This post was featured in The Washington Post on March 27, 2015 under the title,
Mom: Why my 9-year gets despondent about school

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Opting out of high stakes tests is about so much more than just the test.

As the parents of young children consider opting out, one of the issues we face is how to talk to them about opting out.  They are, after all, the ones who will be doing the opting out. In all dealings with children, honesty is always the best policy. If you get busted by your kid for fudging the truth, you’re sunk. So what do we talk about?

When my daughter was 8, we started a conversation that has evolved over the past two years. She is now 10, and our conversation now includes my son, who is 9. 

I have tried to explain it to them this way:

When you take the test, you get a score. Your score gives your teacher and your school a grade. That grade tells the state and the district how much money your teacher and your school should get paid. It can even determine if your teacher gets to keep teaching, or if your school might be closed.

They asked me, “Is that why we have to do so much test prep?

“Perhaps, but it’s also complicated.”

We talk about recess a lot, because they don’t get recess. Usually, it’s the first thing I hear at pick up – whether he had recess or not. The Recess Report. He gets in the car, slams the door shut and says, 

“No recess… again” 

”Bus loop – one lap”, or 

“Bus loop – two laps.”

 They get recess on Wednesdays. That’s it. On non-PE days, if everyone has been good at lunch (recess should be neither reward nor punishment), when there is time for a break, they get to run the bus loop. The first time I heard this, let’s just say I was more than annoyed. I’ve told this to friends and they have no idea what I mean. The bus loop is the paved driveway where the school buses turn around. That’s right. The “recess” my kids get is 5 minutes around the bus loop. Their school is old, in not the greatest surroundings, currently next to highway construction, so it’s not even a pretty bus loop. Anyone who has ever played on a sports team of any kind knows that laps are a form of discipline – for being late, for talking back to the coach, for being lazy, etc. Laps.  The new recess is punishment.  PE is not recess. It’s another class.

Lack of recess is perhaps the single greatest reason why my children are so unhappy in school now. Of course, it may be different for other children. My kids do not get a break in the day. They KNOW it’s because of the test. Instead of recess, they do test prep. In addition to the increase in content to get through, over previous years, the reason they are constantly rushed is because teachers have to be sure to get in all the test prep they can, leaving less time for actual instruction. Instead of recess, my daughter in the 5th grade has Typing class – because… computer testing.

We talk about how some schools might have children who struggle. Their school has a large population of English Language Learners (ELL), and is also an Exceptional Ed Center, where 25% of their schoolmates are Exceptional Student Ed (ESE or Special Ed) – they know that their ESE friends get tested at their chronological age, not their developmental age, and they know the difference. To my children, THIS is the most unfair aspect of testing, and it doesn’t even affect them directly. They REALLY get it.

We talk about how it might be unfair to compare their school to another school where kids don’t struggle as much, or one where kids might struggle more. They know their teachers work just as hard, maybe even harder than other teachers in other schools. They love and respect their teachers.

We talk about the fact that their teacher doesn’t get to see their test, so the test CANNOT help their teacher to help them learn better.

My children are not afraid of tests. They know that the reason I refuse the FCAT/FSA is not because I’m afraid they won’t do well on the test. They would. They take tests all the time – spelling tests, vocabulary tests, reading comprehension, math, history, and science tests; tests that they review with their teacher, so they know where they need to work harder. THESE tests help them to be a better student and their teacher to be a better teacher.

My son is emotionally mature and intellectually advanced for his age. Without having been taught the same concepts, he often helps his older sister with her math homework. He tells me he isn’t learning anything in school now. While I could choose to believe that is simply a childish exaggeration, I choose instead to take him seriously. 

I ask him, “What would you like to learn?”

  He tells me, “Greek mythology.” It will have to happen at home, because it won’t happen in school. He can’t even discuss it with his teacher, because there is no time. When he recounts his day from start to finish – he talks about having worksheets and worksheets, and rushing, rushing, rushing, and double blocks of math every day now.

“But you love Math,” I say to him, with a smile, trying my best to help him find a reason to want to go to school, while my mind growls, “Grrrr…”

“Yes, but not twice a day. And we don’t get to do Writing anymore.”

“Why not?”

“Because the Writing test is over.”

He says, “I don’t even care that it’s not fun anymore, Mom. If I’m not even learning anything in school, why should I go? If you give me one good reason why I should be happy to go, I will. But you can’t say, “Because you’re supposed to”, or “Because I said so.””

My children understand the need for rules, and they follow them at home and at school. They are also allowed to question anything. Respectfully. Parenting in this way can be tricky for a parent to navigate. Questioning does not mean you will always like the answers. But they know that I will always answer them honestly. My honesty with them teaches them that even when I don’t like their answers to my questions, that I have an expectation for the truth as well. That’s our agreement. Our rule. Carved in stone.

 As a parent, what do I say to this child, who I must answer honestly, when there is no acceptable answer, and he knows it?

My son is now occasionally despondent about school. He wakes up fine. Has breakfast fine. Takes the dog out fine. Brushes his teeth fine. Gets dressed fine. Then… when it’s time to go out the door, he gets a headache or a stomachache and sometimes both. He sometimes gets sweaty and irritable. His breathing becomes shallow. Sometimes he throws up. You may have seen this in your child. This is called anxiety. In a nine year old child. He looks up at me and his eyes plead with me to let him stay home. I can’t. Attendance. He becomes stony and will not say a word all the way to school. He won’t make eye contact with me. He goes to school because I make him go to school, and for no other reason. I can’t think about what must be going through his mind, or we won’t make it on time, but it’s heartbreaking.

When I told this to his principal, he nodded in acknowledgment, and shook his head. His response to me was very telling. His tone was resigned.

“A lot of what we have to do in school today is just because I said so. For the kids and the teachers.”

One night not long ago, my 10-year-old daughter had the saddest face. She is a joyful child and a wonderful student. Her teachers say they would like to clone her. She LOVES school… like I used to love school… She fears nothing. NOTHING. She’s not taking the test this year, just as she hasn’t taken it ever, and has been promoted without incident.

She put her head in my lap and said, “I don’t want to go to school anymore, Mom. It’s not even school anymore.”

 School is changing our children before our very eyes. And not for the better.  Mothers know this.  We are heartbroken and we are angry.

Our children are sad. Apathetic. Compliant. Angry. Frustrated.  Resigned. These are not words any parent would use to describe the experience they imagine for their children in school, or the childhood they want for their children, especially not for young children.

Joyful. Exuberant. Independent. Curious. Resilient. Persistent.  Fair.  Compassionate. These are not characteristics fostered by public schools under the crushing weight of today’s false accountability.

If you think your child is unhappy at school, and you believe it’s more than “all kids hate school,” you can help them identify what specifically about school is the issue for them. If you’ve never talked about it, your child may not even know why they’re unhappy. Even if you feel powerless to change anything that will help them, simply talking to them about it will help them to know that they are heard. The conversation may change more than you imagine.  It may not help you though.

My children know that if they wanted to take the test, I would allow it, and would be supportive of their decision to do so. They also know that if I make them take the test, it would mean that I believe that everything I’ve written here that makes school a problem because of the test is right. Well, it isn’t right, so I can’t.

If I did, they would call me a liar… and they would be right.

We opt out.

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