A long time ago (Ok, not that long ago), I was in middle school. After years of being slightly tuned in to the vague rumblings from the educational system, I knew that we would have to take a big test. We had taken the CAT test in second grade, maybe some other grades. California Achievement Test. (We didn’t leave anywhere near California). I remembered being bored, filling in bubbles. Now it was a state test. It was IMPORTANT! It was based on STANDARDS! (I had no idea what those were). If we failed, we wouldn’t graduate.
It was my mother who filled me in on the tests. She’s amazing, and has shaped me into the person I am today. She’s also a teacher, a political activist, a rebel. She also has a tattoo, but it’s small and hidden and secret from her colleagues. Technically, she is the original tattooed teacher! I’ve known for years I’ve been following in her footsteps, and nothing makes me prouder than that.
She’d worked for many years with children with disabilities, and it’s her outrage over the unfairness this test put on them that I remember most. I knew she disliked this new system. I knew some of my teachers did. I knew they were worried it would negatively impact teaching. So I did my best to whip my friends into a sense of injustice over the issue. We thought it was unfair! It didn’t really test our intelligence, or what we’d learned. It wasted our time when we could be learning. In hindsight, I think most people who I got involved just didn’t want to take the test. Who would? Boooorrring, I can hear our teenaged selves saying.
Here’s what we did. We signed a petition. We delivered it to the principal, who met with us and heard our complaints and quietly explained that he couldn’t do anything about it. We talked about a walk out, but that seemed to extreme to most. For weeks leading up to the test, I wanted to do it. I told myself I would, and that maybe people would follow me!
I was too scared. I didn’t want to be the only one. Instead, when it came time to take the test, we were asked to write an essay in response to a reading selection. I wrote my essay on why I believed this test to be a flawed system. I don’t know if we even got scores back then. If we did, I never saw them, and I imagine my mother simply threw them away. At the time, I hoped that this ridiculous system wouldn’t last long.
A decade later, I found myself as a scribe for a disabled student I was an aid for, helping him take the same damn test. Making him sit still for 3 hours to take it, even though he was only 8. Even though he had attentional and impulsivity issues. Even though afterwards he put his head down and cried because he felt stupid.
5 years into my teaching career, I am no longer afraid to say what I think of this test. It doesn’t test my children’s intelligence. It doesn’t test what kind of a teacher I am. It doesn’t test what they learned. I think this test is a waste of educational time. We spend about a week every year on this test, and more on prep. The same people who write the standards have stakes in the companies that make the tests and the text books that come out yearly- “Now, aligned to the NEW standards! Only cost thousands of dollars, even though you bought them brand new two years ago when we had NEW standards again!”
I thought the pendulum would have swung away from this by now. Instead, it’s gotten worse.
Right now in social studies, we are learning about the industrial revolution. About the factory workers unfair, unsafe conditions, and how they organized to fight against injustice. Strikes, walk outs. The birth of the labor movement. Through activities, read alouds, pictures and stories, they learn that one person alone can only do so much, but that a group united can do more. This isn’t a political agenda, this is history.
They asked if it happens today, so I gave a few examples. The janitors strike in 2000 was one, but that felt too distant for kids born in 2004. “No, today!” they insisted. While they were at lunch, I did some research. I found a news article about middle school kids in Chicago who walked out of class and sat in the halls to protest their schools imminent closing. High schoolers who formed a picket line around the school when art and music were cut. These are articles from the past few weeks! So I told my kids.
“Do you think it could happen here?” One asked. I told them it could, but we were lucky that our school had enough money to keep our building open, to provide us with great things like art and music. “I think we have it pretty good here, so I don’t know if there would be a need to protest.” They had a discussion among themselves about how lucky they were, and it was awesome to hear. I felt so happy to be where I was.
Later that day, a few kids were huddled in a corner having a quiet discussion. When their buses were called, they came up to me. “What about the test?” One asked me. “Do people protest about that?” I told her, truthfully, that I didn’t know. “Could they, though? Maybe when they are older?” she pressed. So I answered honestly again. “Absolutely.”