By NICK CHILES
When our 10-year-old tumbled off the schoolbus today, the relief on her face tucked all up in that broad smile, it signaled the end of the five-day torture chamber that is our state’s annual standardized test.
Her feet hadn’t even touched the ground good before she and her friends were plotting a big, post-test celebration—maybe at somebody’s home, maybe in the park. But on one thing they were clear: fun would be had by all. Lots of fun. After all, the test was over and all that stretched before them, schoolwise, was three or so weeks of …well, actually it’s not really clear what their teachers will be doing over the next three weeks since the test is done.
The Georgia version of the state test is extremely high stakes: passage is required for promotion. And the stress is ridiculously high for everyone involved—students, parents, teachers, administrators. Like so many things in the world of education, what started with the best of intentions—pulling everyone up to the same high standard—has been distorted and exploited to such an extreme that the tests now represent all the things wrong with public education and very little that’s right. The high stakes were quite clear here in Atlanta, where administrators and teachers (and perhaps even the school superintendent) were driven by fear and paranoia to engage in what has been described as the largest test cheating scandal in U.S. history, getting together to do wholesale erasures of student tests, resulting last month in the indictments of 35 educators, including Superintendent Beverly Hall.
But it’s not even necessary to reach all the way to the extreme of cheating and indictments to find the poison that these tests do to the process of educating children. From top to bottom, from the worst schools to the top-ranked, the tests can snatch the minds of very good educators and turn them into a nine-month test preparation service, like a Princeton Review for little kids. Instead of capturing these young minds and fostering a love of learning and a passion for school, the educators are forced to spend far too much time drilling, prepping, reviewing for the tests. I can tell you from experience, from watching the impact this approach has on my little one, that the joy for learning little kids naturally bring to school takes a big hit.
Even top students, who should have no worries about conquering a statewide standardized test, wind up losing sleep over this ridiculous thing, their eyes wide with fear and worry. My children have all handled the tests with ease, but that hasn’t lessened their stress. And it’s not like the system then uses the test as a way to figure out how to perhaps alter the curriculum next year to bolster kids in the areas where they’re weak. Nah, none of that happens. Instead, after a summer of backsliding, they just step into another teacher’s classroom the following schoolyear and start the same mind-numbing process all over again.
For my 10-year-old, it started with Reading and ended with Social Studies, with Math, Science and Language Arts in the middle. Lots and lots of number 2 pencils and ovals and test booklets—so many in a row that there has to be some test fatigue by the time they fill in the last ovals. Since the system has understandably gotten a bit paranoid about the altering of answer sheets, my little one reported that there such a sense of heightened security that there were practically armed guards on hand to escort each test booklet once the kid handed it over.
There has to be a better way to conduct public education, a way to redesign the system so that it rewards the teachers and schools that actually engender a love of learning.
In the meantime, our 10-year-old didn’t make her way back into the house until nearly 9 p.m., full of Mexican food and stories about fun in the park. It was a joy to see her back to her pre-test self, the stress having dropped away. I’m sure it was a scene repeated all over the state and across America as our nation’s young people emerged from their state-sponsored torture chambers.
There has to be a better way.
1. Atlanta Cheating Scandal: A Question of Character
2. Evidence of Test Cheating Found in 200 School Districts Across the Country—A National Disgrace
3. The Most Important Advocate: What Parents Should Take Away From the Atlanta Test Cheating Scandal
Nick Chiles is a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and a New York Times bestselling author of 12 books, including the upcoming "The Rejected Stone: Al Sharpton and the Path To American Leadership," which he co-authored with Al Sharpton.