Perhaps it’s ironic that standardized testing falls at this time of year. Testing children three-quarters of the way through the school year may make academic sense, but it runs counter to natural rhythms. Warmer days and stronger sunrays entice children to get outside and move, while we are telling them to sharpen their pencils, sit at their desks and fill in the answer bubbles on test forms.
Not that timing in the school year is the main reason behind the national groundswell against standardized testing. Parents, teachers and some entire school districts are protesting what they consider an obsession with testing. Whatever useful information these tests offer, their opponents argue, is undermined by the sheer numbers of hours devoted to these tests and the consequence of low scores to individual students, teachers and schools as a whole.
The New Mexico Public Education Department requires students in grades three to 11 to take between 6.5 and 10.5 hours of state-mandated standardized tests every year, though many local districts and schools require additional exams. This may not seem like much — and indeed is less than the national average of 15 to 20 hours — but this is a case where numbers don’t tell the whole story.
The bigger picture encompasses the time and energy teachers devote to tailoring lessons to skills and material that will be covered on these tests. It includes the disruption to the momentum of learning, not just during testing weeks but subsequent weeks when children are pulled out of class to make up tests administered when they were absent. And it must take into account the emotional cost of test anxiety in children at ever younger and more vulnerable ages, and the loss of classroom opportunities for creativity, self-expression and self-motivation.
Over my years as a student, parent and observer, I’ve seen the pendulum swing between educational philosophies that measure classroom success in qualitative terms — by children’s love of learning, curiosity and other “know it when you feel it” criteria — and those that rely on quantitative benchmarks. Both have value, ideally in combination. Since the implementation of “No Child Left Behind,” the pendulum has swung to the quantitative and parked there.
New Mexico Opt Out is one of a growing number of national organizations for families choosing to boycott standardized tests. Their website, www.nmoptout.org, contains a test-refusal form, tips for talking with your child’s teacher and principal, links, and strategies for resisting “pushback.” Tumbleweeds is not necessarily advocating for opting out of these tests, which are still required by state law. We believe a better strategy for most families would be to give children strategies for managing tests with a healthy perspective. This approach doesn’t work for all families, however, and it won’t change public policy by itself. Civil disobedience, along with calls and emails to elected officials, may be essential tools for rolling back the excesses of testing and prioritizing other ways of learning.
By a combination of planning and serendipity, the theme of alternative ways of learning runs all through articles in this issue of Tumbleweeds. Here’s some of what you’ll find.
Preschool teacher Judith Nasse notes that artistic expression evolved long before written language and actually serves as a foundation for literacy. She provides activities based around Earth Day that will encourage children’s creative expression and powers of observation.
If you’re not familiar with the Waldorf philosophy, you may never have heard of “eurythmy,” an expressive movement technique that integrates both sides of the brain and develops body awareness to support learning. Patricia Lord, of the Santa Fe Waldorf School, describes this technique and its value to children particularly in these times when they are bombarded by technological stimulation.
Santa Fe has a new public secondary school, the Mandela International Magnet School, devoted to teaching peace through intercultural understanding and measuring students’ progress with a nuanced, individualized system, in contrast to the one-size-fits-all mode of standardized testing.
Some inspired and inspiring after-school teachers offer spring activities to get kids thinking outside the Scantron circle.
Myra Krien, director of Pomegranate Studios Dance School, presents a beautifully simple activity that children can do in the classroom — and you and I can do by our desks — to feel more grounded and engaged in our bodies and senses.
Rebecca Morgan, director of Teatro Paraguas Children’s Theatre, offers games and skits, which require just a little more time and space, that develop children’s imagination and confidence before an audience.
Sherry Bishop explains why we should leave our keyboards, pick up a pen and develop a more intimate relationship to words and letters.
Gloria Fournier Valdez lures us to explore the natural world close to home, with a day trip to the Rio Grande Nature Center and Tingley Beach — and an all-important pizza stop.
And Jone Hallmark, our Kids’ Page editor since Tumbleweeds was born, gives steps for making sailboats out of corks and other household items.
None of these forms of learning, let it be noted, are particularly “alternative” historically, though they seem more radical these days when it seems nothing is real that can’t be quantified. These suggestions are not just for children. I need to remind myself of points raised in every one of these articles, particularly in the home stretch before publication: Move! Stretch! Get outside! Use your senses! Be creative! Look around!
Sooner or later, the pendulum will swing back again from its current emphasis on skills measured in standardized tests. For my money, it’ll be none too soon. In the meantime, you are your child’s best resource for putting testing into healthy perspective. Remind them — and yourself — that standardized tests are just one measure of success. Enthusiasm, creativity, pleasure in reading, and the thrill of learning something new, are just as real as percentile ranking.