Monday, September 2, 2013

"Is it a Test?"

As a grandma, I'm extremely lucky to have three of my four Grands close enough to spirit them away from their parents when I want to. Yesterday Katie, the first grader joined her Papa and me on a trip to a local arts festival.

On the way up, I reminded her that each of her sisters had chosen a special 'Me and Nana' activity, and she still had a choice coming. The big girls asked to attend a 'wine and palette' make-and-take lesson. For a fee, up to 60 'artists' sit before a palette, follow the leader's directions and create...if not a masterpiece, at least an identifiable picture. There are free nibbles as well as wine and soft drinks available. Haley, my oldest granddaughter felt enough self confidence to actually disregard the teacher and do her own thing...I followed the leader slavishly and produced something different -- and frankly, not as exciting. Ashley and I will paint our sea turtles later this month.

Katie had first said 'no' to the idea of doing a painting class, so we were just thinking of other ideas for some fun time together.

Then, she tentatively said she might like to do the painting class, but, "Is it a test? Will they pick the best ones?"

I was bowled over...I caught my breath and did not cry. That was why she didn't want to do the class...she, as a first grader, already feared being tested, judged, even in creative endeavors. 'Is it a test?' echoed in my head all day. Is it a test? Would the 'best' pictures be praised and others ignored? Would we feel like failures if our painting weren't chosen? Will others think we're not smart enough, or talented enough? Will we be embarrassed in front of others for our work?

I assured her that in this class, we all did our best, that nobody's work looked exactly like the teacher's work, and that was OK. We played with paints, we giggled at our work, and we had a good time. She looked at me skeptically...even this young not ready to trust...not ready to take a risk.

I've spent years now railing against standardized tests...high stakes standardized tests -- here and here and here and here. I've read books  and more books and articles. I've written. I've talked to others.

One boss told me I was fighting a losing battle, 'That train's left the station." Nothing can be done. High stakes tests will be with us and we have to learn to live with them. We have to live with the devastating results: children retained in 3rd grade, students refused high school diplomas even though they have successfully completed coursework, teachers given poor results on evaluations, schools given bad 'grades'. Just live with it...try to nibble at tiny, cosmetic changes to this testing culture, but knuckle under to the concept that tests are appropriate measures of children or teaching or education.

In that moment, looking Katie in the eye, hearing her insecure little voice ask, "Is this a test?", I knew I couldn't knuckle under. I couldn't let her go through her school career living in dread of the next test, and what that test would mean. I know high stakes tests in our public schools is a bankrupt policy, one that will not help teachers teach, or students learn.

I hear others say, 'Well, we had tests too. Standardized tests have always been with us. Nothing wrong with tests, I survived them.' These folks are under the assumption that the testing our children endure is identical to the testing we had AS children. Nothing could be farther from the truth. We took tests one day, forgot them, and had results show up on permanent records that no one looked at. Those tests were, properly, one piece of information about our school career...a piece of information that held no undue sway on our careers. That is the proper place for testing.

Those of us who went on to college might take the SAT or the ACT, as a choice. We could choose to prepare on our own, but weeks of school time were not devoted to test prep. Yes, there were high stakes tests in our lives, but they weren't mandated as they are now.

That culture is a trip through a nostalgic past that no longer exists. Now even first graders are worried, "Is this a test?"

Until parents and teachers and administrators can turn around this sick worship of the almighty test, until we can take back the $1.7 billion from the testing industry, until we really listen to that tiny voice in the back seat, our kids will suffer.

The train may well have left the station, but I'm NOT on it, and I'll find another ride. My ride will include authentic measures of learning, reading, talking to others about what you're learning. Katie and I will go to one of those painting classes, and I will tell her, as every teacher should, learning is the fun and adventure of trying something new.



  1. Refuse the tests, many parents have already done it.

  2. Not sure what happens to third graders whose parents refuse the's law they must pass. This year will be the 'test case' for what can and will happen. Test scores are not even returned to schools until the next school year starts. Does that mean we promote everyone, then go into 4th grade classes in September and rip kids out of their desks??

    Madness...Wish I'd've thought of the 'derail' image.