After I read What Happened to Recess and Why Are our Children Struggling in Kindergarten? by Susan Ohanian, I knew I wanted her to share with you exactly what you as a parent need to know about the national obsession with standardized tests. Here’s my (devil’s advocate) interview with Susan Ohanian, an experienced teacher, education advocate against NCLB and high stakes testing, and a prolific writer of books and articles.
Melissa: Say I’m just an ordinary parent (or my child isn’t even school-aged,) why should I care about the standardized tests he/she will take at school?
Ohanian: The standardized tests are taking over more and more of every child’s day. Some districts have pre-K screening–so parents can know if their children are “on track” for the rigors of the kindergarten curriculum. Kindergarten, which means “children’s garden,” was intended as a place for children to engage in creative play, learning important social and developmental skills, a place where they learn to care about one another and help one another. Now it is a place of worksheets, homework, and curriculum rigor. Look that word up in the dictionary and ask yourself if you want that for your child at any age.
Research shows that test scores are a much better measure of family income than of student ability. Family matters. A family’s ability to provide many cultural experiences, including books in the home, matters enormously.
Melissa: In Colorado, the school gets a grade based on the tests in my state – that’s good, right? Aren’t tests the best way for us to see if the school is teaching what they’re supposed to teach?
Ohanian: We don’t need grades based on standardized tests to determine how schools are doing on those standardized tests. We can look at the zip codes of the students and predict the rating by the poverty index of the community. Research has shown again and again that children of affluence score higher on standardized test than children of poverty. It’s not hard to see why. When families suffer from economic woes, that suffering is reflected in students’ school performance. Several years ago, a 12-year-old homeless boy in Prince George’s County died of complications from an abscessed tooth. It is hard to imagine the agony he suffered in school. Research shows that about 1/3 of the nation’s school children suffer dental caries at any given moment. Can the school be held responsible for the resulting inattention?
In an effort to boost test scores, teachers often feel pressured to devote more time to test prep, thus narrowing the curriculum. When curriculum is reduced to subjects that are tested, children are deprived of the varied experiences that allow them to find new interests and talents. The most important thing a parent can ask about her child’s school is not its test score ratings but “Is this a place filled with joy?”
Yes, ask for evidence of joy.
Melissa: Why did / do policy makers believe that testing ensures that all children got/get a quality, equal-opportunity education? Or was that not the goal?
Ohanian: Education policy is no longer made at the local level. Starting in the late 1980ies, members of the Business Roundtable met with governors, pushing their agenda for changing education. Standardized testing and a national curriculum were high on their list. The result today is the Common Core Curriculum, which was financed by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and the accompanying standardized tests that promise continual testing of our children. Of interest: The PTA received a grant of one million dollars from the Gates Foundation to promote this Common Core Curriculum.
Melissa: Does more testing mean schools improve every year?
Ohanian: More testing means more testing. It means that a child’s opportunity to experience a rich and varied school experience is reduced to the narrow range of items that can be tested. Even worse, when a child is coached for a test, he is being coached in a bizarre way of reading. This is a critical consideration for parents. Every day a child spends in test prep reinforces a wrongheaded notion of what reading is all about.
Research shows that the way to improve student test scores is to increase the amount of time spent on free reading of their own choosing. Libraries staffed by professional librarians are critical in making a wide variety of books available to children.
Melissa: Should parents advocate against their children taking the tests? Won’t this penalize the school and teacher instead of getting the lawmakers attention?
Ohanian: When no child shows up to take the test, then lawmakers will pay close attention, very close attention. Parents should consider this: The federal government, which has forced all this testing on the schools, pays only about 8% of the total school bill. It is long past time for parents to take back their schools, the schools that they are paying for.
Melissa: I think everyone should read What Happened to Recess, but in case they haven’t yet, can you talk about the money and secrecy just a bit?
Ohanian: One thing parents need to realize is that the attack on public schools is part of the larger squashing of the middle class. The Business Roundtable, assorted state governors, member of Congress, and newspaper editorialists across America seem to think that their repeated denunciation of teachers will distract the public from noticing where the real culprits of our economic troubles sit. Hiding behind a smokescreen of “preparing workers for tomorrow’s global economy,” these so-called education reformers treat children as commodities and teachers as mere functionaries in an accounting system. Rather than serve up our children to corporate interests that have bankrupted the middle class, we need to remember that a child is only eight (or nine or ten. . . ) years old once. Youth passes all too quickly. We need to protect our children, and this means asking for schools that nurture curiosity, imagination, independence, laughter, joy.
Instead of looking at what corporate leaders and newspaper editorialists say about the schools, parents should ask their children, “Did you enjoy school today?” Longtime New York teacher and Pulitzer Prize winner Frank McCourt said that only once in his 18 years of teaching at a renown city school did a parent ever ask him, “Is my child enjoying school?” McCourt answered in the affirmative. The parent said, “Thank you,” and left. That’s all she wanted to know.
It’s definitely a question we need to ask more often.
Melissa: Thank you so much, Susan. You’re opening up eyes with your advocacy work.
Readers, to opt out of testing, go to the Opt-Out website to get information on your state.
* top photo is of a Colorado billboard.