And so it happened. The most talked (and shouted) about two weeks of the public school year have come and gone. The now infamous standardized tests in English Language Arts and Mathematics for 3rd through 8th graders have been administered and here we are talking about, among other things, pineapples. If you haven't read the questions on the 8th grade ELA exam about the talking tropical fruit, you really should take a moment and do so. Then you can sit back and either laugh or cry, depending on your mood.
I have mixed emotions about these exams. I understand the need to evaluate where a student is at and agree that a standardized test can help shine a light on strengths and weaknesses. But the extreme weight these exams have taken on, especially here in New York City, has become a burden to students, teachers and families. When the No Child Left Behind Act was overwhelmingly approved by Congress in 2001, I don't think anyone thought it would lead to such angst. And I know these feelings are real because I run a tutoring agency and I speak to parents and educators every day. Teachers are tired of spending a good chunk of the school year "teaching to the test" and worry even more about how the test scores will reflect on them. Some parents are nervous wrecks because if their children don't do well, their choices of middle and high schools diminish greatly. And lastly, and most disturbing, is the stress the students themselves feel. That's what bothers me the most.
So if I own a tutoring agency, aren't I just contributing to that stress? By offering tutoring to help students prepare for these exams, aren't I just part of the problem? My answer is a confident no, and I think the work my tutors did with students this year has helped to prove that.
The parents who called me for help said they were most concerned about what their kids were going through emotionally rather than the test scores. Some students as young as 3rd grade were feeling pressure to perform and reported to their parents that they were scared of the tests. My tutors worked with these kids mostly to boost their confidence. Children, especially such young ones, should not be afraid to go to school.
But I know it's not a fair playing field. Many families can't afford tutoring to help prepare their children. And is it right that families with means get such an advantage over those without? Of course not. Which brings us back to the central issue here: why are these tests even given and why have they become the focus of public school education? Yes, there has to be accountability, but at what cost? Students are spending valuable classroom time doing test prep for months. Teachers are evaluated based on how their students perform on these tests. And parents are juggling their childrens' stress while simultaneously trying to manage their own.
It's time for this to change and everyone knows it. (Even Education Secretary, Arne Duncan, has called NCLB a "slow motion train wreck.") The frustrating part is how loudly in protest everyone is shouting, and how little is being done. NCLB is being reformed, but the tests go on. Their importance grows. And unfortunately, our children pay the price. Those ridiculous questions about a talking pineapple on the ELA exam were eventually declared ambiguous and won't be counted. That was a smart move. It's time for a lot more of those.
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