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Surprising Science

Standardized Tests and the Joys of Spring

Every teacher is obligated to devote teaching time to direct test prep. 

Last year at this time, I wrote about how happy my second-grade daughter was to be going out on field trips all week while her public elementary school administered state tests to children in the older grades. This spring, a year later, my daughter is in the building for six days of tests in English and mathematics while her younger sister, in pre-K, gets to explore spring flowers on walks around the neighborhood, bounce into Prospect Park and attend a performance of “Pinocchio” at a local puppet theater.   

Strangely, my elder daughter is excited for the tests. She bounded out of bed this morning, singing a song another third-grade class had composed to ease the emotional burden of sitting for this year’s much more difficult exams linked to the Common Core:

Hey you there!       Don’t be scared

You’ve heard of sticks and stones, well tests can’t break your bones

We’ll get through it, we’ll prove it

No matter whaaat the score, we know that we are worth more

Keep Calm and Carry On

Oh   oh   oh    oh       Be Strong!

Keep Calm and Carry On

Oh   oh   oh   Be Strong!

She’s also really excited that the school will be providing a banana to each little tester every morninga gift of “brain food” from the principaland that the teachers are supposed to begin the day with a series of jokes to lighten the mood.

Given all this, I’m not concerned about my daughter suffering undue trauma from the testing experience (though some kids do break down). But I have misgivings about the enterprise: at the Economist today, I explain the folly of assessing students on material they haven’t even covered in class. And I’m particularly concerned about the opportunity cost. What do students miss out on when they sit for days for state tests? How much time is devoted to preparing for the tests instead of harnessing the native curiosity and creativity of 8- and 9-year olds?

It depends on the school and the teacher, but wherever you send your child today, and whoever is at the front of the classroom, chances are that a good chunk of springtime is handed over to the gods of standardized tests. In New York, this means that Pearson, the world’s largest education company and book publisher, may have more influence on your kid than your teacher for at least a few weeks’ time. One social studies teacher in Chicago tallied the time he spent on test prep:

In my school, in just three weeks’ time, I have calculated that we spent 738 minutes (12 hours and 18 minutes) on preparing for and administering standardized tests.

Our students are experiencing testing fatigue, which makes the results from each successive exam they take more invalid and the data about student learning more inaccurate….

Though many people are waking up to the teach-to-the-test craziness gripping our schools, there are still many people who don’t understand the problem. They remember taking a few bubble tests as kids and didn’t think it was such a big deal — and for the most part, it wasn’t. At no time before now was kindergarten ever synonymous with 14 different tests per year, as journalist Ben Joravsky of the Chicago Reader has pointed out.

But the one-day, once-every-few-years standardized testing experience they remember is a far cry from the pervasive, high-stakes phenomenon testing has become.

In defending the Common Core assessments, New York State Education Commissioner John King blames instructors: “in some places, instruction has been reduced to test prep.” The anxiety surrounding assessments, he claims, “is a reaction to pedagogical decision-making that is misinformed. It turns out that doing rote standardized test prep activities causes students to do less well on the exams, not better.”

This is disingenuous, to say the least. Perhaps in the private Montessori school where King sends his daughtersyes, the person in charge of the public schools in New York state opts out of the public system—inquiry takes precedence over prep, but every public school teacher is obliged to devote classroom time to direct test preparation. A friend who teaches at one of the top elementary schools in New York City tells me she is far from immune from the requirement:

I’ve spent at least three weeks on direct test prep this year. That means I’ll probably come up short on my curriculum, and miss out teaching a classic (Bradbury’s “Farenheit 451″) to my sixth graders. Last year because we also had to grade the test, my kids lost out on about a month of real instruction. We are absolutely expected to do it…We are all so uninspired right now.

And this coming from a teacher whose gifted and talented students scored in the 99th percentile on reasoning exams to gain admittance to the school. Just imagine the level of stress on teachers in lower-performing schools where the new exams seem insurmountable.

Read on:

Are We Teaching Citizens or Automatons?

Testing, K…1…2…3…: Parents’ Options in the Age of the Bubble Sheet

Holding Their Tongues? Public Employees’ Rights and the Testing Debate

Love in the Schoolyard: A Flash Mob in Brooklyn

Lessons in Being Human


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