My oldest son is in third grade, which means, where we live, he will begin taking the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC) standardized test this year. Although most parents these days are familiar with the bubble tests of their youth, today’s standardized tests are an entirely different animal. The tests begin sooner, last longer, and the stakes are higher. Consequently, like many parents around the country, I am concerned.
Fueled by the brouhaha surrounding standardized testing, I am worried not only about the test’s impact on my son, but also on our society as well. Current standardized testing policies have been criticized for a number of reasons, including causing anxiety, creating unrealistic and unattainable standards, altering the brain function of children, impeding creativity and imagination, and imposing racial and socioeconomic biases. I am committed not only to helping my son learn and grow, but also to working toward building a better future for all children, who will, after all, one day be the drivers of society.
In light of all of these concerns, for the past year, I have agonized over whether my son should take the PARCC test or whether we should opt out. My son likely fits into that category of students for whom standardized testing will likely neither help nor hurt—in the short-term. He does not struggle, nor does he excel, in any subject; academically, he performs “at grade level” across the board. And I doubt that sitting through a two-hour test for a week would have a significant impact on his immediate educational development.
But what about the long-term impact? Will these tests impact his ability to imagine and create and reason? Will these bubble tests, which leave little room for interpretation, prepare our children to adapt, evolve and be flexible in an uncertain future? Or will these tests show our children how to respond with rote answers, without teaching them how to develop the questions in the first place?
I also worry that the use of poorly designed tests could have trickle-down effects that exacerbate a number of social justice issues, not the least of which is racism and classism. I worry that, despite our country’s goal that no child be left behind, many children are, in fact, being left far behind. And I worry about how we ensure all children have access to a quality education when many of the tests are designed to benefit some students more than others.
Given my penchant for knee-jerk reactions, my first inclination was to opt out of standardized testing entirely. But I have a rational husband who likes to know all the facts before making decisions, and a best friend who is an educational expert available to answer my questions and help me understand the information. As a result, I embarked on a yearlong quest to make sense of the tempest that is standardized testing, gathering information and weighing the options. And while I am definitely closer to understanding the landscape, I still have plenty of unanswered questions about which path to take.
The issue of standardized testing is not an easy one; the pros and cons cannot be adequately addressed in a 1,000-word article. But contrary to what many parents believe, we are not helpless when it comes to standardized testing. We can ask the questions, we can weigh the options, and we can ask more questions. We can look for a path.
I’m not sure if I’m any closer to deciding whether my son will take the PARCC test this year or if we will opt out, but I have asked a million different questions in a million different ways. How do we encourage educating with joy and learning through curiosity, while still maintaining our “competitive edge”? How do we prioritize things like kindness and friendship, teamwork and diversity, in the midst of busy days that are filled with reading and math facts, spelling tests and STEM projects? How do I ensure that the magic inside my son—the magic inside all our children—isn’t driven out by a misguided obsession with scores, numbers and testing?
I will keep asking these questions until I get the answers I need, as should all parents. And if appropriate, my husband and I will consider opting our son out of the tests. But while we ask the questions, consider our options, and advocate for meaningful education reform to fix what is wrong with the system, it is also important that we pay attention to all that is right in education as well.
Over the past year, I have worked myself into a frenzy trying to answer these questions and figure out whether to opt out of the PARCC test. I have worried, fretted and vented. But last month, my son brought home an absolutely gorgeous birthday book filled with the sweetest, kindest, most amazing notes and drawings from each of his classmates—something his teacher puts together for every child in the classroom—and inside that book, I found some of the answers I was looking for.
Because all around the country, there are amazing teachers who know that kind words matter more than accurate spelling. Teachers who understand that learning is an ongoing part of our everyday lives, not separate from it. Teachers who appreciate birthdays more than memorization. Teachers who see children, instead of test scores.
And there are amazing children filling the classrooms. Children who haven’t yet been broken down by the weight of expectations and arbitrary standards. Children who know that orange Gatorade, pizza and the Chicago Cubs are among my son’s favorite things in the world. Children who are filled with hope, joy, curiosity and kindness worthy of the highest praise and celebration.
The landscape of education and standardized testing may have changed, but it’s nice to know that birthday books are still lighting the path.
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