By Steven Baker
Last week, my 9-year-old daughter skipped school for three mornings. With my blessing, she will do the same thing this week.
For a child who rarely misses school and a family that puts a high priority on education, it might seem like a strange choice, but it's not. In fact, it's the only way we can be sure she'll be learning, because her school is more or less abandoning teaching for a large portion of the next two weeks to focus on administering the Pennsylvania System of School Assessment (PSSA) tests.
It's not the fault of her school, nor of the excellent teachers or the outstanding principal there. They have no say in the matter, because the state has declared that schools must administer the PSSAs. What's more, schools and individual teachers are held responsible for the scores that students achieve, so they've had no choice but to focus a lot of time and energy on preparing students to take the test. Their hands are tied.
But parents have more freedom. Under state law, we are allowed to opt our children out of the PSSAs based on a religious objection. And the more I learn about the exams, and the corrosive effect of high-stakes standardized testing in general, the more convinced I am that they are deeply objectionable under any religious or ethical belief system.
First, they cause harm to children without offering any benefit. Parents have long seen the distress of children preparing for and taking standardized tests. Recently, researchers have discovered a very troubling trend. When states institute high-stakes standardized testing - the kind that rewards and punishes schools for their students' scores - rates of diagnoses for attention deficit hyperactivity disorder in those states increase markedly. More research is needed to understand exactly what that correlation means, but it's more than enough to make parents question whether the high-stress environment created by high-stakes testing is physically or emotionally healthy for their children.
Second, tests like the PSSAs aren't designed to help students. They are given too late in the year to provide helpful feedback to teachers to address any needs that are identified. Their primary purpose is to judge teachers and schools. Unfortunately, they don't do that very well. Research clearly shows that many factors outside the classroom and the school significantly affect how students perform on the tests. Yet since test scores are presented as the primary evidence that a particular school is "good" or "bad," it's no wonder that the obsession with raising those scores permeates almost everything that happens in school.
Most parents are familiar with the letter from the principal exhorting them to make sure their children get a good night's sleep and a healthy breakfast on test days. How many, though, stop to ask what sense it makes to pass any sort of judgment based on test results that might reflect what students ate one morning rather than what they learned over the course of a school year?
There is a place for testing in school, but that place is in classes, where teachers can design and administer tests that help them understand what students have learned so they can adjust their teaching accordingly. State-mandated standardized tests don't do that, but they do take up far too much class time and send a terrible message to children that high test scores are the purpose, rather than simply the result, of learning.
When I was asked to provide my religious objection to my daughter's participation in the PSSAs, I pointed to the book of Proverbs, which exhorts parents to "train up a child in the way she should go, and when she is old, she will not depart from it."
I believe with all my heart that no one, not my daughter, her teacher, or her school, should be judged on the basis of her standardized test scores. She will be a better, more balanced adult one day for understanding that.
So, on test days, she will be reading, writing, exploring, and learning at home. And I'll be hoping for a day when she - and every Pennsylvania student - can do that at school every day of the school year.