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The Tests Are Coming!

Two weeks in a row, my son's kindergarten class has been bumped from PE. When I asked why that was this past week, he said the older kids were practice testing in the gym.

And so, the No Child Left Behind testing stressors have begun. First, we received an analysis of the school's Maryland State Assessment testing performance. The assessment is given to kids in grades 3 through 8.

Then, the school spends a month (really, a WHOLE month!) preparing for the tests, which are being given in April. Parents report receiving practice take-home packets and children being pulled from class into special study and practice sessions. And the school, like many around the area, holds an MSA test pep rally a few days before the test.

Mom Prudence Bushnell Boyer of Silver Spring, whose fourth grader is in her second year of MSAs, reports frustration with the focus on testing at such an early age: "The whole thing stresses them. Of course, they'll want to go to a pep rally. but ultimately, when she comes home, she's all worked up. When they [the school] keep stressing MSAs, [the kids] need to keep reaching for better, better, better. The kids get all worked up and they don't know what the consequences are. The scores aren't a paper you can go over with them. It's the school system's report card, George Bush's report card, Jerry Weast's report card." Boyer says that the testing left her daughter anxious with sleepless nights last year.

Boyer isn't the only one with these thoughts. Last year, Karen Flynn of Silver Spring wrote of her concern over the test's focus to Post education columnist Jay Mathews:

"The school put on a pep rally the week before the test. All children were taken out of class for the rally, and the second grade spent time in the weeks before writing and practicing skits for it. I'm all in favor of including more theater and drama in the curriculum, but I think it's a pathetic state of affairs when the organizing principle for such an activity is a standardized test."

This is the type of stuff that good folk songs are made from. So, for some perspective (and a good chuckle), put on your headphones and listen to Tom Chapin.

How does your school prepare for its state testing? How do your kids react to the school's approach?

This Week's Talkers: Parents May Be Jailed Over Vaccinations ... Listen Up! This 1-Year-Old Can Read ... Panel Finds Faults in America's Math System

By Stacey Garfinkle |  March 14, 2008; 7:15 AM ET  | Category:  Elementary Schoolers , Tweens
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Wow, that's really an excellent song!

Posted by: Laura | March 14, 2008 7:54 AM | Report abuse

On test day, they roll out the red carpet for the kids, then the teachers serve their students a hot breakfast as the principal, vice principals and resource teachers walk around and give back, shoulder and neck massages to the uptight students.

Posted by: GutlessCoward | March 14, 2008 8:06 AM | Report abuse

My daughter is in 3rd grade at an FCPS school. She has taken the BART test 5 times this year. The BART is a test that assesses readiness for the SOLs. Every time they take the BART, it takes 2-3 days of instruction away. The entire curriculum is geared around the SOLs, so when they are over, the year is effectively over. All this testing is a ridiculous waste of money, time, and childhood.

Posted by: fcps | March 14, 2008 8:43 AM | Report abuse

I don't even have kids, and all this testing makes me wish I could afford private school when I do have kids. This kind of standardized testing discourages learning. It discourages children from thinking and rational thought, it discourage creative problem solving. And frankly, I don't see how it's good for children to spend YEARS of their life knowing that everything they're learning in school isn't to prepare them for college, or for real life, but is to prepare them for a test some bureaucrat wrote. Way to discourage natural curiousity.

Posted by: JB in VA | March 14, 2008 9:00 AM | Report abuse

What concerns me is that
-September is spent reviewing what everyone has forgotten over the summer,
-December is spent taking benchmarks,
-February through April are seemingly spent reviewing for the test
-and then once tests (SOLS in VA) are given in May, the school year is effectively over, and my kids at least seem to spend the rest of the year out on the playground "recovering" from SOLS.

It seems that the school year which USED to be 10 months long is now about six months long, what with all the breaks for testing. My kids get rushed through the math curriculum at this breakneck pace so they'll be "done" in March, so that they can then review for the SOL's. This is why families (like us) that can't afford private school end up using tutors and the like to get their kids through the year. The school year seems to be getting shorter and shorter, and no one is protesting against this.

At least in our neighborhood, all the parents seem to accept that nothing will be done in school once SOL's are over -- and I know a number of families who are actually planning their summer vacations for early June, so that they can take advantage of cheap rates, secure in the knowledge that their children won't be missing out since no actual learning takes place in school once the SOL's are over. (And we wonder why America is behind in math and science . . )

Posted by: Anonymous | March 14, 2008 9:13 AM | Report abuse

This is interesting, because these tests are a non-issue for my kids - they don't stress out about it at home at all. I hardly know they are happening. PE isn't canceled. Any practice they do is in their own classroom - so while they may be missing instruction time, they are not missing the specials because of anothers classes practice. No homework practice packets either. I think last year they did have a pep rally - but again, the kids like a good pep rally, so there was no stress there, either.

Posted by: prarie dog | March 14, 2008 9:17 AM | Report abuse

I also disagree that the year is over after the testing is done. In the past, my now fifth grader keeps on learning up until the last week.

Posted by: prarie dog | March 14, 2008 9:20 AM | Report abuse

i think one of the teachers last year figured that more than an entire grading period was spent getting ready for the test, pre-tests, benchmarks, and testing.

i am glad i teach pre-k and we don't test them. yet.

Posted by: pre-kteacher | March 14, 2008 9:22 AM | Report abuse

My kids (Maryland public schools) have never stressed about the tests; and from what I've seen haven't really lost too much academic time to the tests. They've also always passed the MSA's and HSA's, and their schools tend to do really well, so that may be why.

But let's look at the main reasons the test exist:
- schools that weren't performing and weren't measured. Schools giving diplomas to kids who were functionally illiterate.
- educational systems with no accountability. No one was rewarded for excellence nor punished for failure or even lack of effort.

NCLB and the standardized tests are far from perfect; there are lots of problems with them that should be addressed. But to blame them without proposing other solutions to the real problems that existed is naive and shortsighted.

So - what's your alternative to the tests?

Posted by: ArmyBrat | March 14, 2008 9:25 AM | Report abuse


Here's the take on it from a woman on my block. 75% of our school's district is private homes and 25% is mixed with apartments at best mid-income. Her daughter and her daughter's friends ace the tests. The kid who moved to the US from Guatemala in August fails the tests. If you have a large enough percentage of kids who need to be taught simply how to take a test then you've got a tough row to hoe.

Posted by: DCer | March 14, 2008 9:38 AM | Report abuse

A testing pep rally? seriously...I have never heard of something so ridiculous

Posted by: Momof5 | March 14, 2008 9:52 AM | Report abuse

I think a lot of it depends on how tightly wrapped your kid is. My children could have cared less, although food at school was always a plus - if they liked it.

Unlike some commenter's I did feel that school went into a hold mode after testing was finished. April would quickly move into May with end-of-year concerts and projects. The it seemed like there was an awful lot of movie watching.

Posted by: RoseG | March 14, 2008 9:57 AM | Report abuse

DCer, problems dealing with large numbers of non-English speaking students is one of the things I include as problems with the current testing regime. Another is how to deal with special education students. In general, they're lumped in with the general student population despite the fact that there's no way that they're ever going to do well. Sometimes you have an excellent school that develops a reputation for being a good choice for special ed kids. That's the case in our county; a couple of elementary schools have developed well-deserved reputations for being good choices if your child has special needs.(My wife happens to work at one of them.)

So parents try to get their children into those schools; some even going to the trouble of moving into the district. The end result is that the school winds up with lower overall test scores because of the high number of special needs students.

It can be enough to make your school lose its ranking as the highest scoring school in the county, but it would rarely if ever be enough to drop the school into the "underperforming" ranks.

It isn't perfect; there are issues. But I'm not convinced it's worse than it was before or even as bad as others might imply.

Posted by: ArmyBrat | March 14, 2008 9:59 AM | Report abuse

ArmyBrat: but everyone KNOWS which are the good schools. We are all well aware. You don't have to give the kids a test to tell me.

BUT *I* have school choice. I can move into any neighborhood I would like, and send my kids to any school I want (if we chose private school, I'm sure we could afford it, but we don't want that).

It's those families that *don't* have the choice, that I guess these tests are for. Because most families can't 'live wherever they'd like' or whatever - so the whole point of this is to PROVE that your school sucks - and I can already TELL you which schools I don't want my kids at. Why do I need tests to tell me?

That's what makes me SO ANGRY. All these politicians that don't want school choice *already *have* school choice!!!!*

And then there was the report that JUST came out saying that we are so far behind in math - even by middle school - that we have to significantly change our whole curriculum if we want americans who can compete in the next 10-20 years.

Posted by: atlmom1234 | March 14, 2008 10:07 AM | Report abuse

these tests are EXACTLY the reason why my children are in Montessori school rather than the local public school. We tried the public school for 1 1/2 years and found an abysmal learning and teaching environment, much of it driven by the existence of these NCLB (hah! it should be No SCHOOL Left Behind because, trust me, my child was left behind) mandated tests.

Posted by: slacker mom | March 14, 2008 10:14 AM | Report abuse

Hey, JB, private school kids don't escape standardized testing. My daughter attends K-4 at a private PK-12 school, and next week she and her preschool classmates (and K-5 kids) will take the Standford 10 test. They had prep this week, and they've already had a pep rally. My daughter is 4.

ArmyBrat, not all special ed kids bring down scores. My son, 7, reads at a 6th grade level. His other academics are advanced or on par. He missed TAG by one point, probably because of his disabilities. He has above-average to superior intelligence. He hasn't taken the MSA yet, and he likely will need accommodations when he does start testing. But I think chances are very good he'll do well. I think the answer is better teaching of special ed students, not fewer special ed students.

Posted by: ree | March 14, 2008 10:15 AM | Report abuse

I am very saddened to hear that the ridiculous emphasis on tests has come to Farifax County and Montgomery County Schools. I grew up in Fairfax County Public Schools and can't even remember taking standardized tests (I graduated from high school in 1992). I know I took them, but that was it, spent a couple of days and moved on.

I have now taught for ten years in inner city schools (DC, Detroit, and now Philadelphia). Every district I have taught in is crazed over the tests. I see nothing wrong with standardized tests. But the insanity and importance placed on them makes no sense. Pep rallies, prizes, trips to kings dominion for scoring well on a test. I have seen a lot of things.

From my experience, children who read on or above grade level, do well on the test. Test prep doesn't help children do well. Teaching them how to read does. If we spend our time teaching, students improve. What so many people have forgotten is that children don't become better readers by answering mutiple choice questions. In addition to decoding skills, they need a strong vocabulary and background knowledge on the topics they read. Where do children get the background knowledge and vocabulary? In all the classes that are cut from the early curriculum to prepare for tests: science, social studies, music, art, etc.

Posted by: Anonymous | March 14, 2008 10:22 AM | Report abuse

The SOLs or any of the tests are no stress particularly on my kid -- I think a tightly wind child will respond differently. The thing is, frankly, I think these tests are a great idea. My kid is learning something in school because stuff must taught because the schools and teachers must pass the test. Honestly, I learned nothing in elementary school, did you? What's wrong with having solid benchmarks to prove the learning? Everyone loved his last year teacher but the test scores proved otherwise. Being a good teacher means teaching. Really, kids are learning these days and it is GREAT.

Posted by: virginiamom | March 14, 2008 10:26 AM | Report abuse

Why is a pep rally considered useful? In school, I hated every single one, and by extension whatever idiocy they were held to promote. I'd much rather have stayed in class or gone to the library.

Posted by: Victoria | March 14, 2008 10:27 AM | Report abuse

atlmom: "ArmyBrat: but everyone KNOWS which are the good schools. We are all well aware. You don't have to give the kids a test to tell me."

From a parent's standpoint, I agree. The problem was that historically there was no way to "prove" that and force changes. When I went to high school in Louisiana, of the six high schools in the parish, everyone knew which two were the "best" academically; which two were to be avoided if possible; and which two were in the middle. But the school board would never do anything about it. They played political games of calling all schools equal and pretending that those of us complaining about being at lousy schools with few resources were crazy.

When standardized tests were brought in, and there were real consequences to schools failing the tests, the school board had no choice but to respond. They had to start devoting more time and resources to the worse-off schools, to bring them to at least the acceptable level.

(And lest you think that's just a Louisiana phenomenon, check into the situation in Anne Arundel County, MD. Look at the schools that were failing but are now having to be improved.)

I think it's sad that it had to be this way, but for many school districts, the benefit of standardized tests with consequences for excessive failures is that it forced school officials to deal with issues that they'd been ignoring for way too long.

Posted by: ArmyBrat | March 14, 2008 10:44 AM | Report abuse

ree, indeed, not all special needs kids have the same needs.

Posted by: ArmyBrat | March 14, 2008 10:45 AM | Report abuse

Why is a pep rally considered useful? In school, I hated every single one, and by extension whatever idiocy they were held to promote. I'd much rather have stayed in class or gone to the library.



Posted by: Anonymous | March 14, 2008 11:15 AM | Report abuse

"Honestly, I learned nothing in elementary school, did you?"

Seriously? I learned a huge amount, which I still use today. Best class I ever had was 4th grade "Latin in Language Arts" ("LILA") -- taught us what all those latin components that we see as prefixes, suffixes, and root words are. To this day I use that to decode words I've never heard before. I learned about civics and government -- ok, I learned the Preamble from "Schoolhouse Rock," but I learned my state's history, which gave me great pride in living where I was, and learned the basics of how the government worked, and that we have a constitution to protect individual rights. I learned basic aerodynamics by making a racecar out of wood, even won the championship. I started to learn the violin, which I stuck with all through high school.

"What's wrong with having solid benchmarks to prove the learning?"

The problem is what happens to those things that aren't measured, or that don't have a demonstrated direct correlation to a statistically significant increase in a test score. People only care about what's measured. I see it at my firm: if you want people to devote time to pro bono, you have to treat it as a billable hour; if you want people to spend X hours marketing, then you have to track marketing hours.

So why would schools be any different? If your success or failure is judged exclusively by reading and math scores, well, guess where you're going to focus all your attenion and resources? And even in the areas covered by the tests, when the cost of failure is so high, you are far, far more likely to stick with the "tried and true" than take a flier on something different like LILA. So all of my good elementary school experiences -- the parts that mattered enough for me to remember them 30+ years later, the things that got me fired up about learning -- get squeezed out.

Posted by: laura33 | March 14, 2008 11:22 AM | Report abuse

First - much is learned in elem. school - the love of learning, hopefully, is the biggest. But a foundation for all learning is also learned.

ArmyBrat: my point was - some people have school choice, and some don't. So the reality is that the tests are failing our kids. So what's the answer? School choice. And then the schools that aren't so good need to compete for the students - they either get better, or get closed. Why shouldn't ALL parents have the choice. I know there are some drawbacks, but there are many good things that can't be ignored by choice.

Posted by: atlmom | March 14, 2008 11:26 AM | Report abuse

atlmom,remember that school choice IS a big part of NCLB. If a school is failing for too many years, the school system MUST let students transfer out of it. The standardized tests just give a benchmark to use to say when a school is failing (which, we all agree, most parents already "know"), rather than allow the school system to continue their routine of "failing? failing? did you say failing? No school of ours is failing - every one had a graduation ceremony last year!"

One could argue that every school district ought to automatically allow any student to transfer among its schools after every year or even every semester, but that could lead to chaos. You could honestly have several hundred more students at a school than you had the previous year, and it makes it almost impossible for the system to plan properly.

Posted by: ArmyBrat | March 14, 2008 11:39 AM | Report abuse

I don't have kids and graduated HS in the mid90s, so I don't know how things work now. Are children required to take standardized tests? My mother would frequently let us skip school on test days because she thought they were a waste of time.

Posted by: confused | March 14, 2008 11:48 AM | Report abuse

hey ree, if you were at my school, your best shot at getting your 2e child help would be if they didn't think he could do well on the MSAs. Mine passes (not excels, due to writing issues) so no go for any help in school.

when this child was stressed out about them, I told them that the score didn't matter to him, just to the school.

I don't really mind the tests. I don't think the schools should take time away to get ready for them. I went to school decades ago and the standardized tests were just interruptions, not the end all. I would like to see the progression of each child at his level determined, but yes that would be a dream world.

Posted by: anonymous | March 14, 2008 12:55 PM | Report abuse

Yes, Army brat there are definitely issues to having school choice - but I think they are better than the issues that are there with this testing. That's all I'm saying. All I'm saying is that we don't NEED these tests. There is NOT ONE parent who would pull their kids out of the elem school I'm districted to. So why are those kids being tested? Why are we testing kids at all? Well, yes, there should be some sort of testing, at some points in time, but this NCLB is a terrible thing and a burden on the schools, teachers, and kids. Most of all the kids.

And it's not making the education in any school better - so why is it good?

Posted by: atlmom | March 14, 2008 1:15 PM | Report abuse

When Star testing started - that's what it's called here in CA, and it began before NCLB - we opted out for our older son. Because of his autism, he tests very poorly, and the school staff made sure we knew we could opt out.

As he's gotten older, we've allowed him to take the tests - with Spec. Ed. modifications - because he's going to have to pass the high school exit exam (CAHSEE), and testing now gives everyone a chance to figure out how to get his best results on tests. Which test modifications will help, and which won't make a difference?

Last month was his first attempt at CAHSEE, and the school dropped the ball. He only got half the test forms, and did only the second day of testing, sitting out the first day. We've been told he'll get to do the missing half when the juniors and seniors who haven't yet passed have their tests.

We've had exactly the opposite experiences with younger son. He tests well, and the school really, really wants his participation. So much so that last year when he was sick at school, testing anyway, it backfired. His math score was "way below basic" because of his illness. The school would have been better off if they'd called us and sent him home.

Posted by: sue | March 14, 2008 4:08 PM | Report abuse

Anonymous, I hear ya. One of my son's disabilities is PDD-NOS. The other is ADHD. He still has trouble with writing, so that is one reason for the upcoming testing accommodation. And he is in a non-public placement, which is a godsend, although I sometimes long for the days that he can go to his local public school.

Posted by: ree | March 14, 2008 4:39 PM | Report abuse

Yes this is depressing. On the other hand, maybe it's a good thing for the kids to get used to the unrealistic expectations they're going to live with for life. Parachute managers are no different than state school boards, totally unfamiliar with the local situation yet micromanaging until your head hurts. Company policies are just like national NCLB dictates, zero (or less) value added, all they do is distract from the real job of the worker bees. Days wasted on test prep sound just like days wasted on endless useless meetings and "death by power point". Pep rallies are pep rallies, nothing but a waste of time, whether they are for your particular state test, or for an all-day division meeting with the fly-by CEO hyping the new advertising campaign. Test results are just like annual reviews, you flunk if you didn't score higher than last year and "exceed expectations". The only thing ten-year-olds lack is the equivalent of Dilbert to laugh at, and help you realize that it's not just you, it's everyone.

Posted by: seattle_wa | March 17, 2008 10:27 AM | Report abuse

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