the horrors of standardized testing or some other regimentation of the classroom, I thank my lucky stars that I’ll see another rebellious sixties generation in my lifetime.

    Test on, test on, Pangloss, Clouseau,
    Test on, ’tis all in vain.
    You spit right down the children’s throats
    And the children spit back again.

  • I believe that the future of education, in order to be successful, will be one where the school completely focuses on each individual student, and quite frankly, I think it should. Testing is a one-size fits all solution, but it doesn’t take into account each child’s individual gifts, and it doesn’t help them to develop them. Perhaps the answer isn’t in testing at all. Testing is a Hegelian method to measure a person’s intellect, as determined by the state. If Einstein lived in Florida today and were a child in a public school, he would not be deemed a genius by the state, nor would any other gifted or “genius” person. At least not by the FCAT. Testing is a short term political answer to a long-term social problem. We need to think a little bit harder if we really want to solve the problem. Neither testing nor throwing money at education will create a positive outcome, but that’s all we get when we let self-focused politicians try to solve our problems for us. If they had a clue, the first thing they would do is cut the red tape and the size of each school’s administration staff. That would be a good start. Loved your analysis, Michele. 🙂

  • Loved your comment, John. I wholeheartedly agree.

  • Somehow I missed this post before, but I couldn’t pass it by now. State mandated testing SUCKS. When I first heard that Bush wants to implement it nationwide, I knew he had flipped once again. “Why, look at Texas!” Yeah, look at this state. We’re close to the bottom of the list on education. Teaching for the test is the worst thing you can do to most kids. It got to be so bad that I pay close to $500 a month to send my son to a Catholic school just to avoid it. (It’s not required there – yet.) The public school teachers actually get bonuses based on student performance. It’s the most worthless piece of crap. I want my child to LEARN while he’s at school, not memorize a test.

  • Sylvia

    Our school has gone so far as to not only preach and stress out our children about the state standardized tests, but they are now blaming them if the state comes in to dictate on how much money the district should spend on reading and math programs. Blaming them if the state intervenes. It is up to our kids to learn but it’s up to our educators to teach! Our school no longer allows teachers to stay afterschool for tutorials. They seem to believe that tutorials are a privilege and our teachers are not responsible for teaching outside of school hours. Our school feels that our teachers cannot teach to the state level because of some of the discipline issues that are occurring in the classroom. Seems to me that this is an excuse for their failure to control the classroom and for their failure to educate our children. Some of our teachers don’t grade papers…the kids grade them and then yell out their grade, some teachers follow an answer key and even though the answer key may be wrong and a student has proved it the answer key is what they go by, our school has just recently adopted a new policy(although, we the parents, have not received actual documentation) where the teachers have wiped their hands of the discipline issues in our school and have now turned to a group of students to discipline the disruptive kids. Don’t get me wrong, I truly believe that there are educators out there who do and have made a difference in someone’s life, but many of our teachers are only out for a paycheck and that summer vacation. It is not all their fault though. I do believe that there is way too much emphasis on state testing! Kids are not learning! It is a trickle effect from the state to the school boards, the administration, to the teachers, parents and finally who has to absorb it all….the kids!