Parent perspective: It’s just a test – even in Illinois

As we’ve heard from AFT President Randi Weingarten, the implementation of the Common Core Standards and the use of high-stakes tests to make high-stakes decisions about students and teachers isn’t only a problem in New York but across the country.

Kelly Wickham, a school administrator and parent from Springfield, Ill., offers her perspective.

If you’re fed up with the state’s obsession with testing, join with the 10,000 parents who have signed the petition at

This isn’t just about The Test. Capital T, capital T. What we do to students in the American public school system is test them and we do it a lot. But it’s just a test. What’s happening with school testing is the problem. We’re using it in ways assessments were never intended. It doesn’t make any sense; not to me, as a mother of a child whose entire education has been impacted by the over-emphasis on using tests to make children feel like everything is wrapped up in that one thing.

Mason (left) with a friend.

I took my son out of private school when he was in 4th grade.  I was grateful that Mason received a good, solid foundation of phonics and loves to read and talk about what he’s read with me, but I was sad that he had to leave behind friends who he’d met five years prior when he started kindergarten. He brought home colorful drawings and the occasional drill-and-kill worksheets, but I knew I had to get him out of that school because they didn’t know the first thing about dealing with a child who learned differently from the rest of their population.

In some ways, leaving that school behind was both a blessing and a curse. A blessing because some of the things he would learn in the public neighborhood school was superior to the way the private school would go as he got older. A curse because, now, Mason was under the domain of a system that would test him as much as they possibly could.

I have many issues with standardized testing for children because, in Illinois, we have yet to experience the continuum of learning that should happen when you take hours and days away from students in order to get them to take the same test in the same way. In 4th grade, Mason took his first standardized test, got the results and felt terrible about himself. In Illinois, we use the Illinois Standard Achievement Test from grades 3-8 and use the results as a measure of No Child Left Behind. Of course, we got the results when he was in 5th grade and, by then, we were already on to the drills of the 5th grade test. The same thing happened every year thereafter and I can tell you, as the mom of a child who doesn’t test well to show what he’s mastered during a timed assessment, testing has always been a horrible time for our family.

Starting in 6th grade, we saw his classroom academic grades follow suit. Mason struggled and we fought with the school to get him a 504 Plan to accommodate his individual needs. Under the Rehabilitation Act and the Americans with Disabilities Act, schools can write 504 Plans to help general education students by making modifications that allow teachers to make accommodations in the classroom.

During basketball season, we saw a spike in Mason’s grades because he wanted to be eligible to play sports; we experienced a lot of tears during those months. Frustration for school and of not being understood in his learning manifested itself in our home by rearranging his bedroom (taking everything out and allowing him a Zen-like experience) and implementing behavior modification that we hoped would help him become more organized. I had hoped that, because I am a teacher and can speak educationese, that it would help him be a better student and that I could provide as much direct instruction for my son as his teachers did during the day.

By 8th grade, we failed to get the 504 and the basketball coach, a new coach to the school, found out how much Mason struggled with grades and decided not to allow him on the team so he wouldn’t have to hassle with him.

That’s when my son gave up on school. This trajectory we saw made high school hellish for him (and his parents) and testing was just another way to prove he didn’t know anything. Or so he felt. When we talked to him about doing well in school his constant complaint was that he would never get good grades on the tests he took. The ISAT, the Prairie State Achievement Exam, the ACT, and the myriad district assessments absolutely killed the spirit of learning for my son.

This proves quite the conflict for me: After Mason entered high school, I went back to school to earn a master’s degree in educational administration. I went into the very position whose charge is to ensure that every child is tested. As a young teacher, I learned quickly to steer clear of the teachers’ lounge. I fancied myself as a rebel, an innovative teacher who inspired her students and changed things up with her desks making the shape of a butterfly instead of the aimless rows that lined up for yawn-inducing lectures.  I stayed out of those places where I could be corrupted into hating the system in which I worked.

To some degree, I have remained a rebel. Sure, my job requires that I contact families whose children don’t show up for the standardized test, but I also get to be the one who answers their questions. One mom called me last year to say that her husband would be having surgery for his cancer and that she was so, so sorry that she was taking her children out of school to travel four states away for it during the ISAT.

“Are you joking me?” I asked her. “This is your family. Your LIFE. Take them with you for crying out loud. It’s just a test.”

I still believe that. It is just a test – just one piece of information we use. But it’s in danger of being tied to teacher evaluations (a truly monstrous idea) and now that some lawmakers have lazily adopted ALEC sample bills and brought them into policy, states are furiously vying for a shot at the almighty dollar and are pushing through the Common Core Standards that will continue to kill creativity for children and provide ample test anxiety for them. Teachers and administrators have not even had time to field-test the standards on assessments. In fact, many teachers I know are apprehensive of using the new evaluative tools that tie student achievement to their effectiveness.

Systemically speaking, it’s wrong and destructive to schools and children like my own who have had their futures shaped by schools using the assessment data in unproductive ways. Experienced teachers know that it’s unwise to test students on material that they have yet to practice teaching, especially since states are faced with massive cuts to staff and resources in the midst of all this. We aren’t connecting their learning in the ways we’ve been trained and we would do well to slow the emphatic standardized testing campaigns down until we know they won’t hurt children.

We just don’t have the data to support that right now.

Kelly Wickham blogs as “Mocha Mamma.”

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