Testing tests patience of everyone concerned

May 08, 2001|By Susan Reimer

MAY IS THE cruelest month for school kids. Just as the weather improves, inviting them to play outside until long after dinner, exams begin.

Robins and rosebuds herald the testing season as surely as they do spring.

High school juniors spent a recent sunny Saturday morning taking the SATs, while their freshman counterparts will spend glorious weekends prepping to take five days of the new state high school assessment tests.

This week, advanced placement testing began at the high school level, with possible college credits hanging in the balance. Then it will be time for the SAT II's, which test the same knowledge that the kids learned in preparation for the AP tests.

In middle school, public school eighth-graders endure a week of MSPAP tests, while private school kids sweat high school placement tests. In elementary schools, bewildered third- and fifth-graders take the MSPAP, too. And just about everybody will be taking finals of one description or another.

But this is all good.

President Bush, for whom knowledge and learning have been replaced by accountability, says that testing is the road to academic excellence. We will know by our children's scores whether the schools and the teachers are doing their jobs.

But these days, a teacher's job consists mostly of preparing students to take these tests.

Forgive my grumpiness and my cynicism, but these feelings are contagious, and I caught them from my kids.

Exams are the most wretched part of a child's academic life - worse than cafeteria food or playground bullies or the embarrassments of PE class. And that wretchedness multiplies with each new test. Their cynicism comes from realizing that this is pressure without a point.

By eighth grade, the kids figured out that the MSPAP scores don't show up on their report cards, and that they are going to be in high school before the results are known. So who cares?

The ninth-graders know that these new assessment tests are a prototype for tests to be taken by future freshmen. The whole exercise is nothing but an elaborate drill. It doesn't count. It doesn't matter. And they know it.

The juniors are aware of the debate over the role of the SATs in deciding college admittance, and they know their score might not count as much as every teacher has warned them it will.

And scores of 4 or 5 on the AP tests are supposed to translate into college credits, saving thousands of dollars in tuition costs. But the high school kids know through the grapevine that colleges and universities are getting stingier and stingier when it comes to giving away credits.

Meanwhile, the formula for calculating semester grades is such that some kids can tank their final and still get an A or a B in the course. Likewise, they could ace the final, and it might not make a difference on their transcript.

It is easy to see why our kids, from elementary school to high school, are irritable and combative at this time of year. What is the point of all this testing?

Why test the kids, when it is the teachers you have suspicions about? The MSPAP tests defeat the less able kids and frustrate the highly able kids, who figure out pretty quickly that they are carrying their little testing group. And many of them think their teacher will be fired if they don't do well.

Meanwhile, there is great concern about the attitudes of the shrewd and worldly eighth-graders, who are blowing off this test because they know the scores don't count against them. How would you expect kids to do on this kind of test?

And, while AP courses look good on your transcript and inflate your GPA, why take the AP test if there is no guarantee that there is anything in it for you? Those things are rough - the study guides are hundreds of pages long - and you probably won't get better than a 3 anyway, unless the teacher has done a really good job of "teaching to the test."

The result of all this testing, aside from miserable kids and, by extension, miserable parents, is the loss of instruction time. Teachers have less time to get their job done. Not just because the tests themselves take a class period or more to administer, but because the teachers have to teach the kids how to take these tests. Their jobs might depend on it.

The end of the school year is always a mad rush to the finish line, with teachers trying to catch up with ambitious lesson plans. To take away more time to prep for more tests and to administer these test only compounds the pressures of the last weeks of school.

If it is unpleasant for our kids, imagine what it must be like for the good teachers out there who had some pretty creative ideas that must now give way.

In elementary school, my son's class made their own puppets, wrote scripts, rehearsed and performed puppet shows for parents, who were served cookies and punch. It took weeks of work.

My children also spent two beautiful spring days at an outdoor camp, learning about bees and nocturnal animals and how to operate a canoe.

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