Fourth grade was the breaking point for Edy Chamness. That's the year her son Christopher's highly regarded elementary school in Austin required him to take 14 standardized tests: ten practice exams throughout the year, culminating in four statewide ones that measure student aptitude in English and math. "There were packets of test-prep homework every week that weren't related to what he was learning in the classroom," says Chamness, a former fourth-grade teacher herself. "It was painful for him to sit down and look at them, much less complete them on top of his other assignments."
Chamness says Christopher, a good student, was far from the only child who was feeling test-prep anxiety. But when she voiced her concerns, district administrators explained that the school was ranked as an "exemplary campus" by the Texas Education Agency because its students excelled on standardized tests and that the assessment exams were a key part of maintaining its prestigious status.
So last spring, Chamness and her husband took the bold step of having their son skip 12 of the 14 tests (she couldn't find child care every time). Christopher spent the days out of school studying the Revolutionary War and reading Johnny Tremain. Chamness confirmed with the principal that the state doesn't require grade-schoolers to take these tests to move on to the next grade. Still, the district cited a Texas law stating that a parent may not remove her child from class to avoid a test and that doing so could result in his being placed in remedial classes. (Ultimately, a teacher went to bat for Christopher and he was promoted into a regular class.) That may sound like a harsh reaction. But allowing parents to pull their kids from standardized tests is risky for school officials; especially when the stakes of the tests are so high.
Standardized tests have been part of American elementary education for more than a century. They were established to help teachers gauge whether a student needed more support in a particular subject, but the goal has changed radically since the enactment of The No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 (NCLB) by Congress. This widely criticized legislation requires public schools to test the math and reading proficiency of students in grades three through eight each year in order to receive federal funding. Now these statewide tests, generally administered in the late spring, are used primarily to evaluate the quality of a school and its teachers. (Districts may also use the tests to determine if a student should be placed in a basic or an accelerated course for the next academic year or asked to repeat a grade, but they are not required to do so.)
This new level of accountability has been in part an attempt to help our nation's public schools confront the stark and long-standing achievement gaps between low-income and minority students and their more advantaged peers (though little progress has been made on that front so far). The law's biggest impact has been the added pressure on our nation's elementary and middle schools to perform. It mandates that students need to show "adequate yearly progress" on test scores, and by 2014 they must meet 100 percent proficiency standards in math and science -- a seemingly laudable goal that many education experts see as just plain unachievable. Schools that fall short of the mark may face being shut down. "No Child Left Behind is the Death Star of American education," says Diane Ravitch, Ph.D., author of The Death and Life of the Great American School System. "Once a school is labeled as failing, many families find a different one or move away or enroll in a charter."
It's no wonder that districts have added practice tests to help students prepare for standardized exams. But some may have gone overboard. The National Center for Fair & Open Testing, a watchdog organization, says that the 14 total exams at Christopher's Austin school are only "moderately high," and that some districts have tests every few weeks throughout the year.
Concerned about the stress these exams place on their kids, a growing number of parents are pushing back. Chamness joined United Opt Out National, a grassroots movement whose 3,000-plus members have their kids skip standardized tests as a form of civil disobedience. In New York City, a coalition of parents are pulling their kids from "field" exams, which testing companies use as a "focus group" to determine whether their questions are grade-appropriate. Last spring, hundreds demonstrated against the statewide test, which was based on a new curriculum that teachers didn't have time to implement properly.
Parents and kids aren't the only protesters. In 2012, more than 400 Texas school boards adopted a resolution urging lawmakers to scale back testing. And the state's House of Representatives passed a bill last April that, if it is signed into law, would reduce the number of year-end exams that students need to pass to earn a high-school diploma -- from 15 to 5. The National Education Association (NEA), the largest teachers' union, supports such reductions. "High-stakes standardized tests punish students, teachers, and schools, but they don't make students any smarter," says NEA president Dennis Van Roekel.
U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan agrees that the existing system is broken. "There has been an overemphasis on a single type of test," he says. Duncan would prefer to measure students' academic growth based on a range of indicators beyond one test score, and he wants teachers and principals to be evaluated based on multiple, locally decided measures. In 2010 the Obama administration asked Congress to reauthorize NCLB with modifications. That hasn't happened, so the Department of Education (DOE) has granted waivers to 39 states and Washington, D.C., allowing them to avoid sanctions provided they enact plans that prepare all students for college and careers, focus aid on the neediest students, and support effective teaching.
None of this is to suggest that students shouldn't be tested. Most educators agree that the information gleaned from assessments can help kids receive a better education. "If the majority of my students miss an area on a math exam, I would focus on different ways to teach that skill for next year," says Debra Young, a third-grade teacher at John M. Barnes Elementary School, in Flat Rock, Michigan.
Not all schools take advantage of this learning opportunity, though, and a good number are paying a steep price for NCLB. Many districts have scaled back the overall curriculum so they can "teach to the test." A study by the Center on Education Policy found that since the law's implementation, more than 60 percent of districts have increased the instruction time for math and English while 44 percent report that they allot fewer hours toward history, science, art, and physical education (which are not measured on standardized tests). "Many principals in our district tell us not to worry about social studies and science until after the standardized tests are over," says an elementary-school teacher in Oak Harbor, Washington. "Well, they're in May. So that gives us only three to four weeks to teach these subjects."
The proliferation of tests also gives kids fewer opportunities to develop the creative-thinking skills that they'll need to succeed in the long term. "Learning to ask questions is just as important as learning to answer them," says Yong Zhao, Ph.D., associate dean for global education at the University of Oregon, in Eugene.
The fact that teachers, schools, and the DOE all agree that the current approach to standardized exams is problematic should lead to some structural changes in the years ahead, predicts Andy Rotherham, cofounder of Bellwether Education Partners, a nonprofit education-consulting organization in Washington, D.C. Indeed, 46 states and the District of Columbia have voluntarily adopted and are implementing the Common Core standards that establish what students should know and be able to do in each grade. There will be new assessments aligned to these universal standards, with national tests replacing statewide ones as early as the 2014-15 school year. Although nothing has been determined yet, the proposed exams in English language arts and mathematics would be broader based and might include a writing assessment, an auditory component that measures listening skills, and real-world projects and research. Plus, the results would be delivered within weeks rather than months, providing valuable feedback for teachers and parents.
But this possible revamp is unlikely to resolve the narrowed curriculum and the temptation for districts to add benchmark tests to help students prepare. So in the meantime, it's your job to let teachers, administrators, and representatives know how these tests are affecting your school and, even more important, to adopt the following strategies to ensure that your child can thrive in our current testing culture.
Hone skills, not scores If your child is on track with what's being taught in the classroom, there's no need to do practice tests at home. In general, good preparation for state tests includes many things you probably do anyway: reading aloud with your child, encouraging her to do crossword puzzles, playing games that involve computation, and using math for everyday purposes such as adding up prices on a shopping trip.
Get your child relaxed and ready Make sure he gets enough sleep the night before and eats a protein-rich breakfast that will enable him to stay focused all morning. If he seems anxious, give him a pep talk reminding him to take deep calming breaths and read each question carefully before answering. You might also put a note in his backpack wishing him good luck.
Have her teacher interpret scores There is valuable information in the test results beyond how your child stacks up relative to others, including how she performed on the different sections of the exam. Knowing how she did in the vocabulary or reading-comprehension sections, for instance, will help you understand where she's excelling or struggling so you can support her learning more effectively.
Appreciate effort, not results "If your child scores near the top on a test, don't praise his intelligence, since that won't encourage him to keep working hard," says Carol Dweck, Ph.D., author of Mindset: The New Psychology of Success. Instead, compliment the strategies he used, his focus, and his progress. If he doesn't perform well, don't comfort him by saying, "I'm not a math person, either." This will only convince him that he'll never be good at the subject. A more effective strategy is to say something like, "You haven't mastered these skills yet. That's okay. They take time and practice to learn."
Know when to worry A statewide test is just one data point in a lifetime of academic markers. If your child does worse than expected, it's premature to panic. If her scores continue to lag over time, though, you should ask to meet with her teacher. By looking at a range of factors -- homework, quizzes, and class participation -- you can decide whether she's truly falling behind or merely struggling with the pressure of taking standardized exams.
Wondering what a standardized exam looks like today? Check out these sample third-grade questions from the Minnesota Comprehensive Assessment.
Originally published in the September 2013 issue of Parents magazine.