By Sandy Stenoff
Thank you to Valerie Strauss for featuring this piece in the Washington Post.
Until last year, I had shielded my, then, eight year old daughter from my activism, my personal convictions about high stakes testing and why I believe it is harmful to her education. In spite of helping to start the Opt Out Orlando group locally and all of my involvement in the national grassroots movement against market-based education reform, with just a few months to go before testing season last year and even with all the information I had, I STILL had not made the decision to personally opt out of testing for my daughter in the Third grade.
One night before testing season started last year, I was putting her to bed. It had been a really stressful week. Usually an even-tempered child, she had been having meltdowns like she hadn’t had since she was a toddler. It was time for a bedtime chat. As I talked with her, it became more apparent that I needed to record what she was sharing with me. I grabbed the laptop and just typed sitting on her bed next to her.
This was our conversation, verbatim:
Honey, you’ve seemed really stressed lately. Do YOU think you’ve been stressed?
—I HAVE been stressed, Mom.
Do you know why? Can you tell me?
—Yes… This week has been SO much testing. We haven’t been able to do anything else. And it was hard because our teacher (was sick all week and) wasn’t there.
But you seemed stressed before that.
—Because I knew we were going to have testing all this week.
What do you mean you haven’t been able to do anything else? (After I pressed later, she did tell me they did specials and science and math in the afternoons, but this was her initial recollection of her week.)
—It’s just been testing every day, except for Monday. And it was hard because we didn’t get to do anything else from the time we got to school.
What if you had to go to the bathroom?
—We can only go one time.
How do you feel about what you did in testing this week?
—I felt like we’ve been doing it all over again.
What do you mean by doing it all over again?
—I felt like we were doing the same thing over and over. It was all multiple choice.
Why is that stressful for you?
—Because everything is multiple choice. We have to fill in this little bubble completely. And perfectly. And if you don’t, there’s a lady there who makes sure that your bubbles are PERFECTLY bubbled in before they can put it in the machine. And it’s really hard to do that for 90 minutes every time, over and over, day after day. It’s hard because I get nervous, and it’s hard for my hands to keep steady when I’m nervous.
Can you tell me what that’s like for you?
—There are seven tests all stapled together. All mini-assessments. There are 5 questions, a bubble sheet, and there are 7 of them. Math and Reading. Two Reading tests and two Math tests on different days. One day is Reading, the next day is Reading, the next day is Math, and the other day is Math. So this is like taking FCAT twice, because ———Benchmark is a mock of FCAT.
How did your teacher prepare your class for Benchmark testing this week?
—We’ve been practicing. She told us it was like FCAT, but shorter. She told us what the questions are like. But they asked me something I didn’t know and it was complicated for me.
Can you tell me about that?
—I didn’t know what the units were, or what the sq. ft. was. And it was hard for me.
Would you like to learn about sq. ft. and units?
OK, we can do that. How do you feel about the FCAT?
—A little nervous.
What makes you nervous?
—What makes me most nervous is when I don’t know the answer, I worry that if I get it wrong, I don’t know what will happen.
Has your teacher talked about what will happen if you don’t do well on the FCAT?
Is there anything you want to ask me?
—I want to know why there’s so much testing.
What would you want to be doing instead of testing?
—I want to do more science and learning more things.
What do you learn from testing?
—Nothing. I study what I already know TO test. Everything we learn, there’s a test afterward.
Is it always a multiple-choice test?
—No. Sometimes we have free response, but mostly it’s multiple-choice.
—Yes, even in Time For Kids, our social studies, we have questions that are multiple choice and then on the back, they have the same exact questions, just placed in a different order.
How do you study to test?
So you practice taking tests?
—A week before the test, we do a review of the benchmark test.
How often do you practice taking tests?
—Every time we learn something new.
What is that like for you?
—Like doing the same thing over and over again.
Do you like school?
—I like school. I love school, but I just don’t like to test all the time.
So how do you feel about school now?
—I have to do everything over and over again.
Do you enjoy that?
—No, I could be learning new things instead of doing it twice.
So how do you feel about school the way it is for you now?
—Like I’m wasting a lot of time when I could be learning something.
If you could tell your teacher how you would like school to be, what would you tell her?
—I would tell her that I don’t want to do things over and over again. I want to learn new things.
A few weeks later, my daughter asked me, “Mommy, do I have to take the FCAT?”
Your school says you have to. —But do I HAVE to…? Well, no, you don’t, actually. —What if I don’t take the test? If you don’t test, they could try to keep you in the third grade, but I talked to your teacher and you would be fine. —I don’t want to take it. Why not? —My teacher keeps saying it’s really easy. We spent all day today taking Benchmark tests and she says it’s just like that. It’s a stupid waste of time to do it again and it doesn’t TEACH me anything. AND we still have to test the rest of this week. (Testing before the test. Great.) What would you like to learn? —Social Studies. We hardly do any Social Studies. Would you like me to talk to your teacher? —Can my teacher MAKE me…? No one can make you do anything you don’t want to do. Ever. —Mom, Why don’t you like the FCAT?
And so, we began another conversation that night…
I shared these exchanges with Becky Smith, fellow Opt Out Orlando rabble -rouser and brilliant educator/activist/friend. Becky responded:
“I am happy to hear that you decided to have this conversation with Emma. Children undoubtedly know what’s going on (the meaningless abounds every piece of legislation), and the most perceptive teachers and parents are keen to the children’s awareness. The problem is that youngest children are waiting for us to tell them it’s OK to question and resist what’s being done to them. We, as parents and teachers, have to give them the ‘go ahead’ to do so. We have to bring them into the conversation so they can learn to be critical of what’s happening in their schools, what they’re being taught, and how they’re being treated (You know as well as I do, that such vital discussion are not happening in the schools).
I have struggled immensely with how much of this reality to share with my own 6 year old daughter. She’s so loving and joyful, and I worry that too much ‘reality‘ will make her cynical and distrustful. I came to the realization, though, that if I didn’t involve her in the process now, I was setting her up for a life of servitude and manipulation by a system that sees humans as nothing more than dollar signs. Our children get it because they confront it everyday in ways that you and I don’t. All children know, and that is both the beauty and the tragedy of it. The youngest children simply lack the language to bring it into a cohesive form, like the Love Letter to Albuquerque Public Schools.
Keep engaging her in the conversation, encourage her to question and to be critical. These qualities form the essence of democracy.”
My discussions with my daughter were not about school not being fun. At eight years old, my daughter understands that school is not always fun. She is not a ‘spoiled‘ child, who is at school to be merely entertained or occupied. She is, at eight years old, a very serious student. She is creative, artistic, imaginative, generous, and she is allowed to question anything, even when I might prefer it if she would just be compliant. She looks at and sees things beyond the surface. School might not always even be interesting, but she is a child who craves learning and loves going to school. At eight years old, she is very clear that she goes to school to learn. What is most important about my discussions with her is that she believed she wasn’t learning, and that I believed her. She also learned that night that I would listen to her, that I believed her, that she had valid reasons for concern and that I, her Mom and fierce advocate, would look out for her interests.
Even young children probably get it more than parents think they do. Children have amazingly accurate internal alarms when something doesn’t make sense to them, but they may not always know how to start the conversation, if they even know what to call it. What happens to their unasked questions if we don’t teach them how to ask?
My children no longer attend this school. We did opt out of the third grade FCAT with no consequence. Except for my daughter’s teacher compiling a portfolio as an alternative assessment, my daughter was promoted to the fourth grade without much fuss.
Talk with your children. They already know. If you’re hearing a similar bedtime story from your child, you might consider whether you approve of their ‘new normal’. If not, you might consider opting out. We can show you how.