Unlike tests, kids aren’t standardized

“Because I Said So” column for The Commercial Appeal

April 24, 2014

Misguided movement puts testing above all

As new parents, we approach the work as we would any new job. We’re eager, excited, a little awed we got the job in the first place, yet ready for any challenge. Over time, though, we get bogged down, don’t we? There is the morning routine and the constant list of needs and demands from the administrators, our children.

It’s like that with any job, but maybe none more so than teaching. Have you ever talked with someone new to the profession? It’s infectious. They’re going to change the world one student at a time with a package of Crayola crayons and a piece of chalk.

But then something happens come spring. Beginning next week, our kids will be taking the TCAP standardized test to find out where they stand among their fellow students across the state. For many teachers and administrators in the school system, this is the speed bump on the road to education. Treating our kids like data on a spreadsheet is where the process begins to break down.

Kids are nothing if not nonstandard. They are wonderfully, blessedly unique in their gifts, their approaches, their thinking and their play. But there are children in our city who are new to the country, who have yet to master the language and customs. There are those who woke up without a meal, who may have gone to bed without a parent in the house. And there are those afforded every opportunity to succeed.

To measure them all against one another is to do them an injustice. To attach such importance to those tests is to hamstring our educators.

Such is the weight of the outcome of these exams — the high percentage of the child’s overall grade and the performance evaluation of the teacher — that there is little choice but to “teach to the test.”

I’m subjected to a performance review of sorts every school day. My 7-year-old daughter will let me know in the mornings if I chose the wrong uniform top for her, and she critiques the lunch I packed at the end of every day. I laugh it off, a hazard of the job.

But what happens when it isn’t a mere glitch in the bossy personality of an adolescent and is taken more seriously? I shudder to think of someone’s job evaluation coming down to how well my daughter might grasp the difference between answer C and answer D. I shudder to think that someone might judge my performance as a parent, and whether or not I’m allowed to continue, based on the fact that her socks don’t match today.

In the next year or two, the Common Core curriculum will be adopted and, with it, a standard that is unattainable for many in a misguided effort to raise the bar across the board. It’s an initiative with the propensity to do damage to the least prepared among the schools in our system.

Education historian Diane Ravitch, in a speech last January to the Modern Language Association, said, “I fear that the Common Core plan of standards and testing will establish a test-based meritocracy that will harm our democracy by parceling out opportunity, by ranking and rating every student in relation to their test scores.”

As spring blossoms, we should hope our kids do as well, that their senses are awakened and curiosity piqued.

Not all of our children are destined be artists or industry leaders, start a technological revolution or discover the cure for a disease. But we have to want that for them; it’s our job.

And we have to hope, more than anything, that they’ll be something more than standard or common.

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