“Life is a Test” – Really?

In its March 6, 2014 editorial in the printed paper, the Chicago Tribune asks, “Where is the harm in a child taking the ISAT?” The headline read, "Life is a Test." Wish I could link you to that version, but the online version is substantially different. The print editorial makes several interesting claims about why opting out of the test is a bad idea and belittles parents who filed a complaint with the American Civil Liberties Union. I guess the Tribune thinks these parents don’t have a case, but I’m not so sure that’s true.

Photo by Anthony Quinn

Photo by Anthony Quinn

I applaud the parents and teachers brave enough to take a stand and opt out of the excessive standardized testing that takes place in our schools. I wonder if I would have been so brave when my children were in public school if they were under the same educational climate that exists today. I would like to think I would have kept them home, but would I have been willing to have their absence be unexcused? Or would they have been willing to attend school and refuse to sit for the test?

Many parents and many teachers contend that he ISAT is not necessary. It is being replaced next year by the controversial Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC), a very difficult test that aligns with the Common Core curriculum. This excellent article featuring Diane Ravitch explains why educators object to aspects of the Common Core standards and high stakes testing. Some schools are piloting the PARCC this year in addition to the ISAT. Students also take the Northwest Evaluation Association's Measures of Academic Progress (NWEA MAP) test.  Thus, students are being required to sit for two or three major tests this year, one of which (the ISAT) has been deemed a poor measure of their progress.

Why take the ISAT then? Evidently, the scores will count toward determining which schools are making adequate yearly progress. But if the test is not up to snuff, why bother? There is much research out there that questions the validity of rating schools and teachers based standardized tests. And yet, we plow ahead because, well, life is a test.

Here are some of the Tribune’s reasons in support of kids sitting for the ISAT:

“Their teachers have drilled them in reading and math.” I wish they had substituted the word taught for drilled. What they are saying here is the children only learned what was on the ISAT, and if they don’t take the test, that learning was useless. Teaching kids reading and math is never a bad thing, right?

“Their parents have done their part – helping with homework, turning off the TV and confiscating the cell phone.” Parents who have done this were not doing it so their children would score well on the ISAT. I think they were just trying to be good, involved parents.

“…Parents don’t pick and choose which state-mandated tests a child should take…” That’s true. The issue here, however, is one of quantity. Parents who want to opt out are not saying one test is better than another, just that there are too many standardized tests.

“If a child is in school on the day the test is administered, he or she must sit for the test with the rest of the class.” This is a tricky one. I think some parents would keep their kids home if the absence were excused. It could be like a week of home schooling. But we know that when their children returned to school, someone would hunt them down and have them make up the test.

Where is the harm in a child taking a standardized test?” Well, there’s plenty of harm if the tests are used improperly, if the teachers have confined their students’ educations to teaching only to the test, and if there is more testing than learning. And we are talking about several standardized tests, not “a test.”

“These scores [ISAT] will be a benchmark against an even more rigorous state-wide test…” Can one test really be a benchmark for a totally different test? I’m pretty sure that’s like comparing apples and oranges. The tests are based on totally different standards and expectations.

”We hope that [test scores used to evaluate teachers’ performance]…[will] usher the weakest educators out the door faster.” I, along with many others, have made my feelings known on this one. Using standardized test scores to evaluate teachers is unfair and rewards teaching only what is being tested rather than creative and inspiring teaching.

“Parents and teachers, if you have a problem with the test, change state law.” Good luck with that one! Since state law is driven by federal policy and states are rewarded financially for “Racing to the Top” and adopting Common Core State Standards, that are really federal standards, how much influence do you think parents and teachers would have? Even with intense lobbying efforts, how long would it take?

I don’t think life is a test. In fact, here are some alternatives that come to mind:

Life’s a happy song. (The Muppets)

Life is a lively process of becoming. (Douglas MacArthur)

Life is a great big canvas; throw all the paint you can at it. (Danny Kay)

Life is a gift, given in trust - like a child. (Anne Morrow Lindbergh)

Life is a continuum of choices, so the more conscious you are, the greater your life will be. (Deepak Chopra)

Life is a lot like jazz... it's best when you improvise. (George Gershwin)

Life is a traveling to the edge of knowledge, then a leap taken. (D. H. Lawrence)

I feel that my whole life is a contribution. (Pete Seeger)

If you don’t think “life is a test,” please share what you want children to say when asked, “What is life?”

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