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Can We Please Fire the STAAR Test?

This editorial series, Hot Topics, is brought to you by the Fort Worth Moms Blog and iCare Emergency Room & Urgent Care. All 15 original articles from the Hot Topics series can be found on our website.

hot topicsWe didn’t get a block away from fifth grade training camp before my son was fidgeting with the neckline of his shirt. I know his anxiety fidgets, and that one doesn’t bode well. Was it the sea of new faces that rattled him? The enormity of the campus? I pulled up to the red light and met worried brown eyes, brimming with fear.

“Mom, did you know that I won’t go to sixth grade if I don’t pass the math STAAR test? I’ll be left behind. What will I do, mama? I’m scared.”

Happy back-to-school, lovely children!

Seriously, Texas? With each passing year of motherhood, my tolerance level for bureaucratic garbage plummets. As of tonight, I’m at like -34. One of y’all better hold my beer because I’ve got something to say about standardized testing in our public schools.

We Are Doing This Wrong

My son has been worried about the State of Texas Assessments of Academic Readiness (STAAR) test since kindergarten. That’s odd, since the first one isn’t taken until THIRD GRADE. These stupid tests are hyped so furiously that elementary school babies know to be scared. “That’s super healthy,” said absolutely no one.

During testing week, the cheerful school walls get covered. (No cheating, kids!) Things begin to look strangely sterile. Recess is changed and times are moved so that testing silence can be preserved. The campus is closed to visitors. Teachers are assigned as prison guards in the hallways. Parents receive important instructions like, “Don’t send notes of any kind in your child’s lunch.” Because nothing screams cheater like those pesky “I love you” stickies.

This is in elementary school, friends. While it’s true that my son has a particularly hard time because of his anxiety disorders, the fear accompanying the STAAR test touches everyone. And the entire thing is ridiculous. I picture the legislative meeting to approve the testing rules taking place in an evil lair surrounded by sharks with laser beams. Are they literally trying to suck the joy out of learning?

I’m no rocket scientist, but I’m pretty sure that anyone with enough intelligence to live in Texas can see the flaws in our standardized tests. I’ll go ahead and point those out, just in case an elected official wasting my tax dollars wants to pay attention. Or maybe a unicorn.

Stressed Boy StudyingOne-Size-Fits-All Doesn’t Accurately Measure Success

The powers-that-be in Austin say this test is the best way to ensure the quality of our schools and teachers. They use it to measure school and teacher performance, testing our children to make sure they are being taught to the standards we expect.

I call baloney.

I’ve been adulting for long enough to know that ONE test doesn’t tell the whole story. What about Mrs. Smith, who teaches at a school with a high percentage of non-English-speaking children? Or Mr. Turner, who is so good with kids on the spectrum that he ends up with a high number of mainstreamed kids who tend to test poorly?

It is common sense that test scores are greatly affected by out-of-school factors. Yearly scores will fluctuate based on a child’s health on testing day, what he’s going through at home, or even if he got into an argument with his friend at the bus stop. What about all the kids who struggle with testing and choke under the heavy burden of pressure?

Pushing Kids Is Good, Unless It’s for the Wrong Reason

Pro-testing legislators will tell you kids need to learn to handle things that are hard for them. I agree, of course. The STAAR test just isn’t one of those things. I’m not here to debate whether or not our kids are coddled or over-protected. I’m here to say that we DO need to monitor the quality of public education, and we DO need to make sure that our children learn what they need to before they advance. I am also absolutely certain we can find a more accurate and cost-effective way to do it.

I’ll even throw out the first step for you: Stop turning the testing environment into a militarized zone, and maybe stop forcing teachers to put the fear of God into our children NINE MONTHS before the test happens.

I know. I’m, like, a genius.  

Teachers Hate Standardized Testing

I know and love some outstanding educators, y’all. They hate these tests. They also want to keep their jobs. So I’ll just advocate for them.

They all say the same thing. Our teachers spend the entire year teaching to a test. This makes it incredibly hard for them to adjust to different learners, change their pace as needed, or be creative in their lesson plans. They are boxed in completely. Their worth as teachers — and in turn, their school —  is measured by one test given on one day. That’s the dumbest thing I’ve ever heard in my life. Can you imagine how much our educators could do if we untied their hands and let them TEACH?

There is no single teaching technique that works best for all students. Kids are not two-dimensional stick figures. They are individuals with unique strengths, weaknesses, and learning styles. A fabulous teacher knows this and manages to teach a subject to a room full of different characters. Bless them.

So how, exactly, do you rate the quality of a child’s education by forcing all kids to take one generic test given one way? That sounds like a recipe for skewed results, if you ask me. But I don’t have a special interest group with millions of dollars behind me, so nobody asks me. 

The Tests that Actually Matter 

My son’s anxiety disorders were destroying him by the end of the first semester of fourth grade. He also has high-functioning autism, which makes mundane things very hard. Math is his Achilles’ heel. He is in a mainstream classroom while dealing with an incredibly powerful brain disorder. The perceived failure of not getting something right the first time shuts him down completely and bleeds over into everything he does.

In a nutshell, his world was falling apart. He missed seven weeks of instruction before landing in a new school last winter. And then his teacher saved him. He finished fourth grade with a report card full of As and a handful of new friends, and most important, he smiles again now. He smiles a real smile that reaches all the way to his eyes.

Listen when I say I don’t care if he panics during a standardized test. I don’t care if he aces the whole thing. I don’t care if he fills in only the letter B. None of that matters. You have to look at the sum of all parts.

That school and that teacher gave him his life back. They are exceptional. They are heroes.

So are all the others who taught and loved my son over the last several years. These teachers are handed classrooms full of children with different needs, abilities, issues, and disorders. They are underpaid and overworked. They sit on the phone with me when they should be talking to their own kids. They work at night and on weekends and in the wee hours of the morning. Good teachers are changing the world and our future, one child at a time.

Show me the spot on the scantron form for THAT. 

 

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