What is the single most important thing that elementary schools need to instill in their students? Think about it. What one thing will help our kids grow up to succeed in school and set them on their way to succeed in life? It's not something in math, or in reading, or science, but it provides a foundation for kids to excel in all these areas. Give up? Here it is: love of learning. Love of learning is the precondition for achievement, it provides the motivation for it. A child who loves learning will learn to think critically as well as soak up new skills and new information because it will be fun.
Most kids show up in kindergarten loving learning. Elementary school is a time for learning basic skills like computation and how to sound out words, but it should also be a time for deep exploration into fascinating topics, and project-based learning. The last thing it should be is a time for "drill and kill," for the kind of mind-numbing, soul-sucking, repetition of exercises that teach little more than how to take a test. Every year, however, more and more of kids' time is spent on exactly that, thanks to standardized testing and the countless hours spent prepping for it. The end result is not only time wasted, but all too often an extinguishing of kids' love of learning. Thus, tests themselves are detrimental to children's education.
And let's be even more clear about what the problem is with test prep. As Marc S. Tucker, president of the National Center on Education and the Economy, explained:
There is far too much test prep if, by test prep, we mean setting aside good and challenging curriculum in order to prepare students for low-level tests of basic skills that rely on remembering facts and the rote application of procedures.
In New York state, standardized testing of students in grades 3-8 wrapped up this week, with three days of math tests. These followed three days of English Language Arts tests earlier in the month. Including set-up, the test essentially takes half the school day, as the kids can't go straight from the test into another serious learning session without a break. Essentially, three full days out of 180 in the school year are thus taken up by testing. For comparison, the third graders, i.e., 8-year-olds, sit for their tests for more hours than do those taking the Medical School Admissions Test (MCAT), i.e., the people who want to become doctors. Oh, and the fourth and fifth graders sit for even longer. Simply put, kids should not need to be tested for this many hours in order to evaluate what they've learned.
Furthermore, the tests are awful. They contain poorly written questions, lifeless sample passages and often fail to even test what kids are actually learning, as Elizabeth Phillips, principal at Brooklyn's Public School 321, explained in her New York Times op-ed article. And here's another testimonial from a teacher who felt the need to remain anonymous:
During the test, my readers, who months ago couldn't get their noses out of books, complained of stomachaches as they persevered and tried to read texts that were over their heads and had no relevance to their lives, age, or backgrounds... These tests are turning reading and writing into chores, sucking the life and love out of the students' young literary lives.
And where do these tests come from? Not from educators, but from Pearson, a for-profit company contracted by New York state to develop them, and which earned additional funds off the product placements for Nike and Barbie that kids had to wade through while taking the tests.
Oh, and now word comes from the Department of Education confirming that there were missing pages from some of the booklets for the third-grade math tests. No problem, the state just told districts to photocopy the missing pages or ask the state to fax them over. Great job, Pearson.
Louis CK, a public school parent as well as a brilliant comedian, has been tweeting about the test prep as well.
I don't agree with everything Louis has to say. He slams the Common Core itself, which is in fact a valuable push to raise learning standards across the board. But we agree 100 percent on the testing and the associated test prep, which really is making kids like Louis' and mine (I too, have a child taking these tests) cry. And yes, mine has cried many times due to the volume of prep and poor quality of the test prep materials.
But wait, you say, New York state has come to the rescue with a new law limiting test prep to 2 percent of class time over the course of the year (which would still mean more than three-and-a-half school days of prep, i.e., over an hour a day in a six-hour day that also includes lunch and other subjects, for four full weeks leading up to the test).
Here's the thing: Who's going to enforce that law? And how? Who's going to tell the teachers whose evaluations will continue to remain dependent on kids' test scores to lay off on the prep? And the principals are in a similar boat as the teachers regarding how their job performance is evaluated. Additionally, the brand new contract between New York City and the teachers union signed by Mayor Bill De Blasio includes some performance bonuses that will be awarded based on -- you guessed it -- test scores (along with other measures). For what it's worth, based on current reports, I'm reasonably optimistic that the new contract is an overall plus both for the kids and the teachers. But we'll see.
Back to test prep. As Diane Ravitch summed it up: "Because high-stakes are attached to the tests, who will dare to limit test prep?" Who's going to limit test prep, in particular when -- wait for it -- charter schools are exempt from these limitations? Go ahead, clean the coffee off your monitors.
Kids can opt out of the test, it is true, and growing numbers are doing so. One family opting out is that of Rob Astorino, the Republican running for governor of New York against Andrew Cuomo. It's actually a smart move politically, although wholly cynical given that if all he cared about were his own kids, he could have just had them opt out without making a campaign issue of it. Astorino has slammed "Cuomo's Common Core" and noted that it "came from [Bill] Gates and, later, Washington bureaucrats -- the geniuses who brought us Obamacare." Lovely.
One point worth making is that many New York City kids won't be able to opt out of the tests because they are central to their applications to middle and high schools, many of which use the tests the way colleges use the SAT. Think about how sick it is that 9-year-olds take a test that has a significant impact on their educational future by determining the quality of their middle school education. Who thinks it is a good idea to put that kind of pressure on little kids? Furthermore, opting out of taking the test does not mean opting out of all the test prep. Those kids still have to be in class and do the test prep homework every day.
Here's what it comes down to: If preparing for and taking the tests means taking kids away from real learning for a significant chunk of the year, then we are doing something very wrong. But since some people are making a profit from it, it just goes on and on. Time for us to demand a change.