Colorado State Representative Judy Solano recently introduced CO HB 12-1049, giving parents the authority to decide if their child should take the TCAP (formerly CSAP) exams, or allow them to be exempt for personal reasons, without negative consequences for the student, the teachers, the school, or the district. This bill reminds me of a conundrum I had years ago...
I remember watching one of my sons, about eight or nine years old I think, tell me his stomach hurt one morning just before school. When I woke him up an hour before, he appeared fine. His color was good, his forehead felt normal, and he had eaten the same cereal and milk he had digested many times before. I was about to tell him he could stay home from school, when I remembered why he was suddenly "under the weather."
It was CSAP day -- Colorado Student Assessment Program examinations -- the dreaded day every year my high-achieving, very intelligent son became nervous, frightened and sick to his stomach.
I should have remembered. For days, he had been drinking more water than necessary for his health ("My teacher says water hydrates your brain and we have to be well-hydrated before CSAPs," he told me). We had been to the supermarket for granola bars ("The teacher told us to have carbohydrates in our pocket so our blood sugar doesn't drop suddenly") and later to Walgreens for some gum ("The teacher said chewing helps your brain stay alert and focused"). The night before, he asked if he could have something to help him fall asleep, since he was not tired ("The teacher said we should get plenty of sleep the night before CSAPs." Apparently, he had seen a commercial on television about taking a magic pill for insomnia.) That's where I drew the line. I advised him warm milk would do the trick, and muttered under my breath about the *#$%^&*# "No Child Left Behind" legislation that created the nightmare of high-stakes standardized testing for children.
The next morning, I was late for a meeting preparing the perfect food pyramid breakfast ("The teacher said...") and running back for a sweater and some extra number two pencils "just in case." Sitting outside the school, I wiped a tear from my son's face. "Don't worry, honey, we'll love you no matter how you do on the stupid test," I told him, "I just don't want you to throw up on your paper, okay?"
Each of my children has a very different personality, so for one of my sons, the change in routine was exciting, and he found the exams pleasantly challenging. With the other two boys, this scenario played out again and again and again. For them, the pressure of being in honors classes in the most competitive school district in the state was already more than enough to handle, and CSAPs meant additional stress. Watching my children freak out each year while preparing for a test that meant less than nothing to me, and one which I thought was a complete and utter waste of time, was maddening.
I remember the first time I decided one of my kids would not participate in the developmentally inappropriate, high-stakes testing. I marched into the elementary school where I frequently volunteered (having a much better idea of where my son was "at" academically than any impersonal test could possibly tell me), and informed the teacher he would not be coming to school on test day.
"I don't believe in high stakes testing for children, and I have read the research," I said. "These tests do not accurately reflect how any child is learning because each child's ability to regurgitate facts on a two-dimensional sheet of paper varies. The tests also do not measure creativity, critical thinking, motivation, persistence, and many different types of aptitude. They only measure how well they have memorized what they've been taught the last few weeks. Not to mention that, but my son's self-worth as a human being, or as a learner, should not be based on how some anonymous person scores him on a worthless exam. I don't believe in these tests, so our family will not participate". (Harruummph!)
The teacher looked sympathetic.
"I certainly understand your position, Mrs. _______" (they always called me by my husband's name). "I wish I didn't have to administer this test myself. To be perfectly frank with you..." she continued in hushed tones, "preparing for this test is an enormous waste of our time. I would much rather be working on the things the students are passionate about than teaching them how to properly fill in little shapes with their pencil properly, or lecture them about not being late on test day. Unfortunately, these tests determine an awful lot for our school, and for my job. If your son does not take the test, we get a 'zero.' By keeping your son at home, you punish the entire school. Please don't do that to us, Mrs. ______. Your kids are smart -- we need your son here."
This lovely young teacher was literally begging. I felt like a heel. Her words haunted me for days. The flattery of "Your kids are smart" was weirdly juxtaposed with "these tests are an enormous waste of time." I wondered what they told parents whose children had developmental disabilities, or for whom a language barrier might affect their scores. I grew even more concerned. I made an appointment to speak with the principal, who told me essentially the same thing.
"We don't like these tests, either, Mrs. ____________, but our hands are tied. If your son stays home, it only hurts the school, and in the end, it hurts our students", he said. "If your son is feeling stressed, there are things we can do to help. He should be eating healthy, getting plenty of sleep... (blah, blah, blah)."
Clearly, there was nothing the school could do, and I didn't want to hurt the school, or the teachers. They were not the problem; they were being victimized just as the students were. Over a number of years, my boys became more accustomed to taking the tests, and the stomachaches became less frequent. In the older grades, students were rewarded with the next day being a "free day" (which meant Disney movies).
"What a giant waste of precious teaching time," I thought.
Keeping children home from school for personal, political, religious or medical reasons has always been the prerogative for parents in Colorado, provided they attend school a minimum number of days per calendar year. For example, my son's school gave us the option of keeping our children home the day they learned about sexual reproduction in the fifth grade. (We were also given a choice to keep our children at home for an optional "winter celebration" on the last day before winter break, presumably to avoid the possibility another student might say something scandalous like the word "Hanukkah" or accidentally wish someone "Happy Holidays".)
I went to the "reproductive education" parent meetings, read the curriculum, and asked questions.
"This is what some parents think is objectionable? My neighbors keep their kids home so they don't hear words like "breast," "vulva," "mitosis," and "gamete." Seriously?"
I tried not to pass judgment. I knew the school was teaching the biology of sexual reproduction, not the values or the politics of sexuality, so I couldn't understand why other parents were making a big deal of it. Still, it was their right, and I respected their concerns, even though they differed from my own.
"Let me get this straight," I wanted to ask. "When my kids were younger and couldn't sleep at night because they wondered if their teacher would still like them, or if they would someday get into college, on tests they took when they were eight years old, and I wanted to keep them home to avoid the inappropriate amount of stress they were being subjected to, I didn't have a choice. But now, I can keep my child home from school simply to avoid a 'holiday party' with snowmen, or on the day their teacher might say the word 'menstruation.' Are you kidding me?"
Don't even get me started about the day I was given an option to keep my children at home, because their homeroom class planned on playing a ten-minute video clip of the president of the United States telling them to "work hard and have a good year at school"!
My kids are older now, but I still feel passionate about this issue. Please support HB 12-1049. In Colorado, parents have always had the choice to keep their students at home for important personal, religious, medical or family reasons, as long as the students are getting the required number of hours of education in each calendar year. If snowmen-phobic parents are allowed to keep their children home one day a year without repercussions, families like yours should have the same right.