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Homa Sabet Tavangar

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Sending Off My Nervous Baby Into the World -- of Standardized Testing

Posted: 03/14/2012 3:38 pm

I'm mad this morning. My 8 year-old (Eight! Yes, just eight! In third grade!) is a nervous wreck. Today is the first day of PSSA (Pennsylvania System of School Assessment, or Pissed Students Seriously Anxious?!) standardized testing at her school. They've been prepping for weeks (or is it months?) to score stellar points on the test. She feels personally responsible to do great and not let down her beloved teacher. They're even allowed to break the ultimate elementary school rule and CHEW GUM IN CLASS during the test, since it's supposed to stimulate brain activity. One lasting lesson here: do whatever it takes to get a high score.

The goal: so their school looks good. So their school will come out on top -- again -- in public reviews that get published in multiple media outlets which drive real estate prices upwards, and keep the local tax base healthy to pay for the schools. Fortunately, we haven't gotten to the point where teacher evaluations are displayed publicly, like New York City, but it feels like an ominous threat.

When the Philadelphia Inquirer publishes the standardized test scores of every school district in Southeast PA and Southern NJ, you bet everyone is scanning to see how their favorites and their rivals are faring. When Newsweek and US News print their top schools and yours makes the list, officials create a large banner to hang over the school entrance, the highway overpass, and the website front page. When the kids dominate the test, buyers target our school district and pay top dollar for a home here so their kids can attend the "top-rated" schools. Homes in my neighborhood often sell within one week, for asking price, even during these "tough economic times." A friend in real estate told me that families from China are coming to their office with a million dollars in cash to look for a home in our district. No one told this to my 8 year-old, but it's as if she's internalized it.

Our school district, like thousands of others in at least 36 states, has invested in an online test prep program called Study Island. Sophia wants to practice taking tests every night now, and for about the past week, this has been her primary "homework." I'm OK with the quality of the program, and realize the kids need to practice how to take the test, in order to level the playing field -- if others are practicing then I feel better if my child is prepared, too. I'd rather not buy in to that thinking, but when your child attends public school, this sort of activity becomes part of the "price" we pay. Other critiques of the test prep program are found here and here, from a teacher. I also realize that kids in some countries, like Singapore, parts of China and Korea, with some of the best test results in the world, prep even harder than ours. But I also know that in countries like Finland, the world's top-rated education system, such testing doesn't occur until 12th grade, and no teachers, students or schools are judged based on standardized testing. While the East Asians are increasingly seeking to get out of the anxiety-inducing, creativity-crushing, test-prep culture, we are looking to emulate them.

Exacerbating matters, I found out that our Pennsylvania governor, Tom Corbett's "proposed 2012-13 budget calls for a 43 percent increase in funding for educational assessments, to $52 million, even as it keeps school funding generally flat and cuts spending on state-related universities." This also comes at a time when our school district is considering imposing fees, like a $50-$100 fee for every club a high schooler will join -- an act which won't bring in much money, but is sure to increase social isolation; and down the street, in struggling Chester-Upland schools, teachers are working without pay.

Last night when Sophia was going to bed, she asked me, almost shaking: "Mommy, can we say some prayers so I do OK on the PSSA?" I said something like, "Sure, let's also say prayers so you feel peace in your heart. You really don't need to worry about the test. You are going to do fine. Your sisters (eight and 10 years older than her, who were among the first to experience standardized testing, before the frenzy kicked in) never prepared for the test. They just got enough sleep, had a good breakfast, and went to school happy. I hope you can do that. You're going to be great. You're more prepared than anyone I know!" I don't think I reassured her much.

This prayer we said helped her more than my pep talk:
O God! Educate these children. These children are the plants of Thine orchard, the flowers of Thy meadow, the roses of Thy garden. Let Thy rain fall upon them; let the Sun of Reality shine upon them with Thy love. Let Thy breeze refresh them in order that they may be trained, grow and develop, and appear in the utmost beauty. Thou art the Giver. Thou art the Compassionate. (From the Baha'i Prayer book.)

This is a prayer she's been singing and saying since she was about three, and last night it took on special significance. I hope she'll remember the qualities of beauty, love and inspiration emphasized here. She'll have enough worries, tests and challenges when she grows up. For now, the education I really hope she gets emphasizes resilience, curiosity, compassion, and creativity. These are the qualities our world so badly needs -- but are tough to capture when filling in the bubbles.

Has testing taken over at your home? How are you handling it?

 
 
 

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