High (Stakes) Society

The other day, I wrote about how high stakes testing is affecting my classroom. I challenged other teachers, especially teachers of “non-tested” subjects, to consider how testing is changing the culture of their schools and their student population. As educators, and especially for advocates, the term “high stakes testing” is thrown around a lot. It occurs to me, however, that some people may be uninformed when it comes to the frequency and purpose of testing in schools today.

Go back with me a few years. Imagine you are sixteen again. In fact, let’s say you just turned 16. Do you remember what momentous milestone to which you looked forward on or just after your 16th birthday? I’m sure you do. Because in our great state (and every other, to my knowledge) 16 is the age at which you can acquire a license to drive a vehicle.

But you have to pass the driver’s exam, first. This test requires you to demonstrate, with the examiner present, proficiency in operating a motor vehicle. This takes practice, which is why at 15 ½ years of age you can acquire a “learner’s permit”, allowing you to be behind the wheel with a licensed adult driver in the car. After months of supervised experience on the road (and in parking lots), you can decide when you are ready to take the test.

Some of my friends took and passed the test on their 16th birthday. I turned 16 in late July (many, many moons ago). I wasn’t ready on my birthday to take the driver’s test because I had just started driver’s education from a private instructor in June. It was September before I received my license. A friend of mine didn’t receive hers until her late 20’s. As a high school teacher, I noticed some of my students did not pursue their licenses until their junior or senior year at 17-18 years old.

And what happens if you fail the driver’s exam?

Well, you don’t get your license. At least not for two more weeks when you can attempt the test again.

So, to sum up…you can take however much time you wish to prepare for the test, and if you fail it, you can try again…until you pass.

Can you imagine how you would feel if you were given only one chance to pass the driver’s test, AND, you were required to take it on your 16th birthday? Even if you were sick. Even if you were experiencing a difficult time at home. Even if your family’s hectic lifestyle made it difficult to squeeze in any practice hours behind the wheel. Even if your family’s socio-economic status made it impossible to acquire the instruction you needed. One shot. One day. That’s it. Happy birthday to you.

Well, folks, our eight-year-olds don’t have to imagine at all. They know exactly how this feels, thanks to the Reading Sufficiency Act (RSA), which requires all 3rd graders to pass a reading exam at the end of third grade, or else risk being held back. One shot. One day. That’s it. Every third-grader. The early birthdays, the late birthdays. The ones that haven’t even turned 8 years old yet. The ones who were sick with the flu the week before. The ones who moved in the middle of the year. The ones whose parents divorced recently. The ones who didn’t eat over the weekend. The ones that have trouble sitting still. The ones who “get it”, but on their own time. The squirrely ones. The ornery ones. The shy ones. The ones who feel forgotten.

We demand that they all perform at the same level on the same day, or risk being separated from their classmates the following year.

I’d like to know if anybody can name a similar situation in adulthood. Are we tested? Sure.   Are the stakes this high? Not usually. In what circumstances have you found yourself as an adult, where you are required to take a test that you can only take once, and on such a strict timeline? Notice I said required. Many of us choose to put ourselves in high stakes situations to further our careers, or in pursuit of some other positive outcome. What’s the consequence if you bomb that one-time interview? You pursue other jobs. If you fail the bar exam? You get to keep trying.

If I could screenshot all the social media posts I have seen in recent months of friends’ kids freaking out about 3rd grade, there wouldn’t be enough space on my blog to list them all. What a shame. When I was in 3rd grade, I was excited to be allowed on the “big kid” side of the playground. I learned the “cotton-eyed joe” for the annual 3rd-grade “Shindig”. I read The Boxcar Children and every Ramona book in the library. I took one standardized test, for which there was no test prep, no practice test, and no testing pep assemblies leading up to it. The only “stakes”, high or otherwise, attached to it was that the district used it to determine which kids would attend “SEARCH”, the G/T program, for half a day each week.

My, how times have changed.

I challenge you, once again, to examine the impact of testing on our school culture. Is this what you want for our kids? Or can we all agree that 8-year-olds are too young to have stakes this high forced upon them? Because…

“You can’t go on thinking nothing’s wrong…”


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