Testing? Testing?

 

I've heard from teachers, education experts and even from my older kids, just how stressful all the standard testing in Chicago Public Schools can be.  I can recall taking exactly one standardized test as a kid each year, the Iowa Basic Skills test. That was it, unless you count the eighth grade constitution test. That was actually the more stressful of the two, because as every eighth grader knew  “if you don’t pass the constitution test, you don’t go to high school”. So, minus a bunch of 13 year olds humming School House Rock’s version of the preamble under their breath, the only big deal test for CPS kids was the Iowa Basic Skills. Total test prep for that was making sure you had two sharpened #2 pencils.  A formal note went home to our parents specifically directing them to  "Please send your child to school with two sharpened #2 pencils", so we knew the pencil thing was a big deal.  Back in the day notes rarely went home, unless a kid had chicken pox, then parents were worn of "possible exposure to your child". It sounds odd today, but back then mothers hoped their kid would be exposed to chicken pox so they could “get it over with”. I remember my mom’s disappointed look when I informed her that I did not sit next to the contagious kid. Better luck next time. The only other reason I recall a note going home was to act as the harbinger of the annual “Affy Tapple” sale, urging parents to “send you child to school with money”.  One week each fall the school sold caramel apples and for some excellent reason, you could eat the Affy Tapples at recess or even at your desk!  That was pretty much it for messages home, contagious diseases, caramel apples.... and in the case of the Iowa Basic Skills test, the explicit need for  #2 pencils. Test anxiety back then pretty much centered around constantly checking to MAKE SURE the pencils your parents sent you with, did indeed have a #2 imprinted on the side.  You never know when your mom might drop the ball and get the too hard #3 which would yield a fainter print, or the too soft, prone to smudging #1.  It had to be #2.  Is that a #2? Yes. Yes it is. Wait, better check again. Yes that is definitely a #2. On both pencils? Yes. Test prep done.  However quaint the notion seems today, back then teachers taught lessons, students learn new skills and information from those lessons, then the Iowa Basic Skills test came around once a year to assess how the students were doing. It was like a doctor making his rounds. It popped in quickly, checked your pulse, and moved on. 

In the present day, my kids have come home with reports of all kinds of testing, ISAT, Scantron, Dibels, MAP, the looming Common Core, I can’t remember them all. They are so frequent, that I sometimes respond with the typical mom "mmm hmm, that's nice dear" when my kids tell me they had ANOTHER one. My older two kids have learned to roll with the testing but they still find them disruptive and somewhat anxiety provoking. They both complained about the wonky computers they used earlier this year for a test. My fourth grader reported she was in tears because the computers were flakey and she didn't think she was finishing fast enough. We spent the past three years working on her "reading" issues, seeking assistance from numerous sources to finally end up learning that she didn't have a "reading" issue, but eye muscle issues instead.  We addressed it and her is reading much better, but lingering feelings of inadequacy and frustration still plague her. I doubt anyone at CPS really wants kids to feel crappy about themselves, but self-esteem issues are often a bi-product of assessment testing. Unreliable computers that freeze up or break down definitely add to the frustration. 

My sixth grader doesn't even talk about these tests anymore other than to say they are "stupid". Last year for one series that lasted a few days he admitted by the last round he was just putting down anything to get it over with. Like someone signing a false confession, he just wanted the incessant barrage of questioning to stop. So much for an accurate assessment, of his personal “benchmark”.  My son does resent the onslaught of tests taking time away from a class he genuinely likes. So the “assessments” are in effect, taking a kid engaged in learning, and turning him into a kid who randomly selects answers in order to bring about a speedy end to testing hell. Both of my kids report feeling annoyed when teachers respond with "because it will be on the test" to the "why do we have to learn this?" question. When I was a student, one of my teachers told our class that we had to know that the Battle of Hastings took place in 1066. "Why do we have to learn that" we asked. "Because one day you will be on Jeopardy and the final Jeopardy question will be what important battle happened in 1066.  Because of me making you learn about the Battle of Hastings, you will win the game and the money".  Now THAT is a good answer!  I'm sure most teachers do not want to teach to the test, and few would consider test prep a dynamic lesson plan. I think most teachers would indeed rather be teaching to win Jeopardy than teaching to the test.

In addition to the reports I receive from my older kids, I recently volunteered to be on the frontlines of testing. I offered to help during the MAP (Measures of Academic Progress) test administered to my daughter’s kindergarten class. For two days the teacher needed to be pulled out of the classroom along with all of the kids. They would be set up in a room with computers where the test would be given. Parents were needed to act more or less as proctors during the test, being on hand to assist with the equipment, then acting as runners to take the kids who had completed the test back to their classroom. In the classroom a paid for out of the school's meager budget substitute teacher would be waiting to receive them. At no point during the MAP testing were the parents or the teacher permitted to help a kid arrive at an answer. They were there to help with the temperamental computers and to escort the kids back to their classrooms. Period. 

Unless you have been around kindergarteners lately, it is easy to forget just how tiny they are. They are little itty-bitty people. They still have little teeny tiny teeth in their mouths.  Many still have slight speeches issues, an ever-facing aural link to their toddler selves. After a bloodless injury like a bumped knee or pinch finger, they still wail pitifully for a band aid, still believing with all their heart that band aids make boo boos feel better.   Kindergartners are indeed students, but awfully pint-sized students.

So on the day of this MAP test, all these little peanuts sit down in chairs, each in front of a computer. They have all been here the day before, day one was used to test their "reading" skills.  I am there on day two, which is assessing math skills. No one's feet touched the floor. Their hands are smaller than the mouses they hold. They are instructed to put on their headsets. The headsets are meant for adult sized people, not teeny people. I notice that for most kids, the headsets were way too big. If these kindergarteners had been built by Dr. Frankenstein the headsets would have hung down to the two bolts coming out of their necks.  Few kids complained or sought help though. Maybe they had done so the day before?  Most either let them rest below their ears or used one hand to hold an earpiece on one ear while their other hand held the mouse. Optimal listening conditions it was not. My daughter did say to me "See mom, they don't fit. And when the person on the computer starts talking, I can't hear what they are saying." Well, then, that could sort of skew a result couldn't it? "Deal with it as best as you can" I said. "Hold it on one ear and listen on that side." Her eyes filled with tears. "I tried to do that yesterday,” she said. "I can’t really hear." She turned back to her computer. Even five year old’s are self conscious of crying in front of their peers.

I would imagine, that for many five year olds, this MAP test would be the first time in their lives that they could not talk through problem with an adult, or have an adult use different words that would help them better understand a problem.  I understand that the testing field has to be equal, but I am here to tell you, it just feels wrong for a child so young not to be able to ask for clarification. Here is an example of what I mean:  One question on the MAP test asked the kids to choose the picture that best represented something divided into three equal parts. "I don't understand what divided means. What does that word mean?" a little girl asked me.  "Ahh, I'm sorry. I can't tell you." I said.  Her little face looked up at me confused and somewhat betrayed. "Why? Why can't you tell me? Because you know I really don't understand what divided is. I need your help." "I'm sorry.” I said feeling like the slug adult I was “I can't help you with that. Do the best you can."  I saw a couple of kids choosing the wrong answer to that problem and I wondered if those answers were being recorded as the students not being able to recognize three equal parts when they see it clearly drawn.  I HOPE what was noted was that at age five they don't understand the robust vocabulary word "divided" because that, in fact was "the problem", not their ability to visually ascertain equality of shares.

Other hands were being raised asking for help.  "This mouse doesn't work. See I want to pick that answer,” a little boy said pointing to a spot on the far left hand corner of his screen. "But this mouse won't go there. It’s broke." I looked down at the mouse. The boy had moved it over to the left on the table, but his hand and the mouse had hit the keyboard, stopping the mouse from moving any further. "Here" I said. "When that happens you need to pick the mouse up, move it in the air over this way, set it back down, and move it on the table again." I picked the mouse up, moved it to the right set it down, and showed him how he could then move the curser to the left once more.  "But I don't want to move it that way". He said pointing to the right.  "I want to move it this way,” he pointed to the left. "I know it seems weird." I said. "But when the mouse won't let you move it on the table you need to pick it up, fly it through the air and set it down again."  Is five too young to learn the concept of counter intuitiveness? Hey kid, slow is fast, less is more, you got to be cruel to be kind and you have to move the mouse to the right in order for you to then move it left.  This “broken mouse” scenario played out several times, and remember, these kids had taken the test the day before, so I would imagine even more of them had this problem during the previous test.

Another hand goes up "Something happened" a little girl said. "I don't know what this is,” She pointed at the screen. She had gotten herself into "preferences."  I took the mouse and said "Let's see if I can get you out of here and back to your test."  I clicked onto the "close" button. Click. Click. Clickclickclickclickclickclickclick.  It took a half dozen or so clicks before the window closed and the little test taker with the big bow in her hair was back to her assessment. This was played out again, and again and again, throughout the duration of the test. In a perfect world, where all the computers worked, testing conditions would be less frustrating. But it's the real world, and a five year old could click on the wrong thing, and accidentally leave the test. Even when they do click on the button they want, the computers don't always respond to their commands. I know it's a computer or mouse glitch, but I can't help but wonder how many of these kids think it's their fault. I heard "I can't do this" frequently. "Yes you can". I said. "You are doing great. It's the computer, not you." The preferences or options screens were accidentally opened quite often. Other computer issues complicated the situation too. Some kids had to leave one computer and find another one, or switch out mouses. Computers fail, it’s a fact, but a lot of these little people felt the fault was theirs.

In the midst of all of this, I walked past my daughter.  She looked up at me, her face red from crying, I could see that tears had been collecting at her collar "I just can't do this," she sobbed.  The ill fitting headsets, the hard to hear instructions, the uncooperative mouse, the screen going to command modes, not being able to get clarification when she asked for it… her little psyche had reached it’s breaking point. It took just two days of standardized testing for her to doubt herself, quickly trading a love of learning for the shame of incompetence.  Later on when I picked her up after her long seven-hour day, she whispered into my shoulder "I'm just not smart mom. Not like everyone else. I'm just no good at kindergarten, just no good at all.”

There have been a couple of times throughout my on going stint as a CPS parent that I have wanted to reach downtown and rip out the throat of whomever was responsible for using my kids as canaries in some sort of education reform coal mine, or as pawns for some "public servant's" political gains, or as trading pieces in a CEO’s game of pocket lining...this, was one of those times.  I too, was once a CPS canary. I was sent into the "New Math" coal mine.  Prior to that, I foolishly believed that I was actually good at math, that I liked it.  Being taught "new math" sure set me straight on that fantasy. I discovered out none to soon, that I sucked at math.  I was actually "no good" at it.  Eventually the New Math mines were shut down, but only after my fellow canaries and me suffered the ill effects of its academic air.  It was heartbreaking to hear my daughter declare she was "not smart” and “no good at kindergarten".

If all of these assessments, all of these benchmarks, all of these testis were ultimately beneficial, I would bite the bullet and say to my kids, "I know it feels rotten going through it, but you will benefit from it in the long run.". I’d look at CPS, trust in their wisdom and expertise and say, “Go ahead. Carry on.” I have done this in other arenas.  I assisted a six foot two orderly in pinning my one daughter down so that she could get stitches in her chin. “Go ahead. Close it quick.” I kept my other daughter sleep deprived for almost 24 hours so she could get a test ascertaining brain seizures. “Stay awake honey. Just seven more hours.”  I dragged my son week after week to a pool so he could overcome his phobia of water. “Just put your chin in this time okay? Just your chin.” I am fully aware of how kids sometimes have to endure bouts of stress and discomfort in order to obtain a positive outcome. However, this practice of repetitively testing kids is not one of those circumstances.  If kids are putting down any answer just to have it over with. If the equipment is not working. If it is causing kids to feel bad about themselves, anxiety over performance, if it is taking up class time with test prep and testing, if you can't hear the questions, or click on the answer you want, than these tests are doing more harm than good.  Furthermore, if what is really going on is that these tests are being used not so much to assess the students, but more to evaluate the teachers, then parents need to realize that their children are being used as the litmus paper, or canaries in yet another unproven education reform mine. I once read where Chicago’s old Riverview Amusement Park, used to test the rides by running them with sand bags in the seats. If the bags came back in tact, they let the kids on.  At least they used sand bags first