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I’m Saying No to High-Stakes Testing—And You May Want to, Too

Friday, December 19th, 2014

To test or not to test? At this point, that really isn’t a question for me. I’m refusing to allow my fifth grader to take the PARCC, the latest Common Core high-stakes test crafted by for-profit educational company Pearson. There are more than a few reasons to reconsider just going with the flow, if your child’s on tap to take these tests.

There’s little to no evidence that these tests actually mean anything. Study after study has indicated that the SAT (you know, the old gold standard for college admissions) correlates most closely with your family’s income level. (Higher income levels, unsurprisingly, meant  higher SAT scores.) And the PARCC test that my daughter is supposed to spend hours taking later this year is completely unproven to measure anything—other than that the student has been coached on how to take the PARCC. (In fact, our kids are serving as the guinea pigs for this, as Pearson is still “field testing” these assessments.)

Schools are being forced to stress test prep over more important subjects. My daughter’s teacher barely has time to squeeze in science (SCIENCE!) because he’s so busy ensuring they have enough computer time to be able to effectively type essay questions for the PARCC. And after school, they’re being assigned online test prep as a homework component, in addition to a pretty extensive workload. Our schools should be focused on helping children develop creative thinking skills and mastery of subjects that actually apply to real life, so they can go on to innovate and solve the myriad problems our world is facing. Instead, they’re being drilled on multiple-choice strategy—a skill I haven’t used since I took my last standardized test more than 20 years ago. (How about you?)

They’re putting way too much pressure on our kids. Schools want to do very well on these tests to get funding—and so they’re pushing the kids hard. My daughter’s school had special workbooks dedicated to learning the NJASK (the PARCC’s predecessor), which they completed in full. And that probably explains how they scored third in the state for their NJASK scores last year. They began harping on the PARCC in earnest as soon as the NJASK was over,  more than a year before the kids would even take the test. My kid’s the kind who cried for two hours when she received her first non-A on her report card—so it probably wasn’t a surprise that she was freaking out about the PARCC over the summer, when her biggest worry should have been whether she should ride bikes or run through the sprinkler. If I continue to subject my daughter to this level of stress, she’ll be needing therapy before we even get her through junior high.

These tests are extremely flawed. The very first practice question I read over my daughter’s shoulder was grammar related, requiring the student to choose the correct way to connect two separate sentences. While two of the four answer options were definitely wrong, the other two were technically correct. (As a professional writer and editor, I know my way around a sentence—but my copy-editor husband and a slew of editor friends also agreed that there were two correct answers.) My daughter selected the one that Pearson apparently deemed “incorrect.” After that experience, I decided to take a full-on PARCC practice test on my own. I have a master’s degree in magazine journalism, a Mensa-level IQ and a long and storied history of rocking standardized tests, but I did not answer every question on the fifth-grade English test correctly. How can we expect our 10-year-olds to do better?

The school systems are often required to administer the tests to children who can’t do them. A special-ed teacher I know is supposed to administer the PARCC to autistic and developmentally delayed children. They can’t read and they can’t communicate—do you really think they’re going to write an essay about the themes in a complex reading passage? You can see how one Maryland mom expressed her concerns for her special-needs son. (She appears at 1:41.00.)

The tests require significant investments in technology, and the states aren’t ponying up the cash. PARCC tests are taken online, which means that the school district needs to have enough computers to allow every student in a grade to take the test simultaneously. Our school has been grossly underfunded by the state for the past decade—and yet we had to make some pretty significant investments in new computers to ensure that they had enough to test our students. But that money had to come from somewhere: We lost foreign language teachers, and my daughter’s  social studies book is older than her college-aged babysitter. What did the kids lose out on in other school districts?

There’s something rotten about the whole deal. Pearson not only makes mediocre textbooks—they are now in the business of testing whether our kids are learning anything from those books. Shouldn’t one part of this equation be independent of the other? There’s also some concern that Pearson may be in cahoots with technology companies like Apple to get some lucrative business for both parties—and the FBI has launched a criminal investigation into it. And the federal government is even pulling funding from the Common Core, just as our state is making the decision to commit to it more fully.

I’m writing my letter right after winter break to refuse to allow my child to take the tests, and I’m fortunate to live in one of the only school districts in New Jersey that is officially allowing children to opt out and have other educational experiences during test time. (Last year, many school districts forced kids who were opting out to remain in the classroom and “sit and stare” for the duration of the test—something bordering on child abuse, in my book.) I’m exercising the parental rights afforded by the Supreme Court ruling in Pierce v. Society of Sisters, which protects my fundamental right to direct the upbringing and education of my children. The Court declared that “the child is not the mere creature of the State: those who nurture him and direct his destiny have the right coupled with the high duty to recognize and prepare him for additional obligations.” And I hope that you’ll consider fighting against these tests, too.

Learn more about the Common Core—and what it means for your child.

Lisa Milbrand is a contributing editor to and the blogger for In Name Only.

The Parent's Role During School Years
The Parent's Role During School Years
The Parent's Role During School Years

Image: Mighty Sequoia Studio/

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How Joining a Rock Band Made Me a Better Mom

Sunday, September 7th, 2014

I “Clark Kent” my way through volunteering at the Home & School and my day job, with my dark-rimmed librarian glasses and my sensible shoes. But for the past couple of years, I’ve spent many a Monday evening sweating in my friend’s basement—and more than a few nights playing out at local bars—as the bass player for Whatserface, an all-girl (all-mom) cover band.

It’s never going to be my career (unfortunately)—I won’t be the next Gwen Stefani rocking out with a baby on my hip. But my girls and I have a ball whenever we’re playing, and we’re getting better with every practice. (Which is very good, as I hadn’t ever picked up a bass guitar until I was asked to join the band. The first few practices were pretty ugly, at least on my end!)

There are a few aspects of moonlighting as a rocker that aren’t going to earn me Mom of the Year awards. We’ve been known to overindulge occasionally when we get together, which leads to pretty evil wakeup calls the morning after. It took me a while to finally invest in some good earplugs, so when I’m old and senile, I’ll be contending with hearing loss, too. And of course, there’s the fact we spend some Saturday nights in darkened bars while our kiddos are home with the sitters.

But taking time out of my week to be something other than mom, wife and writer helps make me better at all three of those roles. Here’s why:

I’m building new friendships that have nothing to do with my kids or my work. Once you become a mom, it feels like the only places you make new friends are on the school playground or in the office. Granted, I was close friends with Kara, our drummer, before she asked me to pick up the bass and join the band, but I had only met the other gals once or twice before our first practice. And now, I count them all among my closest friends.

I’m getting some of that much-exalted “me time.” When I’m playing music, I don’t have much time to mentally run through my to-do list or worry yet again about how we’re going to afford college for my kiddos. For just a few hours, it’s just me and my music. And I come home refreshed, re-energized, and ready to scale that mountain of laundry sitting by the washing machine.

I’m learning something new. Studies have shown that music education can boost IQ, increase the brain’s neural activity, and improve language skills in kids—and I can only believe that I’m getting some of those benefits myself. Playing bass challenges my brain in ways that nothing else does. And I’m hoping that if I keep on playing until I look older than Keith Richards, I might actually keep my mind sharp later in life.

I’m discovering new music. Deciding which songs to learn can be a bit challenging for our band, as we have six members with wildly divergent taste. Band members have suggested everything from old-school grunge to country to current pop songs. And yes, we’ve had some really out-there suggestions, like “The Lion Sleeps Tonight.” (That was met with resounding nos!) I’m at an age where I could contentedly listen to classic rock stations or stick with my favorite bands, who have mostly reached Hall of Fame eligibility, but I’m now constantly on the prowl for something new and interesting to bring to our next listening party.

The kids love it—mostly. It’s inspired some of the other band members’ kids so much that they started their own rock band, and I’ve started teaching my own kids piano. And the girls really enjoy going to our occasional kid-friendly gig. Still, once in a while I get grief on a Monday night when I’m heading out to band practice. But after I told them I’d quit if they quit all their extracurricular activities that take them away from me—their ballet and tap and Girl Scouts and gymnastics, the complaints magically disappeared.

My husband loves it—mostly. Yeah, it means he flies solo a few nights, and he’s probably had to sit through the same setlist a few too many times. (His musical taste tends more toward obscure Scandinavian metal bands than the White Stripes.) But I think he’s proud to say his girl’s in the band, judging by the gifts I’ve gotten over the past year (which included cool black boots and a gorgeous new Gibson bass).

And I love it. Playing bass makes me happy. And playing bass on stage with a few of my best friends, with your friends and family in the audience? There are few things in life better than that.

Tell us: What do you do in your life that makes you happy?

Mom Confessions: If I Could Spend a Day Without My Kids I Would¿
Mom Confessions: If I Could Spend a Day Without My Kids I Would¿
Mom Confessions: If I Could Spend a Day Without My Kids I Would¿

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Which Age Is Hardest to Parent?

Saturday, August 23rd, 2014

I used to think that babies and toddlers were the hardest to parent, with all the sleep deprivation, bodily fluids and baby proofing that come with that age range. It felt like my children were trying really hard to get themselves killed, and we spent our waking hours standing sentinel and worrying that all that stood between my daughters and certain doom was a flimsy plastic cabinet lock. Those were the days of guacamole in the hair and 3 a.m. wakeup calls, but at least we got nap time to recover and get our groove back.

Now that I’m the mom of a tween and an almost tween, I find myself dreaming of those days. Because while the really physical days of parenting are done—no more bending in half and hunching my back for hours over a struggling-to-walk-toddler—parenting an older kid requires tremendous mental fortitude. And I’m not sure I have the skills necessary to survive the next few years. Here’s where I’m falling short:

Scheduling Prowess I need military-level precision to keep track of all the school projects, teacher meetings and extracurriculars—something a girl once voted most disorganized by a jury of her peers simply can’t muster.  I used to be horrified when I read stories of moms using their minivan as a traveling office/dinner table/living room, until my daughters began to fill every day with their various extracurricular passions. And now, my car comes stocked with paper towels, an array of snacks (and used wrappers), and is my regular conference call spot (thank God for Bluetooth!).

Mind Reader My daughter has developed a split personality, as she straddles the precarious line between childhood and adulthood. One minute, she’s begging me to let her watch The Fault in Our Stars—the next, she’s saying that she’s not too old for Sophia the First. And I’m never quite sure whether I’m talking to the grownup or the kiddo, which makes it hard to determine whether any suggestion I make is going to be greeted with a dramatic eye roll and sigh or excited exuberance. It’s hard to find that happy medium, where I’m allowing her to learn and grow, but not learn too much, too fast. So, despite the fact that I hear that every other parent in the fifth grade lets their children Snapchat on cell phones and watch Walking Dead marathons, we’re sticking by our guns.

Peace Maker I simply don’t have the negotiation skills necessary to get my girls to stop the battles and bickering and actually be the loving sisters I know they are, deep, deep (deep) down inside. I’d love to just tell my children to work it out themselves, but that often leads to tears and pain (and not just for me).

Book Smarts I was a straight A student when I was in school, but apparently I killed a lot of brain cells between then and now, or they decided to rewrite the curriculum just to make me look like the village idiot. Either way, there were things in fourth grade math that had me stumped, and I’m frankly a bit nervous about what comes next. I hope my daughters can teach me.

I’ve talked a bit about my struggles with tween parenting with my mom, and she just chuckles. “Wait until they hit the teens,” she says, ominously. “That’s when parenting really gets tough.” I hope I can survive it.

Tell us: Which age was the toughest for you as a parent? Why was that? Keep up with your kiddo through every age and stage through our newsletters.

Mom Confessions: My Latest Parenting Fail
Mom Confessions: My Latest Parenting Fail
Mom Confessions: My Latest Parenting Fail

Image: Busy mom by Angela Waye/

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Companies Need a Lesson on What Kids Really Want

Thursday, August 7th, 2014

Even though I’m the mom of two girls, I find myself shopping in the “boys’” aisles an awful lot. And that’s because it seems like most of the cooler toys and t-shirts (at least according to my girls) show up in that section. First it was Thomas the Tank Engine, then Star Wars, dinosaurs and robotics components.

It’s disheartening in this day and age that companies still cling to these old-school beliefs that all girls like pink sparkly princesses, and all boys want dinosaurs and sports. That’s what got Lands End in trouble earlier this month, as a mom started a campaign against the hearts-and-flowers motifs on girls shirts, for more realistic depictions of science. (I may just have to pick up one of the solar systems shirts for my science-loving youngest.) Lego finally decided to throw us a bone by offering girl scientist figures, after making loads of money off the pink-and-pretty Lego Friends, who seem to spend an awful lot of time on fashion, cuddly animals and talent shows. And Disney seems to have actually taken their latest acquisition, Star Wars, back to the stone ages, by stocking a single piece of Princess Leia merchandise—an “action” figure of her dressed in the revealing slave costume.

But I feel even worse for the boys who don’t fit into the trucks-and-sports mode. Because it’s a lot harder to make things from the girls’ side of the aisle, where there’s a plethora of pink and sparkly, work for a boy. On Lands End’s Facebook announcement of their science shirts for girls you could see a whole slew of comments from moms of boys, requesting shirts with “non-threatening animals” and hearts and flowers for their not-so-stereotypical boys.

Of course, there are some ways to circumvent the marketing powers that be. Etsy and other internet retailers seem to be built on people making more gender-neutral crafts that kids that fall outside the stereotype might actually love.

Maybe we need to get the marketers to make it easier for all kids to find their passions—whether it’s a girl who loves robots, or a boy who loves horses.

Want to know if your kid’s destined to be a scientist, a chef, or President? Try our future career quiz.

Parenting Style: Positive Parenting
Parenting Style: Positive Parenting
Parenting Style: Positive Parenting

Image: Courtesy of Lego

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Should You Let Your Kids Drink Alcohol?

Friday, July 18th, 2014

It’s been 30 years since the U.S. raised its legal drinking age to 21, a rule that’s led many a college student astray of the law. And it’s often broken in homes across the country, as kids get their first sips of beer or wine from a parent’s cup.

But even though I had my first taste of wine on a Christmas Eve long before I was legally old enough to drink, I haven’t yet let my own kids try it. And if you look at most of the studies about underage drinking, it looks like I might be right to hold off. Several studies have shown that allowing your children to drink when they’re underage may make them more likely to binge drink later on—especially if they’re girls. But as with anything, there are studies that contradict that idea—including a 2004 study that showed that children who drank with their parents were nearly half as likely to say they had drank in the past month and about one third as likely to admit to binge drinking in the past two weeks.

So what’s a parent to do? Right now, I’m sticking to my no-sips-allowed policy, and modeling responsible alcohol consumption for them (ensuring that you have a designated driver, and enjoying without overindulging). And since my 10-year-old was scandalized that the Catholic Church let her friend sip wine at her First Communion, I hopefully have a few more years before she’s really tempted to try it.

But there’s also a big difference between providing beer for your teen’s party and offering a glass of champagne to celebrate a special event. The studies that show the decreased rates of drinking in teens were in families where the teens were allowed to drink alcohol in family or religious settings. And if I decide to change my no-sips policy, I’d only be doing it in the context of a family gathering or special celebration—a sip of champagne at her high school graduation, for example. (So friends of my daughters—don’t be expecting a kegger in your honor!)

But I’m realistic. The odds of my daughters waiting until they turn 21 to drink are pretty low. And so I’m laying the groundwork now so that they’ll at least stay safe when they do it. I’ve already stressed the importance of not driving with someone whose drinking (and already told them I will always give them or a friend a safe ride home, no questions asked), and explained what drinking too much does to you—and why you may want to avoid that. (Hangovers and nausea = no fun!) And hopefully, they’ll heed my advice, and avoid a few of the mistakes I made along the way.

Tell us: Have you let your kids drink alcohol? Why or why not?

Alcohol During Pregnancy: Safe or Not?
Alcohol During Pregnancy: Safe or Not?
Alcohol During Pregnancy: Safe or Not?

Image: Child drinking a cocktail by RamonaS/

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