September 18, 2019

AEF Commentary: An Open Parent Letter

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AEF Commentary: An Open Parent Letter

The following letter from parent Susanna Etzel, BA, MM, MA was submitted via AEF to Lieutenant Governor Tim Griffin and the Common Core Executive Council regarding standardized testing.  

As the mother of four school-age children, I am interested in current practices in public education. Over the course of their education to date, my children have attended a private school in one state, public schools in two other states, and school at home. I schooled them at home for five years, until last fall, when the oldest (then 9th grade) reentered public school. This coming fall, the second child will also reenter public school (8th grade).

Although much about public education distresses me, I am, regardless, grateful to live in a country and state in which the government officials are willing to devote so much time and effort to researching, as well as listening to constituents on, any given topic. Thank you, Lieutenant Governor Tim Griffin and the Executive Council, for the countless hours and the energy that you have put into this project. Writing anything further on such a large topic, about which so many others have already aptly spoken, seems a bit like attempting to change the course of an ocean liner with a canoe paddle: laughably insignificant and futile. I will pull with my canoe paddle anyway.

My various concerns about public education are obviously not prohibitive, since my two oldest are returning to public school. (I should add here that the choice to remove our children from public school was never due to anything resembling a lack of care, initiative, creativity or dedication on the part of their teachers.) While it is difficult to condense and refine my thoughts on this topic, I will limit my comments here to issues surrounding testing, specifically the way that quantifying performance undermines education, the mixed messages that testing sends about the nature of success and performance, and the inappropriate number of hours currently allocated to testing.

Quantification of Education
In the current public education system, quantifying education and performance dismays me most. Empirical, numerical measures have become the tool for measuring student progress and even teacher performance, and I would argue that the education of the whole individual can not be measured empirically. In Norms and Nobility: A Treatise on Education, David V. Hicks discusses both Plato’s and Aristotle’s views on education and summarizes by saying that, “the purpose of education is not the assimilation of facts or the retention of information, but the habituation of the mind and body to will and act in accordance with what one knows.” (Hicks, 20) Hicks calls for education to form in young students “those habits of mind and body promising the highest return on each leisure moment to both the individual and the community.” (21) Yes, leisure. Teaching young people to love what must be done. To love doing that which brings “high returns” to their communities, be it at work or play. This kind of growth and maturity – true education – can not be measured with any kind of standardized test.

I implore decision-makers to consider carefully the purpose of standardized tests. Why are we testing? What is the minimum scope and frequency of testing needed to accomplish that end? At the moment, the philosophy seems rather to ask the opposite question: how many different types of assessment can be accomplished with a standardized test? I have heard it said that the tests reveal whether or not students have learned required material, and therefore they help teachers know what to work on. I wonder, honestly, if teachers share this view. I do not. One or more of my children have taken, sometimes more than once, the Stanford, the Stanford-10, the ITBS, the Terra Nova InView, and the PARCC. Regardless of whether or not I was their direct instructor at the time, the results of these tests have never revealed anything about my children’s aptitude or achievement that I did not already know. (The one possible exception involves a question of degree, not fact.) Even if classroom teachers receive the results in time to affect instruction, do the tests really reveal anything the classroom teacher does not already know?

Standardized tests are most effective when used to compare students or groups of students with whom those performing the comparison have no personal contact. Even then, they should be used as only one of many bases of comparison. Relevant examples might include college and university admissions boards, where vast numbers of students must be compared or grouped, and there is a need for at least one fixed point of comparison. A second example might be testing students several years apart for the purpose of noting their progress long term. Testing annually, and using those results to measure not only student but even teacher performance, ignores the nature of students, teachers, and education itself.

On paper, this issue should be of little concern to me. My two oldest children have tested as gifted, and I now know enough to assess the next two for instructional purposes. (If, someday, I need a number, then I can have them tested.) All of my kids are strong test-takers and typically score beyond grade level. Why should I get up in arms about testing? Because academic or testing ability is not my greatest concern. The most educated person is not simply the student with the best grades . . . but little empathy or compassion. The highest scores . . . but no perseverance or intellectual curiosity. Empathy, compassion, perseverance, and intellectual curiosity – and other character attributes – must be developed over time and in relationship. And they are not empirically verifiable.

Sending Students Mixed Messages
“Be all you can be.” “Be true to yourself.” “Success is not just a salary.” All of these are typical – or prototypical – slogans seen in school hallways. And if these are, indeed, the types of messages that we want students to internalize, then current testing practices work against much of the signage found in school hallways today. Telling students to do their best and be themselves, while every year stamping them with a number that may or may not reveal “progress,” sends contradictory messages. We claim to want students to develop character, but we place inordinate value on only those outcomes that can be objectively tested. It is further detrimental when, as students reach high school or even middle school, they learn of teachers who did or did not make the cut, so to speak. After years in this environment, students learn that they themselves, along with teachers they may love and admire, will be evaluated – numerically – and lose when they are found wanting – numerically.

Again, given my own children’s ability to do well on tests, concern for this issue might seem superfluous. However, gifted children are every bit as susceptible to flawed thinking in this regard as are students who struggle academically. When my children were in brick-and-mortar school settings, they were called (almost daily!) “smart” or “genius” or other equally unhelpful adjectives; receiving the highest grade on the test was the rule, not the exception. Thus they quickly learned to define themselves by their performance. Testing routinely only reinforces this misconception. Initially, our family’s approach was not to share the results of these tests with our children; they couldn’t obsess about getting “only” a 95 if they didn’t know what they got. But we quickly learned that this practice was deeply unsettling for them. An adult would hardly want to be subjected to a two-to-four-day job evaluation only to have the results withheld; a 13-year-old student thinks no differently. The length of these evaluations brings me to my final point.

Number of Hours Spent Testing
I will try to be brief, because I know this topic has been covered ad nauseum. Here is our story.

This year, our oldest daughter, grade 9, attended a junior high for most classes, but attended a high school for English, where she was in an 11th grade class. This split of grade levels was the most suitable arrangement for her academic level, but it created a ridiculous situation in her experience of standardized testing.

Her schools administered the PARCC for English and math. At the junior high, because there were not enough computers, students in each grade level were tested in two groups. The non-testing group watched a movie while the other students tested. This was her experience taking the math tests on, I believe, three school days: half the morning with a movie, half the morning with a test. Since she is not in 9th grade English, and is therefore not “in the system,” she could not take the 9th grade PARCC test, parts of which were administered on five days. She could have stayed at school to watch the same movie twice in a row, but we opted to check her out instead and use the time for homework. At the junior high, all told, she missed part of eight days of school for test administration.

Now for the 11th grade. Because she is not registered full time at the high school, and therefore not “in the system,” she could not take the 11th grade PARCC test. She missed several days of class while the 11th graders were taking their test, and then further instruction days while her teacher administered the test to students in other grades and classes. I did not track these days, since I did not anticipate having to document them, but I believe she lost about four class days for either actual 11th grade testing or as her teacher administered the test to other students.

Further collateral loss was due to various factors: practice sessions for administering the test, computer labs being occupied and therefore unavailable for coursework (a history and theater project were affected by this situation), coordinating her test-altered schedules so that she would miss the movie but not other classes, and finally the less-than-productive class time that followed each of these testing sessions (“Mom, everyone is just so exhausted afterwards!”).

In short, as a student highly gifted in English language and literature, she took no standardized test of any sort for this subject (no loss in my opinion) and missed part of at least nine school days in order not to test in English (definitely a loss there). I can assure you that, given back this block of time, she could have read, discussed and written a paper on a Shakespeare play. I have seen her do it.

I believe that her school administrators and teachers did the very best job they could to deal with administration of the PARCC; this is in no way a complaint about the school’s handling of the test. Nor is this a call to abolish all forms of standardized testing. Her experience illustrates how difficult it is to administer a test to hundreds of students as simultaneously as possible (so to speak), and what the real cost can be to a given student.

We have not yet received her scores for the PARCC. I do not know what the implications of those scores will be for her next year, if any. I do know that, this year, it might be said that the PARCC cost her Julius Caesar. Or maybe King Lear. What else it cost her, or her classmates, is not as easy to determine or recoup.
Hicks, David V., Norms and Nobility: A Treatise on Education. University Press of America, Inc. 1999.

Susanna Etzel has a Bachelor of Arts in English and Music from Hamline University in St. Paul, MN; a Master of Music in Music History and Literature from Southern Methodist University in Dallas; and a Master of Arts in Applied Linguistics-TESOL from Indiana University-Bloomington. She has taught ESL or music history in some capacity for the last twenty years. Her students have included adults in the workplace, college students, and refugees, but her favorite students are her own children.

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