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Posted at 9:00 AM ET, 04/23/2010

Who’s afraid of the TerraNova 2 test?

By Valerie Strauss

terra nova photo.jpg

My guest is Lynn Anne Miller, who blogs about green parenting at She also runs 4GreenPs, a strategic marketing firm for sustainable brands. You can follow Lynn on Twitter @OrganicMania. If she manages to mess up her eldest son’s life by not taking the TerraNova 2 seriously enough, she promises to do things differently with her 3-year-old.

By Lynn Anne Miller
“Is the TNT hard?,” a little voice asked from the back seat of my station wagon.

“What’s the TNT?” I asked my son, thinking it was probably yet another new movie or game that I hadn’t heard of.

“The TerraNova 2!” he exclaimed.

“The TerraNova 2?,” I asked, puzzled, thinking vaguely of a new Star Wars Lego ship or something of that ilk.

“The TerraNova 2,” he said with great exasperation. “You know, the test we have to take. It’s supposed to be really hard.”

“Oh, don’t worry about those tests! They don’t matter!” I exclaimed.

Now lest you think I’m a total slacker, you should know I’ve passed my own fair share of standardized tests in my lifetime, which led to a BA and two graduate degrees.

My husband, a stereotypical “nerdy” scientist with a PhD, has convinced me that our second grader’s academic fate does not rest on the outcome of the many standardized tests our local school administers in Montgomery County. Instead, he points out, these tests really are tests of the teachers.

So why do the kids get stressed out?

In our household, we’ve decided to ignore the existence of standardized tests. We’re convinced that the most important thing about second grade is mastering reading and basic arithmetic, learning to cooperate with others, and earning a decent report card along the way.

Like other Washington area parents, we’ve heard our fair share of tales about stressed out kids. Books like “The Overachievers,” set right in our hometown of Bethesda helped us to realize that we should just be low key.

Kids in the D.C. area are subject to enough stress without their parents adding to it.

But my son wasn’t buying his mother’s relaxed attitude about standardized testing.

“The TerraNova 2 is really important!” he insisted. “It’s one of those tests that determines where I go to college!”

Now I was annoyed. Not at him. But at the school bureaucracy that somehow manages to terrify seven-year-olds with perfectly respectable report cards.

“That is ridiculous!” I snapped. “Who told you that?”
And of course, he shut up.

“I don’t want to talk about it anymore!,” he yelled, before hopping out of the car and running into a friend’s house for a play date.

So that’s what gave me the first inkling that the TerraNova 2s, a battery of tests delivered over the course of several days, is fast approaching.

The last time a round of standardized tests were administered, my son reported stomach aches.

Kids are amazing little critters. They pick up on the emotions of those around them. I suspected my son’s wonderful, amazing, talented young teacher was perhaps stressed out by these tests, and her fears were impacting my child.

So I asked her about it (casually, of course, in keeping with my relaxed ‘tude). I asked her: How it is that second graders are getting stressed out by these tests? Who is scaring the kids?

She empathized with me. She agreed that the TNTs are nothing to be worried about. It
could be the parents, she suggested. Or the other kids. Talking to each other about what their parents say. Some parents really pressure their kids, she told me.

A few days later, an unusual bright orange paper arrived home in my son’s backpack. It was hard to miss amidst all the other plain white papers in his backpack.

“Attention Parents!” proclaimed the bold print headline.

“This is a reminder that your child will be taking the TN2 (Terra Nova Test of Basic Skills) multiple choice achievement assessments in reading, language arts, and match (an MCPS mandated test for all 2nd graders) the week of April 26th.

“The testing is scheduled for the mornings of Monday, April 26th, Tuesday, April 27th and Wednesday, April 28th.

"Please try not to schedule outside appointments on those days. Also, please make sure your child arrives at school on time.

"You can support your child by making sure he/she:

"Gets a good night’s sleep!

"Eats a good breakfast!

"Comes to school on time!"

The back side of the flyer continued with no less than eight “suggestions” for parents and guardians.

Hmm…I wonder who’s making a big deal about these tests. Not this parent.

And how goes it in your world? Does your grade schooler tell you about these “important” and “hard” tests that will predict his fate?

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By Valerie Strauss  | April 23, 2010; 9:00 AM ET
Categories:  Montgomery County Public Schools, Standardized Tests  | Tags:  Montgomery County schools, TerraNova2, montgomery county schools and terranova, standardized tests  
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You are correct, kids pick up on the stress of adults around them. Teachers have been told that kids need to pass or they lose their jobs, why wouldn't they be stressed?

Perhaps political leaders might want to consider the wisdom of basing hiring and firing decisions based on one data point created by stressed out kids, but I doubt they will.

At least the child here cares about the test. Here in DC we have students who refuse to take the test because they "don't want to" and we really have no recourse.

Posted by: Wyrm1 | April 23, 2010 9:14 AM | Report abuse

The United States used to be a country that allowed children to learn in a natural and relaxed way. Test scores were shared with parents and teachers and were not used to stress children or label them. Because of this cultural difference, the US often had the "dumbest" fourth graders in the world but these "dummies" managed to become very capable adults in almost every field of endeaver.

Now we have joined nations that place great stress on their youngest citizens and judge them by their test scores. Many of these young people burn out by the time they get to university. Once there, a great number start to coast at a time when concentrated study is needed.

Only parents can combat this pernicious trend that is making school miserable for our children. Please do what you can to stop the testing craze in our country. You'll be helping your own child and the children of parents who don't feel empowered to speak up.

Posted by: Linda/RetiredTeacher | April 23, 2010 10:38 AM | Report abuse

"Now I was annoyed. Not at him. But at the school bureaucracy that somehow manages to terrify seven-year-olds with perfectly respectable report cards."

Yesyesyesyesyes!! ARGH!! DD took the MSAs this year for the first time (3rd grade). The school basically devoted about a month of teaching time to test prep (2+ hrs/day from right after winter break until the March tests). She had been learning long division; but as of January 1, they went back to 2- and 3-digit addition and subtraction, because that's what the test focused on. Homework mostly disappeared in favor of "MSA prep" packets. As the March dates approached, they had pep rallies, parties, reminder flyers, lectures from the teachers about eating properly and getting a good night's sleep, etc. etc. etc.

Not surprisingly, DD figured out that the test was a HUGE deal. A few nights before the test, she burst into tears at bedtime: she was worried that she wouldn't be able to fall asleep, and would "fail" the test, because her teachers had told her how important it was to get a good night's sleep! In all the test prep excitement, no one had bothered to let the kids know that it wouldn't affect their own grades, that it was all about the school and the teachers.

So what I take from this is: her school, which always performs well on these assessments, wants to be able to ensure that its bragging rights continue. To do that, they are willing to (a) stop teaching the kids new stuff for what was effectively a full month of class time, and (b) put so much pressure on these kids to perform that some of the kids break down. Someone please tell me how this is supposed to help the kids learn??

Posted by: laura33 | April 23, 2010 10:52 AM | Report abuse

School culture changes dramatically during testing season. The TN2 only involves one grade so we might have to switch lunch periods around. The MSA involves 3 grades and everything changes! Academic support teachers (reading, math ESL etc.) are all pulled to provide accommodations during the practice tests and the actual tests. Music, Art and P.E. classes are sometimes cancelled so that those teachers help as well. It is insane. We lose so much time that could better be spent actually teaching the kids! As far as pressure goes--Montgomery County is pushing the Seven Keys to College Readiness which begins in kindergarten. My youngest was extremely successful in college and he didn't meet any of the keys! So much for considering the individual child. It's become a one-size-fits-all mentality and it is really depressing!

Posted by: musiclady | April 23, 2010 12:48 PM | Report abuse

Hi Lynn. This is a classic example of misguided intentions gone awry...the necessity for a battery of standardized testing for students is highly questionable, IMO (with district, state and national testing consuming more and more classroom time, limiting the breadth & depth of content taught, focusing almost exclusively on methods to teach to the test, draining the passion from teachers, frightening scores of students, and wreaking havoc in our nations ability to regain its prior position of eminence in student achievement ...this is all the result of a well-intentioned desire to ensure students receive the best education possible however it has little to no correlation as to whether they do or not since so many factors external to the classroom impact student achievement, especially on any given day where a test like this is meant to capture knowledge without accounting for all the statistical noise present in a single snapshot or being able to control for all of the other factors impacting student it stresses kids, teachers, parents, administrators, districts and various boards of education out without achieving its intended objective...its like a bunch of newly minted MBAs are running amok in the educational field...all well-intentioned, but misinformed, biased, and blindly unaware of their fallacious reasoning, logic, methodologies, instruments, is likely that this will not change until parents like yourself, and myself, take the initiative to lead opposition to this line of thinking...sadly, the results of these tests often do impact our child's education in that funding, planning and other significant educational decisions are impacted by the results of these tests...apologies for the length of this post...I'm becoming quite passionate about the educational field, both as a parent and someone about to enter the teaching profession...I'm hoping my time as a parent, and 20+ year career in high tech will help me bring common sense back into the classroom...or at least ensure my students understand why they are being asked to take all these tests and perhaps find a way to get their parents more involved in having a voice in their local school and district...and beyond, ideally...

Posted by: dreid64 | April 24, 2010 7:33 PM | Report abuse

It's too bad more students don't refuse to take standardized tests because they "don't want to." Or better still, if every student turned in a blank test paper, the tests would disappear rapidly.

Posted by: sideswiththekids | April 25, 2010 8:57 AM | Report abuse


You have suggested the solution to this testing madness:

Parents need to request that their children be excused from the test. When enough parents do that, that will be the end of them.

Posted by: Linda/RetiredTeacher | April 25, 2010 11:29 AM | Report abuse

"Or better still, if every student turned in a blank test paper, the tests would disappear rapidly."

Right, because it's so absurdly unreasonable for the state to wonder how its money is being spent. And kids should just be allowed to think that school is magical fun, rather than the primary occupation of their early years.

As for the writer, watch how she'll whine and kvetch if her school gets bad scores and faces cuts in funding or other unpleasant results if the school shared her attitudes to tests.

A woman with two graduate degrees and a husband with a PhD are well, well above average intelligence. Of course, she's apparently not smart enough to know that the school isn't worried about her kids, who will undoubtedly do just fine.

And please, if you've got a kid who bursts into tears because of these tests, it's not the school's fault. You've got a little drama queen, and the correct parenting approach is to tell her to get over herself, that life's going to offer a lot of experiences when she'll feel pressure. The key is to face the challenge--and the feelings--and move on.

Posted by: Cal_Lanier | April 25, 2010 11:42 AM | Report abuse

First, in the interest of full disclosure, Lynn and I were classmates (Lehigh University, '85).
As a substitute teacher in Pennsylvania, I have just experienced the angst and drama of the PSSA (Pennsylvania System of School Assessment) exams.
At the county's techinical institute (in my generation known as vo-tech), a period was set aside for PSSA prep. The teachers there were definitely "teaching to the test."
The sad part, though, was that the students in special ed were being taught to the test when they really needed to be focusing on learning basic life skills, like balancing a checkbook or completing an employment application, or learning a trade, like carpentry.
At a local middle school, I saw the after-effects of the PSSA exam: students who had not had an opportunity to unwind from all the PSSA hype or who were exhausted from the multiple days of testing. This made it difficult for them to concentrate and me to teach them new math concepts the day I was there.
We are stressing out our kids when it comes to standardized tests, the results of which have no bearing on their grades.
I'm starting to seriously think about requesting exemptions next year to the PSSA exam for my twin daughters, who will be in third grade, the first grade level included in the PSSA.

Posted by: cpgangl | April 26, 2010 10:45 AM | Report abuse

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