My two older children, Ben (grade 5) and Elisabeth (grade 4), start NECAP (New England Comprehensive Assessment Program) testing today. My youngest daughter, Emma, is too young to be tortured by them.
But, Ben and Elisabeth join all 3-8 and 11th grade students in New Hampshire whose October is ruined by these tests. Learning comes to a halt, rules are no longer enforced, (iPods and gum chewing are encouraged because they “help” kids score well on their test – which makes me wonder why they aren’t encouraged all year?) parents are asked to be parents and get their kids to bed early and feed them breakfast, and kids are asked to sit still and bubble-in circles for up to 3 hours each day.
The scary thing for me is that Ben’s test (as a fifth grader) is particular important. Next year, he will enter the middle school. The Cooperative Middle School, which educates nearly 1400 middle school students from 6 communities and works under the auspices of The Exeter Region Cooperative School Board, uses multiple data points to sort kids, most notable in math. One of the most vital pieces of information that is used to sort incoming fifth grade students is their performance on their NECAP tests. If Ben does well on this test as a 10 year-old, 5th grade student he will be sorted into the higher level math class as an 11 year-old, 6th grade student, which will allow him to take Algebra as a 13 year-old, 8th grade student, which will make Geometry an option for him as a 14 year-old, 9th grade student, which will have him line to take Calculus as an 18 year old, 12th grade student, which will look really good on his high school transcript as he applies to college.
If he doesn’t do well on this test, he could be sorted into a lower level math class, which means he will learn less math, which means he will not do well on future NECAP tests, which means he will not be sorted “up” to a higher math class, which means he will not be eligible to take Algebra (even though he may be ready) until he is in the 9th grade, which would get him in the “wrong” track as a freshman in high school, which means that his high school transcript, with less math, will limit his college options.
As a result, it could be argued that this 5th grade test is his ONLY high stakes test.
It could also be argued that it is partly my fault.
As part of the leadership team of CMS during this past decade of accountability, I preached the need to use data to inform instruction. I preached the use of data to make informed decisions about student placement. I touted the importance of using standardized data over the more “imprecise” and “unscientific” teacher assessment. This inflexible system was fine-tuned during my tenure as the Curriculum Administrator of CMS and it is something I deeply regret. Of course, in today’s age of testing and accountability, I’m sure that others who may have been in that position would have done the same, but hindsight tells me I should have been better than them. I should have known of the trappings of testing and sorting of 10 year old kids. I should have fought harder against a system that acted as a filter instead of a pump.
When Ben left this morning I was tempted to talk to him about the importance of taking the NECAP tests seriously even though I know they mean very little to who he is as a learner, but I didn’t. The fact of the matter is, I know how the system works and I know that I can make sure he is not sorted wrong. I am knowledgeable enough to play and manage the game as a parent. But what about those parents who are not? What about those families who are asked to “trust the system” even though the system is inherently broken? Even though the system, the one that I helped to create, does not work for every student, and elevates 4 hours of my 10 year old son’s life into THE high stakes test of his academic career.