The 3rd-8th grade English Language Arts (ELA) and Math Common Core standardized tests are coming. You know the ones; the high-stake assessments pitched by politicians as guaranteed to close the achievement gap, ensure children are college and career ready, and monitor the health of school districts.
Ten years ago, as a fourth grade teacher, I had the experience of administering and grading the state ELA and Math tests under No Child Left Behind in the same school my children attend today.
Last April, my then third grader took the Common Core version for the first time. Many of his peers and an estimated 20% of children statewide did not. Their parents “Opted Out.”
Those who joined the Opt Out Movement poignantly expressed concern citing that the current, mandated state assessments cripple public education, compromise the professionalism of teachers, steer time away from creative, meaningful curriculum, suck the joy from learning, and kill young spirits with its developmentally and grade level inappropriate language and length.
Despite the fact that I agree with these points, am a supporter of education historian and activist Diane Ravitch’s platform, and believe the assessments in their existing form offer no diagnostic value for teacher or student,
I Opted In.
It wasn’t because I’m worried about the loss of district funding or the perceived reputation of my son’s school, nor was it because I’m a data hungry mama.
Truthfully, if I felt his learning needs weren’t being addressed, I may not have exposed him to a testing environment that requires nine year olds to sit several hours over a 3-day period for two consecutive weeks. Furthermore, if my school district had Opted Out, I would have obliged.
As a public school student, my son is automatically a pawn in the conundrum of educational reform; ammunition in a grown up battle.
But he doesn’t know it. And that’s good.
He is fortunate to attend a child-centered school that takes pride in their programs. Inside the classroom, teachers do their best to thoughtfully integrate test prep into an already rich curriculum. Since state testing commenced some 15 years ago, the school district has stood behind their mantra; standardized assessments are a snapshot in a child’s day.
Buzz does not exist.
Outside the school, administrators publically voice concern about high-stakes testing. Board of Education members travel to the state capital to fight for school district rights and have been known to stand firm outside the Chairman of Education Committee’s office until the senator answers their questions.
Advocacy is a priority.
Out of respect for my son’s innocence, love for his teacher, our leaders’ efforts, and in keeping with the belief that anxiety breeds anxiety, I don’t express my testing distaste at home and I don’t initiate conversation with my child about the “big state test.”
He knows it’s happening.
Had I Opted Out, my son would not only know it is happening, but also be acutely aware that he’s stuck in the middle of a movement that effects the quality of his education. And in my opinion, a nine year old does not need this additional burden thrown upon his shoulders.
So like the time he fell off the playground swing and looked to my reaction for his, I bit my lip and played it cool as the test date approached.
As such, when he came home after the first day of the English Language Arts test last spring, this is what he told me…
“Today was the big state test. The teacher put our desks in a line, the old-fashioned way so we could have space. She gave us gum to help us focus. I didn’t like the flavor so I didn’t have any. We took the test for about an hour. Then we got two recesses. During one of them, I played Knock Out and took second place against a 4th grader. We don’t have any homework; I have no idea why, but we don’t. It was a great day. Can I have a snack?”
My response? “Good for you.” I did not ask test specifics, how he worked, whether or not he finished, or how he performed. “Yes, help yourself.”
The morning of the Math test a week later, his primary concern was to make sure he packed orange flavored Life Savers in his backpack. “Mom, sucking on them helps me focus. Plus I like to trade them with friends.”
“That makes sense,” I said.
The 2016 standardized tests are being administered in less than one month. Now what?
I don’t believe the elimination of standardized testing is realistic and the likelihood that I will Opt Out my child this year is slim. But I do believe a compromise is necessary.
Juan Gonzalez of the New York Daily News said, “Back in 2009, the old state tests showed 77% of students statewide were proficient in English. The next year, the pass level was raised and the proficiency percentage dropped to 57%. A few years later, Albany introduced Common Core and the level plummeted even more; to 31% statewide. Same children. Same teachers. Different test.”
Step one: Ensure the learning standards are based on principles of childhood development.
Step two: Reconstruct the test.
Developmentally appropriate standards and tests are the foundation for a balanced educational landscape where learning is more joyful than not and standardized assessments play a small but meaningful role in shaping a young person’s school experience.
The Opt Out movement and those who support it are effecting change, but there is much work to be done. So instead of having a casual conversation with a board member or reading education experts’ blog posts, I need to get proactive and stand alongside them.
But I’ll be sure to leave my son home; to play Knock Out, sample Life Savers, and enjoy his final year of elementary school because that’s his job.
Advocating for a sensible public school education is mine.