Standard and Poor
Standardized testing has destroyed public education. It’s the responsibility of us Jews, who benefited more than anyone from the system, to fix it.
My daughter Josie is starting fifth grade in a New York City public school, and that means this year is when we do the crazed round of middle-school visits and applications. Last year, I wrote about how stressful all the standardized testing is for the kids. There will be more tests this year. There will be tears, there will be playdates canceled in anticipation, and, once again, there will be puke. (Josie is not a puker, but she informs me that every time at least one kid horks before every test.) Depending on where we apply, there will be essays for my child to write, additional tests for her to take.
And I loathe myself for worrying. I have a kid who doesn’t want to be less than perfect. I see it as my job to get her to chill. I don’t want her to pick up on my anxiety. But I am plenty anxious.
I am also a hypocrite. I was so freaking self-congratulatory about her admission to a lovely, warm, diverse, progressive, mixed-age-classroom-having elementary school in our neighborhood. Admission was by lottery, and her admission was by no means assured. So, I’d had her do giftedness testing, in case we needed more options. She spent a year in a middling public pre-K program, where she was punched in the face by a 5-year-old and where an inexperienced classroom teacher had a temper tantrum so severe I watched her kick a door, repeatedly, as hard as she could. When I talked to the school’s parent coordinator about the chaos in the classroom, she blamed other kids in the class. By name.
In any case, Josie was admitted to the lovely little progressive school, so I had the delicious luxury of not having to send her back to the unimpressive school and getting to turn down the gifted program. I used to joke about being the only Jewish mother who didn’t want her kid in a G&T program. “No G&T unless it includes Bombay Sapphire!” I’d joke. Reading some of my early columns, I want to travel back in time to punch myself in the face.
Because if Josie hadn’t gotten in to this school, which I know is an unusual, special place, she’d be in a gifted program.
You see, I had two choices: the gifted program, or a lovely progressive school in another district that she could have attended if I’d lied about where we lived. Tons of New Yorkers do that. An administrator at that school encouraged me to get a friend in that neighborhood to put my name on her ConEd bill to “prove” I lived there. “We’ll never check,” the administrator assured me. “We want families like yours! If we didn’t admit kids from Brooklyn and the East Village we’d have no economic diversity at all!” I decided I wasn’t up for the moral lesson of telling a 5-year-old that rules are for other people, or the reminders that she shouldn’t tell her classmates where she lived lest someone else’s mommy rat us out to the Department of Education. Such manipulation and deception don’t seem very Jewish. So, if Jo hadn’t been admitted, by sheer luck, to her wonderful school, well, I most likely would have sent her to the gifted program. So, I can shut up with mystical fake-chill I don’t-care-about-test-scores self. And believe me, other parents, I really do have sympathy for the hard decisions you have to make as well.
Is it not clear that this system is broken? Test scores are a moronic way to dictate the future of 4-year-olds. I remember a friend’s child, a very bright, very cat-obsessed little girl, who bombed her Stanford-Binet test—the standard intelligence test for children—for Hunter College Elementary because the psychologist administering the test had a home office with a cat closed in the bedroom. The cat yowled to be let out during the entire test, and instead of thinking about triangles and cause-and-effect, the child could only think KITTYKITTYKITTYKITTYKITTYKITTYKITTY. Tests for four-year olds privilege savvy, well-connected parents with plenty of books and plenty of disposable income. Some very smart little kids simply can’t sit still for a two-hour test, or have separation anxiety or shyness around strange adults. One study found that only 45 percent of the kids who scored 130 or higher on the Stanford-Binet would do so again if tested on another day. That is not surprising.
But here’s the thing: Josie isn’t 4 anymore. We have to decide what happens next. There is a progressive public middle school in my district that doesn’t require a minimum test score, but it’s so popular there is no guarantee she’ll be admitted. So the question returns: Do we also apply for gifted programs? I am embarrassed of how quickly I looked at her standardized test scores when they were available online, and how quickly I looked to see if her scores were high enough for the possibility. I don’t want to be this person.
As I’ve discussed elsewhere, people who think standardized tests are a necessary evil, and that they measure what they’re supposed to measure, are not looking at the actual standardized tests our kids are taking. They are crap. On the English sections there are questions that are semi-coherent. There are huge problems with scoring and with tests being used for purposes for which they weren’t devised. If you read Todd Farley’s Making the Grade: Adventures in the Standardized Testing Industry, written by a guy who both constructed and graded tests (sometimes while massively hung over), it will curl your hair. Then we have the issue of schools being financially rewarded or punished for higher test scores, leading teachers and principals to change the kids scores—to cheat. And most distressingly of all, schools are teaching to the tests, sacrificing deep, wide-ranging, multidisciplinary, multifaceted education to train kids how to fill in little bubbles.
And you know whose responsibility it is to fix this? The Jews. We’re the ones who are better-educated than most Americans; we’re the ones whose parents and grandparents and great-grandparents came to this country and relied on public education to learn the language and climb the ladder toward the American Dream. Using our privilege to gain a place in a decent program within a broken system doesn’t let us off the hook. (And now that you’ve asked, yes, I do ponder my decision not to send the kids to Jewish Day School—all the time. But that’s another column.) All our school systems should emphasize good citizenship, multilevel instructional approaches, appreciation of diversity in all its forms, empathy, collaboration, individualized education, and professional development to help teachers teach to different levels in one classroom and handle discipline and classroom management. Because that could help all students.
But my kid is really good at filling in the little bubbles. And that’s what I’m angsting about as school starts this year.
Moses, the father of a radically egalitarian legal system, would have dug the soft financial revolution taking place in Iceland