My daughter started third grade today. No longer in the “little kid” hallway at school, no longer asking me to hold her hand the whole way there. She is nervously confident as she asks me whether to wear the velcro or the tie sneakers (shoelaces won because big kid). She doesn’t doubt herself, and she is open to learning. The concept of dreading school is foreign to her.
In the coming days, my daughter will learn new classroom procedures, navigate the social dynamics of third grade, and settle into a new routine. Then, between instructional days 11 and 15 per state law, she will sit for her first standardized test this year: the North Carolina READY Beginning-of-Grade 3 (BOG3) English Language Arts/Reading Test.
Unless a student has an identified disability and requires accommodations through an Individualized Education Program (IEP) or Section 504 Plan, all students are expected to complete the BOG in an hour and a half. However, if students are working and need more time they are allowed up to three hours to finish.
Have you ever tried to get an eight-year-old to sit in a hard chair and silently read for an hour and a half? Our legislature mercifully allows two, three-minute stretch breaks during this grueling test session.
I am a school psychologist. When I test eight-year olds, I rarely require more than five minutes of “sit still and silently work on this task” at a time. We stop for jumping jack breaks, water fountain breaks, knock-knock joke breaks, and deep breathing breaks. If the student is having a rough day and can’t put forth his best effort for myriad reasons, we try again another day. If the student is clearly anxious, I do my best to get that anxiety as low as possible in an effort to ensure that the test results are a valid estimate of the student’s true skills. If the student is hungry, I pull out the snack bin and we munch on goldfish. If the student tells me they can’t do something, I gently encourage them to try and praise their efforts at doing hard things.
Before they even sit for their first high-stakes test, students are given practice (read: more instructional time is taken) with the “BOG3 Practice Activity.” Actually, the practice test might be a better use of time than the actual BOG. That’s because between losing a few more baby teeth, wiggling through growing pains, and developing more responsibility and independence, my third grader will be taking another ten standardized tests this year.
I am not “anti-testing.” The bulk of my job is to accurately assess students’ aptitudes and achievement. Test validity matters to me. Using testing data to identify students in need of intervention and to monitor progress in learning new skills? That’s my idea of an exceptionally good day at work. I love helping students, families, and teachers discover how best to learn and teach. Assessment data can tell us all of this.
Yet, I know that the tests I administer are culturally loaded. I work hard to explain what tests can and cannot tell us about students’ strengths and needs. I remember some of the most important tenets of testing: that decisions should not be made based upon one single data source, that cultural, linguistic, and socioeconomic bias in all tests is present and must be considered when interpreting results, and that data should be used wisely such that students are not needlessly tested.
It seems to me that we have lost sight of some of these basic ideas about testing in our schools. We make major educational decisions and assess teacher effectiveness based on one data source (the EOG). We administer tests in English regardless of the student’s familiarity with the language, and we test students over and over again even if we already know they will easily pass (or fail). Indeed, that count of eleven standardized tests in third grade is the minimum testing requirement in our school. Students who struggle may take additional assessments. As Diane Ravitch reminds us in The Death and Life of the Great American School System, “Taking your temperature over and over again when you’re sick doesn’t make you well.”
But when so much depends on these tests, especially that EOG, from students’ academic trajectories to teacher, administrator, school, and district jobs and money, the gravitational pull of these demands keeps us all grudgingly in line. Teaching to the test becomes how teaching is done, whether we admit to that or not.
Schools hold pep rallies to drive home the importance of doing well on all these tests, and students are fully aware that their educational opportunities and their teachers’ effectiveness ride on their answers. My second grader was stressing last May “because what if the fifth graders don’t do as well as they need to on their Science EOG?” How is this helping? But what really gets me is when I, as a professional working in schools, have to sit with parents who are in tears after receiving letters alerting them that their 9-year-olds are not on track for college. Hand on heart, I have watched mothers cry and talk about giving up their dreams for their children to go to college, because this big education system told them so. I don’t know how to put it lightly here, folks. That is criminal.
The Superintendent of NC Public Schools, Mark Johnson, announced over the summer that he would be working to reduce the burden of testing on students, families, and educators in North Carolina. He acknowledged that the status quo must change after considering the results of a teacher survey revealing frustrations with the testing demands and after proctoring a fourth grade EOG himself.
Although we are diametrically opposed on many educational issues, I appreciate his willingness to discuss school testing reform. I hope he can bring some creative problem solving to this issue and that he can consider whether current state-mandated testing requirements are actually benefiting our students. I hope he remembers that although federal law requires evaluation of student skills through the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), it actually allows those skills to be assessed through means other than high-stakes end-of-grade tests.
I have not seen an announcement of a work or advisory group to guide Mr. Johnson as he prepares his recommendations to improve testing, but I hope he develops such a group and I hope he includes School Psychologists at the table alongside parents, teachers of all types, administrators, and students.
In my clinical practice, it’s not uncommon for young children to come to therapy due to their anxiety about school. I’ve heard third graders tell me their number one fear is failing the EOG. I am reminded of Notre Dame Sociologist Megan Andrew’s finding that “students rank being retained in grade second only to a parent’s death in seriousness in some cases.”
Families, unsure what to do and naturally motivated to ease their children’s suffering and trying to fan that dying love-of-learning flame, sometimes pull their children out of the system. They homeschool, they unschool, they enroll their children in private schools to avoid the redundant and stressful tests.
Sometimes they refuse the tests. They decide not to participate in a system that seems to benefit only the test publishers and legislators intent on ranking public schools using unfair metrics in an effort to privatize the great democratic bastion that is free high-quality public education.
As for my third grader? She won’t be taking the EOG or many of those eleven tests this year.