A friend of mine shared a link on Facebook today to this article by a man in New Jersey who exercised his legal right to exempt his 12 year old son from the standardized testing assessment conducted by the state. The reasons he offered for why he and his wife are removing their son from the testing echo my concerns about the usefulness of these tests which, by and large, seem only to stress out both students and teachers and do little for the advancement of actual learning and skill building for life. Even if I toss aside my feelings for the validity of these assessments, which teachers and students spend weeks preparing for and taking, Mr. Richardson’s article reminds me of how far we have not come in education since I was a child. When I compare the educational experience I had to the one my boys are getting, I cringe. And I say that without any intended disrespect to my boys’ school or their teachers; they are in a private school of our choosing because the educators there are truly wonderful. The state of education, however, has changed. My boys are missing out on what I got in spades in Douglas County schools while I was growing up…freedom to choose, freedom to think and express themselves as individuals, and freedom to create.
Growing up, I thought learning was fun. Yes. There was plenty of work, but with that work came a broadening of my mind and the knowledge that I was working toward independence. I felt invested in that. From specific exercises we did in grade school to the way I was allowed to customize my high school class schedule, I was given ownership and freedom in my education and those things empowered me.
In 6th grade, we were asked to fill out an application for McDonalds. This was purely for practice, obviously, but the principal reviewed the applications of both classes of 6th graders and then chose 10 of us to interview. I was among the 10 he interviewed. From those interviews, he then would chose a boy and a girl to “hire.” I remember sitting in that chair in front of the principal and trying my best to be articulate. I wanted that job and I got it. When he brought me into the office again to offer me the imaginary position, he told me that he chose me because he could tell from my responses that I was a hard worker and that I believed in myself. That singular experience profoundly affected me. I’ve interviewed for ten positions in my life from the time I began working at age 17. I’ve gotten the job every single time (knock on wood). I don’t believe that’s a coincidence. I think that experience I had interviewing at age 12 helped me to understand the process and prepare for it later in life.
My husband’s school experience was 180 degrees from mine. Steve went to high school in Illinois where his class schedule was chosen for him. The classes were predetermined for each student. Boring. At our high school, there were certain requirements that had to be met in core subjects (math, science, social studies, and English) but we were allowed to choose the courses we wanted to in order to meet those requirements. I knew I was interested in the social sciences and English, so I focused my classes around those subjects. I opted out of PE, home ec, and other fairly standard elective courses to take additional courses in English. I chose to study Shakespeare, grammar, and writing. I wasn’t forced either, as my husband was, into three years of history. I took history courses along with quarter-long courses on the current topics like the Middle East and Futures (a course where we studied emergent technologies and sciences). Everything I studied and the way I was allowed to choose my interests prepared me for college. Consequently, when I got there and was asked to write a paper about Othello I was able to formulate a topic and plan my paper without hassling the professor to help me choose something to say. I’d been allowed freedom to be unique, to find my own voice and interests, and to be responsible for my learning. It paid off. I got through college in 4 years with a 3.3 GPA and the desire to go to graduate school and learn more. I’d say that was a fairly successful educational experience. What’s more is that it prepared me for life, where I’m required daily to think creatively, problem solve, adapt, and be flexible. I’ve never once been asked to recite dates and locations for specific battles during the Civil War.
What I want for my sons is the opportunity I had, the chance to learn that education is fun. We did take standardized tests, but we just took them. We didn’t spend weeks preparing for them or stressing out over them. The teachers taught from the prescribed curriculum, we took the tests, and we did our best. End of story. As my sons prepare to take the Iowa Basics tests at their school, I’ve told them that these tests don’t tell us how smart they are or how successful they will be. They only tell us how well they take standardized tests. But, success in life isn’t determined by results on standardized tests. Success arises from believing in yourself, knowing your strengths, learning lessons on the fly, and finding opportunity in obstacles. I tell my boys that there is no standardized life. Darken whichever ovals you choose as you travel on your own path and, if someone dares to tell you you’re wrong, just remind them that they don’t have the answer key for your test.