A Cubicle for Every Child

It seems to us that the division between childhood and adulthood has tragically blurred.” –Beverley Bos and Jennifer Chapman in Tumbling Over the Edge

In my home state of Texas there is a battle brewing over standardized testing in elementary and middle public schools. Currently, the STAAR test is mandated in Texas every year for all students in grades 3 through 8 — a total of 24 hours of testing for every child by the end of middle school. Representative Jason Isaac has filed several education bills to reduce dependence on standardized tests and to create limits on the time each time each student spent testing:

The urgency and importance of this bill was brought to my attention last December when I had a meeting with several parents and teachers from the [Wimberley] district who are concerned with how stressed and anxious students become because of the time allotted for taking lengthy assessments. —Jason Isaacs, “The Wimberley View”, March 5, 2015

I attended this meeting in my hometown of Wimberley, Texas, and was impressed by the consensus of administrators, teachers, parents, Republicans and Democrats. Everyone came together in way I had never seen in my community over any other issue. We agreed that our students were stressed by excessive testing, and it was time to do something about it.

If you are a lucky parent, your child can sit happily still for hours at a time, filling in little bubbles with a pencil after preparing for this task with months of mindless STAAR drills. The rest of us must struggle to keep the love of learning alive in our children.

When each of my two daughters reached third grade, the beautiful spark of enthusiasm in their eyes at the start of each school day died out, replaced by moans of complaint: “But Mom, school’s so boring! Why do we have to go?” What happened from second to third grade that robbed them of their love of learning?

After discussing my worries with several other parents, I discovered my children were not the only ones who suffered from low motivation in third grade. It did not take long to discover the cause in the case of my younger child. After taking my daughter’s forgotten lunch to school one day, I happened to glimpse in the front windows of the school. Classroom after classroom of children were hidden behind little cardboard cubicles, working feverishly. My daughter sighed, “Oh Mom, those were study corrals. We were taking the practice STAAR. Again.”

As a result of hours of practice testing, my child was physically and mentally exhausted. She tearfully revealed to me how monotonous and frustrating the practice tests and STAAR drills were for her. My bright, gifted child was terrified of falling asleep when she finished her test early and “drooling all over her desk” so she brought her “biggest book” to keep her awake.

Other parents I talked to revealed to me the trauma of children who were struggling to pass one or more sections of the tests: Stomach aches, anxiety attacks, and tears on testing and mock testing days, not to mention endless struggles to complete daily, mind-numbing STAAR homework worksheets.

If we teach our children from a very young age that test taking is the most important part of their education, how will this shape their future? Will we continue to produce the great thinkers and innovators that have made America a world leader, or will we become more like Korea, a country which consistently produces students who score very high in standardized tests but who produce mediocre results in the world market?

Imagine young Benjamin Franklin if he had been subjected to hours and hours of standardized tests and preparation. Would he have remained a giant among men or simply kept his first job as an assistant in a printer’s shop? Reading Franklin’s autobiography, I was amazed to discover that he did not start his formal education until the age eight and only remained in school a few years before striking out on his own. Most of what he learned he taught himself from borrowed books and unrelenting writing practice, yet he became a world-renowned writer, inventor, and statesman.

My own education was directed by passionate teachers while I was a student in Houston public schools. My love of literature and desire to be a teacher was sparked by teachers who knew how to reach young hearts and minds. They were not yet under the testing constraints that bind today’s teachers. Chances are many of you reading this owe your own success to teachers who inspired you. We owe it to our children to ensure that their teachers have the freedom from excessive testing so that they are able to develop lesson plans that will kindle the spark of creativity that will make our children the leaders and innovators of tomorrow.

The American Association of School Administrators prepared a list of “Characteristics of Schools and School Systems for the 21st Century” to help schools prepare students for a future in the “global knowledge/information age.” Instead of the one-fits-all method of assessment we see in standardized tests like the STAAR, this well-respected association promotes assessment that is “performance based, taking into account students’ individual talents, abilities, and aspirations.”

A wonderful example of what a teacher can accomplish when she is allowed to structure her own curriculum and teaching methods is the story of Sarah Hagan. In one of the poorest neighborhoods in Drumright, Oklahoma, she has students making their own text books out of creative odds and ends, singing about polynomials, and playing games. She calls her method: “Math equals love.” Her students claim that they learn math without even realizing it: “when did I even learn this stuff? Where did it come from?” — Cory Turner, NPR’s “Fifty Great Teachers

Compare this dynamic classroom to the children who are suffering severe bouts of test anxiety or losing interest in school due to excessive testing and test preparation. According to educational psychologist Dr. Jane M. Healey in her book Different Minds, “If learning becomes too stressful for children, motivation suffers, and the child may start to avoid challenges—like reading comprehension, math story problems, studying for tests, or advanced science courses.” If we create stress in our children with excessive testing and test preparation, we may create a generation that avoids challenges instead of rising to meet them.

There are also serious consequences for students who find the standardized tests too easy. In The Smartest Kid in the World, Amanda Ripley relates the story of Eric, a third grader who had been doing double-digit math at home for years. When faced with another test on the subject, he bubbled in his initial, “E”, and left all the other answers blank.

I met many students like Eric when I taught reading in Texas public schools as a remedial reading instructor. After filling in random answers on standardized tests due to boredom and frustration, they were often enrolled in remedial classes by their counselors where they were subject to daily drills and preparation for standardized that were already too easy for them. This missed out on being selected for the advanced classes that would have challenged them and kept them interested in learning. The unfortunate result was that many of these bright students I knew ended up dropping out of school.

Politicians are all too often want quick results in education. Waiting for proven methods to take effect, such as low student/teacher ratios, will not get them reelected. Tests provide quick results. If a large percentage of students fail the test in the first year of testing, that is beneficial to the image of the politician who wants to show improvement during the course of his term.

The multi-billion dollar corporation Pearson also benefits from the over testing of our young students. Texas awarded them a $500 million dollar for the STAAR test, despite the flaws found in the test and multiple examples of fraud and product placement in their tests.