High stakes testing and standardization is a cultural shift, not just a change in curriculum or teaching practices. It pervades every aspect of school whether you are in a testing grade or in pre-k. Elementary school testing season has come to a close and for many parents and educators in NYC it is clear that high stakes testing causes undue trauma to our 3rd and 4th graders, that the tests are developmentally inappropriate and often obtuse, and that teacher and school evaluations should not be tied to test scores which consistently correlate to income in district after district. What people don’t realize is the effect that the culture of high stakes testing is having on early childhood- all the way down to pre-k.
This week, news broke of a kindergarten music performance that was canceled because as the principal wrote in her letter to families, “We are responsible for preparing children for college and career with valuable lifelong skills and know that we can best do that by having them become strong readers, writers, coworkers and problem solvers.” There are so many things wrong with this scenario. This administrator not only lacks understanding of child development and the value of music, joy and community in building school culture, but also narrowly defines so called “lifelong skills” as testable ones. To think that academic experiences like reading and writing are the only skills needed for college and career is foolish and a source of countless failures in our school systems. Study after study has shown that test scores do not predict success in life, rather, social emotional skills like resiliency, the ability to collaborate, creativity and self control are what actually predict success. Furthermore, to think that a music performance with the collaboration, practice, goal setting, confidence and community building it entails does not help build lifelong skills, is equally thoughtless. And of course, there is the fact that they are just kindergarteners- they are five, and the way five year olds learn is through play, through their senses and through art and music. It may sound crazy, but this kind of narrow focus on academic skills in early childhood is being pushed throughout public and charter schools. As the ethos and mythology of testing trickles down into the early years, and the pressure on test scores is so great it is not only changing what we teach but also, how we teach, ed reformers are fundamentally altering the culture of our schools.
As a second grade teacher, the culture around high stakes testing poses daily obstacles. After the ELA test this year, suddenly we were told to make sure our students could write in paragraphs and write full persuasive essays, never mind if that isn’t appropriate for second graders, even if it is expected of third graders a year later. One second grade teacher at my school received high praise at a staff meeting for sending home ELA test prep ( that’s for the third grade test) for second grade homework all year. Meanwhile, our Go Math curriculum, actually has questions labeled test prep with a star, and was chosen by the DOE to align with the third grade math test, no matter how obtuse or deliberately confusing that test may be. Having struggled against it for a year, I can safely say that Go Math is a weak curriculum. The student workbooks are visually overwhelming and rote, the teacher resources are overly complex and not truly differentiated, and there are a whopping three days of assessment for every unit. That’s 27 days a year where instead of teaching math, we’re testing. And of course, the curriculum was never tested or researched with actual children before it was implemented last year. It’s not just upper elementary school students who are subjected to test prep, its 2nd and 1st graders, and yes even kindergarteners.
Not only does our curriculum suffer due to the trickle down effects of testing, but our school culture, how the school feels, whether it is nurturing and empowering or punishing and cruel, suffers as well. During the math tests this past week I overheard an administrator shouting at a third grade boy in the hallway. This boy is learning disabled, an ELL and struggles with school. He often comes into my classroom to take a break from his own and you can see how alienated he feels when he sits sullenly in the corner. He is an unhappy kid who is forced to do things day in and day out that he is simply not capable of. She yelled, “NOW, ARE YOU READY TO GET IN THERE AND TAKE THIS TEST LIKE A GROWN UP?” Like a grown up. I doubt she realized what she was saying to this 9 year old, who looked defeated and hostile all at once. How is he going to make it through school when there is nothing of value to him in his school day, and he is expected to do things he can’t do to please the stressed out adult who happens to be berating him at a given moment. These kids are not grown ups. Kindergardeners are not grown ups. There is more to education than preparation, and true learning, the kind of learning that empowers and engages, happens slowly across years through layers of experiences that touch the heart and mind.
“Education is not preparation for life; education is life itself.”
― John Dewey