Parent perspective: Testing can break spirits

Amanda Magee, of Queensbury in Warren County, is the mother of three daughters who — like the vast majority of New York parents — is concerned about the state’s heavy reliance on testing and its impact on children. She writes a blog called “The Wink” but she wrote this for us. Take a stand against testing by signing the petition at testing.nysut.org.

kids!I walked my oldest daughter to her first day of kindergarten four years ago. I remember the flutters in my stomach, some from excitement, others from nerves. My kindergarten teacher, Miss Thompson had been my hero. She set my educational stage in such a way that I felt safe, motivated, and lucky to be at school. Walking up to those doors I was hoping for a similar first experience for Briar.

Each afternoon we spend time doing homework and going over the contents of the folders that come home. We also talk about the day, anything from new concepts that she learned to which kid did what unbelievable thing in the cafeteria or on the playground. I suppose it was naïve of me, but I never worried about anxiety. I figured that if we were supportive and involved, then school would be a positive experience.

We’re beyond the halfway point of our first 3rd grade year and are now hurtling toward testing that has eclipsed all else. I am grateful to the teachers and staff at my daughter’s school, as they’ve created programs to help prepare for the tests. Yet the anxiety and preoccupation with performing for the tests is all-consuming. I find myself incredibly protective of the years I thought my children would have in elementary school.

Monday and Thursday afternoons she stays after school for an hour long test-prep program, Thursday morning she also gets to school 45 minutes early for a math club to improve test scores. When she gets home she has a snack and then does her homework. She finishes between 6:45 and 7:15, meaning that she has been going for 12 hours straight. She frets about getting her 15 minutes of reading done and still having a chance to spend time with the family. I did not expect panic in third grade.

Every day we talk about the tests. We talk about studying for the test. Practicing for the test. Talking about getting ready for the test. Getting a homework pass because it’s all about the test. I appreciate the objective of improving the education our children get, but what I struggle with is how in 3rd grade we can take two months to cram for a test and think that that is appropriate.

Depending on the child, the focus on testing is incredibly erosive to confidence and desire to learn.

What if I fail?

What if I don’t get it done in time?

What if I am not good enough?

Couple this with teachers who are trying to juggle the different learning styles of their kids and you have an incredibly stressful situation.

I understand the need to introduce children to the idea of testing and measurements to gauge competence, but why does it take such extraordinary lengths? Is it possible that there is a disconnect between what the testing measures and what educators are teaching? If the testing is outside of the curriculum that the teachers have been using, then why not take the time to modify the curriculum in a way that makes it possible to get the teaching and learning done during school hours?

And what of the parents who cannot adapt their schedules to allow their kids to participate in the afterschool test prep programs? The children fail because they cannot get the extra prep? The teachers are judged for circumstances beyond their control?

It’s very likely that if this 3rd-grade year involved my middle daughter, it would be different, but it doesn’t. My daughters are as different as the seasons, as I suspect is the case with the children in teachers’ classrooms. My fear is that, in the third grade and the testing grades that follow, we are breaking spirits, both of students and educators. How can we hope to compete if the teaching and learning exchange is more rooted in fear than discovery?

Parents and educators can take action against high-stakes testing at www.nysut.org/testing.

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7 Comments

  1. Jill April 9, 2013 at 9:44 am #

    What many parents don’t know is that they can refuse to allow their child to take those tests. My son will be a 3rd grader next year and he will not be taking them. I can see the benefit of those tests for the school and for the teacher, if his/her raises are based on test performance, but I see no value in them for my child. At the end of the day, he has a ton of anxiety, days wasted taking the tests, and zero benefit to HIM. That’s my line in the sand regarding his education.

    • Amanda April 9, 2013 at 12:30 pm #

      I have heard of parents doing that. I was committed to giving this a real go this year and, as such, my daughter is eager to get to the actual test. I just hope that the powers that be take a good long look at what this is doing to the attitudes of teachers and students because it seems that in pursuit of one outcome they are reaping another entirely.

  2. Trent April 9, 2013 at 10:01 am #

    When such a high percentage of teacher prep time goes into testing readiness, we lose valuable opportunities to highlight self-expression, creativity, and a budding love for learning. Instead of teaching children we’re teaching test-takers.

    Well said, Amanda.

    • Amanda April 9, 2013 at 12:31 pm #

      I had a friend share a response from an administrator, which made me so happy:

      “Our philosophy is and always will be that we are teaching students, not test takers.”

      Now, if we could just get that to be recognized by the system.

  3. Suzanne April 9, 2013 at 6:28 pm #

    My two 4th-graders just started the PSSAs (we live in Erie, PA) today. They’re both worried about having to ‘prop up’ their class, for lack of a better description. We’ve gone through how their scores don’t make or break their class/school’s scoring, etc., but they’re still anxious. Their wonderful and hard-working teachers are working even harder to keep all the kids from going too crazy during the testing, mostly via snacks and free reading time…. both of which are the ways to my girls’ hearts. I’m not convinced about the necessity of this testing when it causes such anxiety– I know there is a correlation between anxiety and distraction and scoring. We’ll just do what we can to get through.

  4. Nina April 9, 2013 at 6:34 pm #

    Amanda, very good piece and I think your final line sums it up perfectly: “How can we hope to compete if the teaching and learning exchange is more rooted in fear than discovery?”

  5. Susan Reiter April 10, 2013 at 8:50 am #

    I keep thinking that it is time for me to get out of the education field. If I had children your age I would homeschool them until high school . I’m not kidding. I have a HS junior and a 7 th grader Saratoga Central Catholic. What I see as an elementary school teacher coming with the Common Core scares me. I am glad they are not in elementary school, I was all for the push for STEM, but now I see even that getting lost…

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