He’s a sweet child, innocent and earnest with a bit of Tom Sawyer mixed in. He works hard and is able to manipulate numbers with the best of them, but when in comes to the questions on the STAAR test he sometimes gets befuddled. He wants to be like his dad whom he adores, a smart engineer. Somehow he loses confidence whenever he compares himself because, after all, the STAAR test often challenges his abilities and makes him feel less than. He worries a great deal about how he will do on the mathematics test because he has to work slowly to be certain that he is correct in his analysis of the questions. He gets most of the answers correct, but often has to hurry to finish in time and that’s when he just has to make a best guess. He wants to be thought of as smart and competent, which he is, but that test threatens to make him look bad, so he becomes anxious. His teacher confided that she doesn’t think he will pass. He goes to his mother in a state of panic and cries. He wonders what he will do if he fails. Suddenly his head is so filled with fear that he can’t think. All of the concepts that he understands so well become jumbled and he has difficulty remembering things that he has mastered. The high stakes of the test have him discombobulated and he is only ten years old, already a worried old man having to deal with the trajectory of his future when he should be outside enjoying the lovely spring weather with his friends.
He took the STAAR test on Tuesday. It will be a while before any of us know how he did. I prayed all day Monday that he would remain calm and be able to reach into his memory bank to work the problems. He is able to tackle operations with fractions better than many high school students that I have taught. He understands how to perform operations with expressions as well and how to turn a linear graph or a table into an equation. He is able to discuss financial terms like gross and net income, property and payroll taxes. He is very bright in every way, but that test seems evil to him. The questions purposely have hidden meanings that he sometimes doesn’t catch. The problems may take as many as four steps to complete. When he’s nervous he might miss the catch, and he was very nervous on Tuesday.
I tried to show him how to tackle each question. I reminded him not to tarry too long on a single problem. I urged him to draw pictures of the given ideas. Together we underlined important information and crossed out whatever didn’t matter. He caught on quickly and his daily grades in school improved. He was named the student of the month because his teachers saw how hard he was working, and because he is so wonderfully kind. Still he was so concerned that he might not do well on the test, so I attempted to calm him. His parents also did their best to raise his confidence level. We all quietly worried that he was working himself into a state of mind that would interfere with his ability to do as well as he is capable.
Each school year I find myself railing at the STAAR test and other instruments supposedly used to measure the abilities and achievement levels of students. They are cold and supposedly objective ways of determining how well students and schools are doing, and yet we all know that they favor certain types of children over others. As a teacher I often witnessed kids who did little or nothing in class hit home runs on standardized tests while others who were almost religious in the way they applied themselves crashed and burned. According to the exam they had not learned all that they should have, but I knew better because I was so familiar with who they were. Some of those same youngsters who flopped on the state exams went on to graduate with honors from college and to be highly successful in their chosen careers. It angered me that so many decisions were being made about them along the way based solely on a one day test created by a company that makes millions of dollars spewing out questions that many adults would be unable to answer correctly.
I recall a time when one of my principals complained that the teachers in the mathematics department were not raising student scores enough. He demanded that they work harder. Since I was the department head I took his criticisms personally and felt a bit defensive. I wanted him to know what the teachers and the students were dealing with so I gave him a seventh grade mathematics test and told him to complete it in the allotted time frame. Just as I would have with the kids I monitored him while he worked the problems. From time to time he looked at me in frustration and I read his body language to mean that he was beginning to see how difficult the tests can be. When he was finished I graded his work immediately. He made a sixty seven. He was crushed and asked me to never reveal his score to anyone. He then met with the mathematics teachers and praised them for their dedication. He told them that he understood just how difficult it was to prepare the students for the tests. His encouragement brought results. Every single teacher had better overall scores than in the past. Perhaps the tests had been easier, but I prefer to think that when the teachers felt more support they transferred their own feelings to the students.
I seriously question why we put students and teachers and even principals through the misery of yearly standardized testing. I worry about the well being of our children and question putting them through such stressful situations when the overall results of such measures don’t actually correlate to ultimate success in life. We are deluding ourselves in thinking that the exams are fair because every study has shown that they are not. Mostly they turn off the natural curiosity of children and their willingness to take risks. So many psyches are being crushed making the “I hate math” crowd grow larger and larger when we might instead encourage our children to explore the world of numbers without worrying that they will be harmed. Math can actually be fun, but not so much when it is used to label an individual.
I suppose that I will continue my yearly rant with no effect, but I feel compelled to defend all of the boys and girls who live in fear of the humiliation that sometimes comes from them. I refuse to be quiet until somebody finally listens and considers the true worth of such measures. Instead of making testing companies rich, perhaps it is time that we enrich the lives of our young by pulling the plug on such high stakes testing. It’s well past time to use our heads and finally do what is right.