Since moving to the south from the northeast, there have been many aspects of public education that have taken me by surprise over the past few years—both as a parent and as a teacher. The long school day (7 ½ hours), the low teacher pay (47 or 48th in the country), and the limited teacher education programs in my region (2 colleges, one public, one private) have all been disconcerting to me as a new North Carolina resident. But my single biggest issue that seems to keep getting worse is testing.
I had my first glimpse at testing madness when my twins (now nine and in the third grade) were in kindergarten. For weeks at the end of their kindergarten year, their classrooms were essentially on lockdown while some students took end of grade exams and others took field tests (kindergarteners included) for another testing endeavor. No specials were held: art, gym, music, etc, limited recess, lots of stress. Apparently, my son’s teacher was so burnt out that she took one of the testing weeks off and went on a cruise. No unions here, anything goes. A disenchanted group of stir-crazy five- and six-year-olds were left with a substitute teacher for five long days. After that experience, I naively believed that I had seen the depths of crazy and our schools and state legislature had learned their lesson. Little did I know I was so wrong.
The two years following the field-testing debacle went by relatively uneventfully. The only big scandal that didn’t seem to be a scandal was when our local school board voted to add 45 minutes to the elementary school day and not raise teacher pay. I barely heard a peep from our community about that. Now that my five-year-old rolls off the bus after 5pm, I certainly wish my fellow citizens had maybe been a little more vocal about the lunacy of that endeavor. Alas, here we are, a couple years later, extended school day firmly in place, teacher pay frozen, high teacher turnover, test scores stagnate or falling for many students, and, instead of working together to find classroom solutions to sub-par academic achievement, state and local officials just keep piling on the tests.
This year, as a third grade student in the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools, a child will spend more time testing in one year than I ever did in all my years of public school combined. The year begins with a DIBELS 3D reading assessment. This test is given one-on-one by the classroom teacher. My daughter and many of her classmates scored at the top of the chart for the DIBELS test. In fact, since this test is only intended for students in grades K through 5, some of these students maxed out the test results at the start of the 3rd grade school year. Unfortunately, the NCDPI (North Carolina Department of Instruction) mandated this year that all elementary students take the DIBELS test three times per year. So, even though she can’t score any higher and show much (any) growth on this test, the teacher must sit with her again in December and again in April and do this 20-minute one-on-one reading test over and over. While the one student is getting tested, what are the other 23 students doing? Certainly not learning anything new. Certainly not loving school.
Some point after taking the DIBELS 3D test, classes are ushered in, one at a time, into our antiquated computer lab to sit and take the reading and math MAP (Measures of Academic Progress) tests. These computer based tests take multiple class periods and they must be taken on a computer. Our school has over 600 students and one computer lab. Speaking of math, do the math on the efficiency of that testing madness. This time, NCDPI doesn’t mandate that all students take this test three times per year, our school district does. After my kindergartener came home with her December MAP testing results showing her reading ability fell over 80 percentile points, an investigation was launched. Testing error? Broken computer? Nope. Testing fatigue. My kinddergarten aged daughter said she was tired, it was hard to hear the questions, and her teacher told her she was reading like a first grader. So, of course, like any savvy five-year-old, she clicked through that computer-based test as fast as possible and got the heck back to her fun classroom.
My third-grade daughter, on the other hand, is hyper-conscientious and seems to take forever to get through these MAP tests. She carefully thinks through each question and painstakingly picks an answer. She would come home crying that her MAP testing still was not done and she had to return, yet again, to the computer lab to keep working.
For third graders, DIBELS and MAP testing is just the beginning. A few weeks into the school year, these children were also given a beginning of the year reading assessment: pencil and bubble sheets, quiet classrooms, minimal preparation. Ostensibly, a pre-test like this is geared to help schools identify students who are in danger of not passing the official third grade end-of-grade reading test. This year, that test takes on additional significance as our North Carolina General Assembly hastily passed legislation last year called Read To Achieve which says that any student not passing the end of year reading assessment in grade 3 must be retained. I am oversimplifying this for now but, essentially, in our large urban school district, our numbers could hover around six thousand students, out of 10,000 in the third grade, not passing the end-of-grade reading test and being in danger of retention.
Thankfully, my daughter scored very well on this beginning of the year assessment, well enough so that her end of year score doesn’t actually matter. She will advance to 4th grade no matter what. However, this done deal doesn’t get her out of any test prep or mind-numbing practice EOG sessions. She will slog through the practice EOGs and practice passages with the rest of her cohort. And when her practice EOGs are finished, she will sit at her desk and do nothing. See, in spite of her stellar beginning of the year scores, she has to take the end of grade tests so that her school can be given a grade based on her performance and her teacher can be evaluated based on the high-stakes testing scores of the class. She needs to take more tests, not so that she can be assessed and evaluated, but so her school and teacher can.
By the time December of this school year rolled around, my older daughter was crying before school every morning and begging me to let her stay home. Her twin brother takes the test prep and repetitive class lectures in stride telling me all is good because he has perfected the art of reading a book hidden in his desk. He is averaging one book per day. I encouraged my daughter to stick it out past winter break, participate in her school science fair, and then maybe we could look at other options. She participated in and won the science fair. I was hoping that the science fair win would provide some incentive to stick it out, toughen up, and just make it through the year. Not so much.
And so, in January, I withdrew my daughter to have her homeschooled. In North Carolina, all you need to register as a homeschool is a valid email address and proof of a high school diploma. I faxed over my teaching license in lieu of a high school diploma and I got the green light to be an official homeschool almost immediately.
As I watch my son and his third grade friends slog through this painful school year, I know that my decision to withdraw his twin was the right one. I have watched this testing mania explode this year, and we aren't even at the hot week of May when the school will become somber and tomblike and students in grades three through five will do nothing every morning but take a different end-of-grade test and then sit at their desk doing nothing while their classmates finish. I know that allowing my daughter to read and write and explore her own interests this year is a million times better than watching a child who has always loved to learn withdraw from friends and family and lose her thirst for knowledge.
If, at any point in the last decade, you had told me I would be a homeschool parent, I would have laughed incredulously. As an educator and an engaged citizen, I want our public schools to work. I want our public schools to be educating and graduating other committed, capable, and involved citizens. But as I watch the love for learning being beaten out of young, eager, students by this excessive testing situation, I know that we are heading down a path that is not only problematic in the short term but will do our state and our community a major disservice going forward.
As a community, whether or not you have a third grader, whether or not you even have children in the public schools, this trajectory should bother you. The continued silence from our citizenry is interpreted as nothing but support for high-stakes testing. Get educated. Speak up. Contact your principal, your school board, your state legislators, and your national representatives. Heck, contact Arne Duncan and let him know that this testing situation is a mess and cannot continue. As a student, a parent, a grandparent, a business owner, or an employee, public education matters. We need it to be good. Our kids and our communities deserve better.
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