In May, it will be 15 years since I graduated from high school.
I know my memory is getting foggier with age, but I can recall taking only ONE required standardized test in high school: the 11th grade writing test. I can’t recall the prompt, but I do remember being so ill (warning: TMI alert) that I left the exam in the middle of it to throw up in the bathroom, came back to complete my essay, then left promptly as soon as I finished. I still passed. Given the rigid testing procedures of today, I’m pretty sure this would not have been allowed. My only option would have been to throw up in a trash can in the corner while a monitor watched to ensure I wasn’t retrieving any contraband—like a hidden essay completed ahead of time…or a magic pencil—from the trash receptacle.
I also took the PSAT and the ACT PLAN tests, which were optional. I’m pretty sure there was no testing task force that would have penalized my teachers or withheld funding from my school if I had opted not to participate in those exams. I took the ACT 3 times on my own time. I earned 9 hours of college credit by scoring 5’s on the AP Government and AP English Literature exams. Again…optional.
That was only 15 years ago. My…how times have changed.
Every year in the spring, I receive several e-mails from teachers and counselors. Many of them include attachments of color-coded spreadsheets to help us navigate the testing maze of April and May.
There are groups of students removed from my classes several days a week to complete exams. Since I teach mixed-grade courses, I may go the entire week without seeing all of my students from one class together. It makes for an incredibly frustrating final quarter for us arts teachers, who are trying to put together performances without rehearsing our students together.
But my frustration is small compared to my students’. As the days progress through testing season, I see students come into my room after a test, relieved that it’s over, exhausted from the stress, or worst of all, depressed that they failed. Most of the time, they have checked out. They are finished, if not for the year at least for the day. Meaningful learning, real learning, cannot take place because all of their energy and joy has been drained by testing.
One of my favorite teachers in high school was in charge of the school-wide Christmas philanthropy. This was a large-scale effort by most of the organizations in the school collecting food, gifts, and money for less-advantaged families in our community. For two weeks in December, we spent our class-period in the library sorting through hundreds of food items and dividing them into baskets for the several dozen families we assisted each year. Some people might call this a waste of educational time, but I think it was one of the greatest lessons we learned in our civics class. We were taught what “community” means, and simultaneously reminded how small our own problems were in comparison to others. We were given to the opportunity to be in service to somebody besides ourselves. There were some great conversations with peers and our teacher about generosity. It was truly a teachable moment.
I doubt this kind of learning would be possible today. We simply couldn’t spare those weeks of test prep.
The six or seven of you who read my blog are probably teachers. So I know I’m preaching to the choir. But seriously…when will enough be enough? When will this “more is more” mentality concerning testing be laid to rest? When will our teachers finally be free to encourage our students to create, to think critically, to problem-solve, to collaborate, and to do these things through fun and engaging activities once again? When will school be about learning and not memorizing answers so students can fill in the right bubbles on a scantron?
During difficult times, my mother likes to tell me, “this, too, shall pass.”
I’m not so sure it will without a little shove from us.