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.”