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Dear Reading DCAS,
Why do you have to be hard? I know I do your tests in the beginning, middle, and end of the year. But doing 55 questions in 3 days is a lot. We have to take our time to get a good score, otherwise we might get a 1 and that’s not good. Can we see what questions we dot right and what questions we got wrong at the end of the test? So that way we can understand why we got whatever we got wrong was wrong. I think that could help us a lot. How about that idea for next year? It really could help. Otherwise DCAS has to be THE WORST THING EVER!!!

One letter that was written by a student in Delaware after finishing the DCAS, Delaware standardized reading test.

As a parent, the earnestness in the above letter made me smile. Sadly, standardized tests are no longer tests, but juggernauts in the minds of students, teachers and administrators.

The New York State standardized tests made headline news with this year’s NYS 8th grade reading comprehension passage entitled, “The Hare and the Pineapple.” It’s a take on the old Aesop’s fable of the Hare and Turtle. But what makes this story not just fantastical, but almost farcical is that the other animals are debating who would win — the hare or the pineapple? “The pineapple has some trick up it’s sleeve,” a moose said. “Pineapples don’t have sleeves,” an owl said. Not at all impressed, my 12-year-old daughter, said in disbelief, “Of course the pineapple can’t run, it doesn’t have any legs.”

People mocked and laughed about pineapples and hares, but it’s no joke that these tests have weighed too heavily on the minds of our children and parents. The parents I spoke to had a lot to say….

Amy Firestone, who lives in the DC area, is opposed to the “hours and hours of useless drill” in her son’s classes, but she is thankful that this year he was not required to attend all of them. Where they live, students can not opt out of tests if they’re in public school. Passing them is a requirement to go to the next grade.

John Fieldstadt of New York was angered when his daughter was being prepped for the state standardized exam the year before when she was attending grade school:

At first they dedicated just part of the week to preparation but when she started the year of the test that is virtually all they did and in the process they basically had her convinced that the world as she knew it would come crashing to an end if she didn’t do well on the test. The poor girl was completely traumatized by the whole process. At the same time she was learning nothing new, it was all about teaching to the test and training the kids how to take the test. It was a horrible experience!

His younger daughter experienced psychological terror:

Lilah is a high honors student who excels in all academics and yet they managed to scare her so bad that she was in tears over the anticipation of taking these tests!

Her mom, Marcy Reisinger says that her daughter has suffered two panic attacks due to the anxiety of the standardized tests:

I think that says how much pressure is put on these kids.

The tests themselves are not harmful, but the education system being completely designed around the test is. I think opting out of the test is silly, really. The problem isn’t that the kids are tested. The problem is that the test is given too much weight,

says Amy Holland Nix, a U.S. citizen currently residing in Dublin, Ireland.

My daughter, Elizabeth (who would be a 3rd grade student in the U.S.) has been lucky enough to attend foreign private schools designed for international student bodies, so we have not been pinned to the wall by the American Public Education nightmare, yet. When taking state exams (which are similar in Japan and Ireland to the ones taken at home), Lizzie has always been given adequate potty time, recess breaks, etc. The academic achievement and focus in the schools has never been catered to passing the test.

Perhaps the American public education system could take a lesson or two from it’s foreign counterparts, and you may agree when you hear this next story about a kindergarten teacher who wouldn’t allow her 6-year-old student to go the restroom during a test. The children were instructed to use the restroom prior to the test. And when the 6-year-old student told her teacher that she had to go use the bathroom, the teacher refused to let her go. She couldn’t hold it in for the duration of the test, so the girl had an accident in the classroom. According to the girl’s mother, she had to sit in the mess until the testing session was over, a full 15 minutes.

The superintendent says the reason why the teacher was sticking so closely to the stringent rules was because they were preparing students for the Missouri Assessment Program (MAP) tests that were to be given in third grade. Even to justify the teacher’s actions with that kind of remark tells me that this type of high stakes testing has clouded people’s judgments — the people that most parents trust their children to for six hours a day.

Sometimes, it’s not just the tests that are problematic. It’s what comes after the tests are scored, according to Laura Ciechalski in upstate New York. In 6th grade, her son slid to the mid level 3 in math, and in 7th grade he fell right under the 3 level while his math average in the class had been between 85 – 95. In August, Laura received a letter stating her son was to take an Academic Intervention math class in the coming year. This concerned Laura greatly because her son had done well in all the class tests including the final exam.

Well talk about a nightmare, he is in a class that is filled with I would say about 80% of kids who just do not care and do not have the reinforcement at home, about 10% who are really struggling and trying, the other 10% are in his boat. Instead of being able to take an elective he is now forced into this class every other day and he HATES it. He is bored. He knows the math (his current average in regular math class right now is 93) I have called, written letters to get him out and get the same answer … cannot take him out, even though he has passed all 3 quarters with flying colors both in the intervention and regular class. By mid year that was it he started getting in trouble alot for goofing in that class. Please if anyone can help me understand WHY with his grades and with all the prior years grades that this child has to be in a class that he is getting ABSOLUTELY nothing out of, for the life of me I do not understand??

Laura, John and Marcy are not alone in their anger and complaints. Parents and teachers motivated by frustration have started online groups, blogs, and petitions to allow parents to opt their children out of standardized testing altogether.

Testing hysteria appeared to have come to a fever pitch after changes that allowed almost half the states to link state testing results to teachers’ evaluations. According to the report from the National Council on Teacher Quality, an advocacy group, at least 23 states and the District of Columbia now evaluate public school teachers in part by standardized test scores. Test data can be used in 14 districts to dismiss ineffective teachers. Eleven of these states can use test-score evaluations to determine whether to award tenure to teachers.

Here in New York, it was announced in February that school districts would be allowed to base up to 40 percent of a teacher’s annual review on students’ test scores on state standardized tests. And half of that portion must be based on the improvement of student’s test score from one year to the next.

Another battle was lost by teachers in the same month when

…New York’s highest court ruled that New York City’s Department of Education could publish the ratings of 12,000 teachers, which are also based on standardized test scores.
Both developments are part of a push to use gains made by students on tests (so-called ‘value-added data’) to determine which teachers to promote, fire or simply keep on the job. This is in contrast to the more traditional, principal-led evaluations that critics have long charged are too subjective.

More focus, more weight, more efforts in specifically preparing for the standardized tests which is exactly what many parents say is wrong about public schools these days:

Can anyone honestly tell me what positive things these tests have accomplished? If you look at studies over the years you will not see any significant improvements in test scores for the children. I see more money spent, more people hired, children ‘tortured’ with this nonsense and yet I see more or less a straight line on the graphs charting the results and progress of the programs over the years. It’s time to scrap this program and try something new!

says John Fieldstadt.

Jo Ann Samide, a veteran home educator in New York (home schooled 3 and is presently home schooling a 13-year-old girl and 9-year-old boy) believes that tests don’t measure everything about a child and their abilities, but is not opposed to testing. Active in her Queens home school community, Jo Ann consults with home school parents and evaluates their children, and prepares a written narrative which is in compliance with New York State home school regulations:

I see many kids with learning disabilities, austism/aspergers, visual processing problems, ADHD, who can’t sit for standardized tests. Eventually some of them may have to bite the bullet, but the bottom line is that tests are not accurate measures of these particular students progress. I had a girl in 4th grade who was reading at a low 1st grade level last April. She is reading at mid 3rd grade this year. She would not do well in the test, but in reality she has made outstanding progress.

My children have taken standardized tests since the first grade, even though it is not required by law. In fact they are taking them this week, while I do assessments for those who do not wish to take this route. We have not done a lick of work ‘preparing’ for them. And yet most of them score in the top percentiles. Taking tests is part of the system, for better or for worse, and several of othem have used tests to earn scholarships. But I like to use the system, not have it use me.

This is what Diane Ravitch, policy analyst and former U.S. assistant Secretary of Education thinks of standardized tests:

I am very deeply concerned about what years and years of standardized testing does to children’s brains. I think it actually becomes destructive. If we think about what our needs are for the twenty-first century, and not just how do we compete in the world but how do we live in the world, how do we survive in the world, we need a generation of people who will succeed us who are thoughtful, who can reflect, who can think. You know, the expression is ‘think critically,’ and that’s certainly important, but also who have imagination.

Parent Amy Firestone sees the value of the standardized tests, but believes the results need to be utilized in a different way:

I think standardized tests can be a useful diagnostic tool when considered in conjunction with a student’s ability to write and to speak clearly. The results of a standardized test can show a teacher where s/he needs to punch up the lessons a bit (‘Hmm. They all missed the geometry question about right triangles…’) and give an idea where parents need to step in (‘Looks like we need to head to the aquarium: Junior missed all the questions about oceans.’). The problem is that too many schools focus on kids passing the test, which is meant to measure a sort of minimum acceptable level. Teach high and the standardized tests become an easy day off for the kids instead of the end of the world as we know it.

According to U.S. educator and academic literary critic, E.D. Hirsch Jr. (well-known for his work in cultural literacy), the multiple-choice, fill-in-the-bubble reading tests lambasted by many “are technically among the most reliable and valid tests available.” He focuses on the single-biggest problem of the reading passages — the fact that they are random, and have nothing to do with the curriculum that is taught for the children’s particular grade level. If children are given a reading passage on the topic of taking a hike in the Appalachians, how can they answer questions based on an experience they never had? He continues that teachers preparing students with countless hours of instruction in reading comprehension skills using substitute practice exams have produced no significant increase in readings scores and those scores have actually declined in later grades. Hirsch writes that had that time been spent expanding vocabulary and knowledge content, it would have produced an increase in reading comprehension scores.

A 1988 study indicated why this improvement in testing should be instituted. Experimenters separated seventh- and eighth-grade students into two groups — strong and weak readers as measured by standard reading tests. The students in each group were subdivided according to their baseball knowledge. Then they were all given a reading test with passages about baseball. Low-level readers with high baseball knowledge significantly outperformed strong readers with little background knowledge.

The results of this experiment challenges the current thinking in education that a reading comprehension test is a test of formal techniques. Language researchers say it is not necessarily a test of skill, but rather a test of background knowledge.

This week and last week, my two children have been taking standardized tests at one of our local public schools. They each have been taking these tests since the third grade. We are not required to have them tested this way, (most home schoolers we know test their children at home or at co-op, and may choose to substitute with written narratives in alternate years) but my husband and I have decided this course because we wanted the children to have the experience of tests in a public setting. If, as a prerequisite, my children had to attend countless hours of drilling and taking practice exams, our decision may have been different.

Should parents be allowed to opt out their child from the state standardized tests? Could the institution of vouchers which would allow the dollars to follow the students be a better option? Parents can choose a school based on whether it tests or not. What are your thoughts?