It’s Harder To Be A Gen-X Parent Than To Parent A Gen-Xer: Reason #1, Standardized Testing

Where are all the students? At the computer lab taking the PARCC test.

Where are all the students? At the computer lab taking the PARCC test.

My mother-in-law has said more than once that being a parent today is so much more difficult than it used to be. I think she might be right, so I am launching a series here to invite commiseration, which I am calling, It’s Harder to Be a Gen-X Parent Than to Parent a Gen-Xer.

Let’s start with the topic of the moment, standardized testing. I am not an educator, so the only true experience I have is having taken standardized tests, reviewed my kids’ test results, and prepared my kids to take theirs — you know, things like making sure they have snacks in the backpack, get a good night’s rest, don’t get sick, have some protein at breakfast, avoid stressors within 5 days before or following the tests, don’t get itchy, wear their preferred turtleneck, feel great about themselves and their capabilities so they can do their best all within the context of don’t worry, you’ll do great.

But even with my limited perspective, the message from educators and parents is clear to me — kids of my children’s generation undergo far more scrutiny by testing than I did back in the day, and it’s interrupting their education.

When my parents were parents, I don’t remember standardized testing being that much of an issue. Once a year, maybe less often, your mom gave you some extra no. 2 pencils to take to school, mentioning that oh, by the way, you were going to have some tests that week, no big deal. There were no snacks, nothing special aside from the fact that you got a break from the usual routine. A few weeks later, your scores showed up, and you weren’t entirely sure what they meant, and they had no relevance to your life (until high school). They also had much less influence on your teacher’s performance reviews or salary, if any.

In March and May of this year, many (or most) of the schools in Illinois (where I live) will administer something called the PARCC test. I can be relieved that my kids do not attend public school and therefore don’t have to take this test (this year, at least), because this thing appears to be a disaster-in-waiting. In the city of Chicago, there is a movement for parents to refuse the test. These people aren’t just trying to rock the boat because they like waves. Apparently of the 26 states that originally intended to administer the test, only 10 are going through with it. Even school administrators are speaking out, according to this piece in the Washington Post about a superintendent in the Chicago suburb of Winnetka who “warns” parents about the downsides of the test.

Just out of curiosity, I decided to take a look at the practice test for fourth-grade math. I’ve had two kids in the fourth-grade who have been taught with two separate (though similar) curricula, so I feel that I am pretty familiar with what fourth-graders are expected to know. My kids’ school sets the bar pretty high. It’s a Blue Ribbon school, so my assumption is that the teaching is strong enough for my assessment to be valid.

Here’s what I found. The first screen was a set of instructions that I hope teachers are walking through, as they are somewhat convoluted if you have the attention span of a nine-year-old. This is not a straight-forward fill-in-the-bubble deal or even pick the right answer. Some questions will have more than one answer, and you have to do this. Others will have only one right answer, and you have to do that. Fortunately, it was far more intuitive when I got to the questions, but what a way to elevate the nerves before the kids even get to the first question.

The first two problems were pretty straight-forward, though not necessarily easy. One on place value was, “The value of the digit 4 in the number 42,780 is 10 times the value of digit 4 in which number?” The test-taker has four numbers to choose from all with the number four somewhere in them. A kid may know place value when asked, “What is the place value of 4 in the number 42,780?” but this question requires them to use place value in an additional way by working in the 10-times-the-value part. I can’t say this is beyond what’s expected of a fourth-grader, but they aren’t factoring in any warm-up here, are they?

The third question was interesting. It involved adding three multi-digit numbers from a chart to get a total number of reports for a science fair, then figuring out how many tables would be needed to fit the reports, working with two different size tables, one size of which was available in a fixed amount. Once you used up all those tables, how many of the other size would you need at minimum?

Then there was a part two that asked a similar sort of question. And I might actually be wording this question better. (If you want to check it out, it’s the Computer-Based Practice Test under PBA Practice tests at this link.)

Granted, every step of that question is acceptable for a fourth-grader. They need to be able to read from a chart, add multi-digit numbers and multiply. But there is a certain amount of mental endurance necessary for answering questions that have multiple layers.

My son recently had a similar, though less complicated, question for extra credit on a test. He ran out of time, so we went over it at home. I know adults who opted for liberal arts majors in college just to avoid this kind of math. (Granted, one could argue that math avoidance didn’t help us compete with educational systems around the world, but my guess is that the problems we expect teachers to solve have little to do with an overabundance of English and history majors.)

Full disclosure — I am not one of those parents who doesn’t like Common Core math. Actually, the way that it has been taught to my children, I think it’s an improvement over how I learned. My issue with these tests is whether or not they align with how the kids are learning in the classroom.

This PARCC test and others like it seem a lot like veneer, the idea that problems will be solved by the introduction of more (and more complicated) testing. Standards will be followed. Students can be evaluated. Teachers can be told to raise their scores or else.

What about the learning, or, even more important, the desire to learn? Are these kids going to school to gain knowledge and explore the world, or are they showing up so they can be measured and make a few people who guide educational policy feel better about this country’s performance compared to Korea and Finland? This seems like a ridiculous question, but how close does this recent article in The Onion feel to reality?

They say in carpentry, “Measure twice and cut once.” Maybe in education the new saying could be, “Measure, measure, measure and measure again. And then measure some more.”

 

We are more than our metrics.

More than our metricsThis may be expected of a person who seems to gravitate toward the subjective, but I have a growing uneasiness about our culture’s obsession with metrics.

A few days ago, I commented on someone’s Facebook post on one of the latest books about education, one that compares and contrasts our system with the some of the world’s more successful. Having not read the book, I can’t say that the other countries aren’t sucked into obsessive measurement of their students, but I know we are. My family’s personal experience hasn’t been too mired in metrics, but I know plenty of parents whose kids are taught to the test. Last year teachers at our local public school district went on strike in part because of measurement. I saw many picketers holding up signs saying something along the lines of, “Do you want your child to learn to think or fill in a bubble?”

Today it’s a recent article from the New York Times on the ranking of colleges and universities by the income of its graduates that has me disturbed. We knew it would come to this, right? I’m a bit surprised it has taken this long, but I suppose accessing and calculating this kind of data is a massive undertaking.

This development bothers me for a couple of reasons. The first is the broader issue of how it seems that nothing can go unmeasured. (Perhaps instead of No Child Left Behind, we should say No Child Left Unmeasured.) Granted, with the price of a college education as high as it is, it’s clear how tempting it is to evaluate a school’s worth based on potential income of its graduates. Yet, it also devalues so many aspects of higher education that can’t be translated into data that is fed into a spreadsheet that gives us objective numbers. I credit my four years in college with expanding my worldview and giving me the confidence to explore. I don’t believe that either of these influenced my salary at any point in my career, though my liberal arts education makes it possible for me to position it that way, if that was in fact, my point. Beyond the paper my degree is printed on (and where that is, I have no idea) and my transcript, most of what I left with is fairly subjective.

That subjective stuff is the best part. People invest in these degrees, most believing that they will carry them throughout the several decades of their adult life. This involves not only job skills (many of which are actually obtained through internships and entry-level work anyway), but also the hallmarks of liberal education, such as communication skills, interpretation, critical thinking and an appreciation of the human experience, among many other things. Will the algorithm to measure this stuff ever exist?

The other troubling point is what is being measured — money. In the case of a college education, this is a chicken-and-egg prospect. College is expensive. Though our modern financial approaches make it within reach of many people, it really shouldn’t be. I’m not a financial expert, but I wonder if a collapse similar to what happened with the housing market is possible with higher education. This is why this kind of measurement is so enticing, I suppose. Why spend six figures if you’re not going to get a sizable return?

This brings us back to the real value of higher education. In the article, one of the experts quoted cautions against higher education becoming more like a “referral or employment agency.” It seems that colleges are being viewed as white collar trade schools. What if your “trade” isn’t high-paying, like teaching or social work? Should you encourage your kid to go to a less expensive school simply because he or she wants to study a subject with limited financial gain?

Will this create a system where the most expensive and most prestigious colleges will primarily educate our engineers, financial tycoons and CEOs, with the less-expensive options focused on the folks who help our children prepare for college or provide many, many people with the skills to function in our society? What about healthcare professionals? With the income potential for jobs like general and family practitioners decreasing in comparison to the cost of medical school, will the people who help us manage our health be encouraged to seek out lower-cost degrees?

And if college education becomes segmented by income potential, will it become a you-get-what-you-pay-for situation?

Worse yet, what if our most ambitious and talented folks choose only degrees that will earn them a certain amount of money? We all know this happens already. By focusing even more attention on this, does it become a mandate for choosing a career? Will it tip the balance for more people between wealth and happiness in what they do for a living?

I’m not an educator, financial guru or mathematician (which is probably quite apparent), but I have a strong sense that we are counting up the leaves and the branches, but missing the beautiful forest. Maybe it’s just that the art of art is lost on us as we try to add it all up and make some kind of sense of the value we provide in our world. My gut tells me that with all this concern of measuring up, we are missing a big piece of the human experience.