““Everybody is a genius. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid.”
― Albert Einstein
After I announced my retirement at work, one of my colleagues asked me, “What is the single biggest reason you are retiring?” I quickly answered, “The tests. I hate proctoring the tests.”
My colleague just nodded her head in solidarity. Every teacher knows which tests; those mandatory state (and soon to be national) standardized exams given to students every year.
I often have this debate with colleagues and friends, and do not know the answer. There needs to be a way to evaluate student and/or teacher performance. But the current system for assessing students’ progress seems horribly misled.
When I was a child, I vaguely remember coming into school and all of a sudden, there was something different on my desk. An achievement test, the teachers explained. Not much explanation after that. I was instructed to color-in the circles which indicated correct answers. I am not sure how old I was when I first experienced this. If my parents knew of the testing day, they never let on; I don’t recall talking about it. I do not remember if our teachers even mentioned this event nor do I remember getting scores. It was no big deal. I do not remember any stress or worrying over exams until I took the regents and the SATs in high school. (As a frame of reference for how old I was, I was in first grade when The Beatles premiered on The Ed Sullivan Show.)
The tests ARE a big deal now; because each child’s achievement is closely monitored, but the tests are also being used to evaluate an individual teacher’s level of competency, and the overall performance of the school at large. These are incredibly high stakes. There is an unbelievable amount of pressure on the teachers and administrators to ensure improvements in all areas.
I cannot speak for all school districts, but I can honestly say that we don’t “teach to the test.” We do “teach the children how to take tests.” We need to teach test-taking skills in order to familiarize the children to the format. We try to cover all the topic areas needed, but we do not know what topics will be included on the test. Beginning in 2014, there will be the Core Curriculum Standards, a nation-wide curriculum. Right now, there are no curriculum guides. Teachers are writing curriculum guides. In the past, highly-paid and highly educated education researchers created curriculum on the local level and also created the state examinations.
Proctoring the exams is a huge source of stress for me because it saddens me to witness the anxiety exhibited by my students. They are exposed to the stresses of these circumstances, yet are not mature enough to apply the coping skills that are needed to cognitively succeed in this situation. They do not have a true understanding and think that “failing the test” means being held back; their parents put a lot of pressure on their children to succeed. Students, particularly those who have learning differences, are afraid that they’ll disappoint their families. Otherwise cheerful students become superstitious. They bring in their “lucky” pencils. They are anxious and uneasy. Other students who skirt the autism spectrum, exhibit increased self-stimulating and obsessive behaviors which is to me of great concern. Some students put their heads down and cry when they have trouble completing the test.
In my opinion, the state mandated examinations are nothing less than child abuse. Being forced to administer the tests and be the unwilling initiator of these upsetting conditions goes against the core of my educational, ethical and humanistic beliefs.
How can assessment created under such dreadful conditions ensure maximum academic performance and properly measure achievement?
Problem number one on day one of the administration of the test last year was a seasonal issue. It was early spring and so many children were suffering with seasonal allergies. They were holding tissues, sneezing, eyes watering, struggling to complete the test. Many allergy remedies have the side effect of making children drowsy. Some families decided to either medicate or withhold medicating for the allergic children, for fear of impeding their functional ability. I distributed tissues in great amounts feeling helpless. It was the only thing I could do to reduce their suffering. They were so sick!
The second problem is that our students are forced to sit for long periods of a time working on what they consider the most important test of their lives. This begins in 3rd grade when most children are 8 years old. After completing the exam, they have to sit until time is up. They are not allowed to draw a picture or read to pass the time until test completion. They must sit as quietly as possible and are forced to do absolutely nothing until time is called. Depending on the test, children are forced to sit for 30 to 90 minutes. Anyone moving around from class to class or wandering the halls during this time is perceived as attempting to cheat. For the proctor, who is also forbidden to read, or draw or help anyone, the time seems endless. How horrifying it must feel to our children.
There are biological and cognitive reasons this procedure is harmful for our children. The whole “Test Taking” model is highly flawed and developmentally inappropriate for elementary age students. In my opinion, this is child abuse; and these state mandated practices need to be immediately altered.
Piaget’s Stages of Children’s Development is still the model used today by psychologists and doctors. This model is not being considered when planning for assessing a child’s ability. In fact, most of what we are testing and being forced to teach is developmentally inappropriate for children under age 12.
Concrete Operations (7-12 years)
At this age, there is evidence for organized, logical thought. There is the ability to perform multiple classification tasks, order objects in a logical sequence, and comprehend the principle of conservation. Thinking becomes less self-centered. The child is capable of concrete problem-solving. Class logic-finding bases to sort seemingly unrelated objects into logical groups based on a superficial perceived attribute such as colors is achieved. Categorical labels such as “number” or animal” are now manageable.
Period of Formal Operations (12 years and onwards)
It is during middle school and beyond, when children’s thoughts become more abstract and display the principles of formal logic. The ability to generate abstract propositions, multiple hypotheses and their possible outcomes is evident. Thinking becomes less tied to concrete reality. Formal logical systems can be acquired. Children can handle proportions, algebraic manipulation, and other purely abstract processes. They can begin to properly decompose and navigate problems involving reasons and inferential processes.
According to child developmental psychology, it is during the formal operations stage, which performing the tasks and demonstrating the higher order thinking abilities needed for maximum performance on the examinations is developmentally constructing and maturing. This skill is not mastered until well over age 12. Yet we begin to force this process when children are 8.
As a result of encouraging “higher order thinking” in the elementary schools, teachers are forced to develop lessons as early as kindergarten to begin to practice these skills. For those children who are able to do this, it is fine. For the majority of children who will struggle with this it will increase lowered self-esteem and negative associations with school. Inevitably there will be lower performing schools and increased high school dropout rates in the years to come.
Torturing children is atrocious and considered child abuse in the United States. This situation is not only for the state examinations, but it is repeated for practice examinations and most mandated assessments. I have been fortunate enough to retire before I have to witness the tests of 2013.
There has to be a better way to assess and regulate students and schools that is less toxic to our children. If anyone has a better idea or other considerations I have forgotten, I am interested in hearing them.