Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Protesting the PSSAs

Last night as he crawled in to bed one half hour early, my ten-year-old said, “Pennyslvania’s super stupid assessment,” with a grin on his face. It’s that time of year. PSSA tests. That’s two weeks in which my children will learn nothing new, will consume all manner of junk food at school, and be given extra recess almost every day. Anything to keep the little darlings motivated and happy. Motivated and happy kids do better on standardized tests.

Lucky for us our school typically fairs well in these tests. But I’m somewhat concerned that our streak may be coming to an end. At the onslaught of these illustrious tests mandated by “No Child Left Behind” the very ambitious and inclusive goal of 100% proficiency by 2014 was set for students in math and reading.

Back at the turn of the century it seemed very noble to shoot for 100% competency in our kids. And the date was so far off – 2014, so everyone applauded the all-inclusive goal. But now that we are on the cusp of reaching that date, just how many schools will meet the goal? I can’t imagine any will unless they follow the lead of the schools in Georgia whose teachers systematically cheated on the tests.

Here’s the painful bottom line. Not every kid is going to pass. And this has nothing to do with teacher
competency, curriculum, or healthy snacks during testing. I don’t mean to be cruel or pessimistic, but it ain’t gonna happen. The world needs people to work at McDonald’s. That’s a very crass way of saying that not everyone’s brain is capable of retaining math concepts. And some people struggle with reading for reasons that may be physical or emotional. I’m not saying throw in the towel on these students. Quite the opposite. Most likely they excel in other areas, but we’ll never know that if we judge them solely on their math and reading scores.

What’s wrong with these tests and these goals is that too much hinges on them. Schools who do poorly receive less funding. Teachers whose students struggle will lose pay over this. And lets not forget the kids who spend a too large portion of their school year preparing for and taking these tests. They should not be this important.

Teachers can tell you which kids are learning and which aren’t. They don’t need an expensive, ill-fitting standardized test to determine which kids know how to read and which don’t. Maybe it would be a better use of funds and time to have a panel of testers visiting all the classrooms, reading the grade books, and observing the classes. I think we’d get a much better assessment of our school’s competencies that way with a lot less wasted time and pressure. 

I was intrigued by an article on the front page of our paper this past Monday. It seems some parents have decided to pull their kids out of the PSSA testing. They have that right. Why would they do this, I wondered? What could possibly be their rationale? All of us grumble about the tests, but how many of us knew the tests were optional?

Parents can opt-out of standardized testing for religious reasons. Hmmm. What does standardized testing have to do with religion?  Well, that depends on your thinking. Jesus was a big believer in helping the poor. In fact, he basically said if we didn’t help those less fortunate than ourselves we wouldn’t be seeing him in heaven.

Beginning with that premise, standardized testing does not help the poor, in fact, it hurts them. Schools that lie in impoverished districts traditionally score lowest on these tests for any number of reasons, not necessarily having to do with the intelligence of the students they serve. When they report their low scores, the government withholds funds from them, making their problems even worse. These tests punish the poorest districts and hence the poorest students. I don’t think Jesus would be hip to this.

I’ve long been frustrated by the idea that the better schools get more money and the poorer schools get less. That has always seemed backward to me. How are these poorly performing schools supposed to do better on the tests when you are not offering them more resources? And of course schools that have abundant resources are going to perform better on tests. What fantasy world were the beaurocrats who created this system living in?

It’s making me wonder if those protesting parents aren’t on to something. Maybe it’s time for parents to stand up for our children and the children in districts where there is apparently no one to stand for them. If we refuse to play the game, perhaps this will force the powers that be to re-think the logic of rewarding those that have much with more, and those with so little with even less. I believe Jesus spoke to this idea when he said, “To those much is given, much is expected.”

Helping those less fortunate is not just a Christian belief. Charity is a requirement of nearly every religion. Even an atheist could claim that standardized tests run counter to her own beliefs if those beliefs hold that we should take care of each other. Standardized testing within the present system is not taking care of our children. It is widening the gap between the have and the have nots.

The system is very broke. Next year when none of the districts have met the overly optimistic goal of 100% proficient it will be painfully obvious. Of course, if we continue to withhold funding from all these “failing” schools, the state will have lots of money to throw at setting new goals and creating new tests. Or maybe we’ll continue down this path we’re on, fingers placed firmly in our ears, muttering, “lalalalalala.”

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