Standardized Testing is Testing My Standards.
In Virginia the public schools just completed the SOL (Standards Of Learning) testing. Our third grade son took them this year for the first time. As part of the preparation for the testing, the elementary school held a meeting for third grade parents to discuss the SOL testing; i.e. what to expect, how the testing is monitored, who grades it, when the scores get returned, etc. I attended the meeting more out of curiosity than a need to know since we have an older son in Middle School and he's taken the SOL's since he was in third grade. Prior to the meeting I had offered to provide the school administrator with some talking points about kids and testing, but more from the perspective of giving parents permission to relax about the testing. After all, this isn't an SAT, the third grade SOL will not determine if your child will be accepted to Harvard. It's mainly a test to determine a school's educational performance, not individual student learning. However, despite what the test is supposed to measure, there are parents who are dead set on their children acing this test and getting a perfect score.
The school administrator went through the Power Point and explained the testing procedures. There were parents who wanted to know the effectiveness of using flash cards to help their child study for the SOL's. The presenter made it clear that flash cards were not required, but if the parent felt it helpful, then there is not harm in using them. I looked around the room and saw other parents tense up. I knew they were probably thinking, "As soon as I get home, I'm going to make flash cards." Next was a discussion on how children respond to testing. The presenter urged parents to tell their children that the test isn't something they should be stressing out over. In fact, it's not something the parents should be overly concerned with either until their kids are in the middle school/high school. Really? It's not? Then if that is the case, let's stop the mixed messages being sent to the students and the parents.
Let's stop sending home notes to the parents asking for special SOL snacks for the classroom during the testing period.
How about removing the giant signs from the hallways announcing, "Please be quiet, SOL testing!"
"We survived the SOL" parties aren't necessary. How does it make sense to fete the survival of an event that isn't supposed to be stressful to begin with?
Asking kids to "be calm" or "not worry" about the test has the opposite effect on both the kids and the parents. Pointing out that there is a need to "be calm" often creates chaos as people then think 'Oh wow, I'm being told to be calm, but I am calm. Maybe I shouldn't be calm?" And then the worry sets in about being calm!
And finally, stop giving out peppermint candy during the testing! This is what really annoys me the most. In our school all of the students are given mints on the testing days. During the parents meeting the presenter mentioned the mints and quoted a study (but gave no citation) which claims peppermint stimulates brain function. Then the presenter looked at me and said, "Mrs. Renner knows about the mints, I'm sure you older son had them too." I responded, "You really don't want to ask me about the mints. I'm not a fan." and we left it at that for the time being.
After the parent meeting I explained my reasoning to the school administrator I mentioned my concern that the mints are being used in a manner usually reserved for medication and some students may now believe the use of the mints have a direct effect on how they will perform on the SOL. Furthermore, the school is a "Drug Free Zone" and isn't it basically teaching the students they need to "pop" something to "help" them in some way? I mentioned that "popping" something is an adult response to stress, not a child's response. The school isn't offering a unit on Aromatherapy And The Restorative Properties of Peppermint. And what of the students who can't have the the mints for whatever reason, be it allergy, dislike, religious? Shouldn't someone consider these students too? Are they students wondering, "Wow, I didn't take the mints. I might not do so well on the test." Or after the test, do the students who did eat the candy think it was their success or the success of the mint? I don't think students should be put a position to have to even consider it.
Does this mean I think schools should navigate around the topic that tests can be stressful for some students? No, of course not. But just as we parents are all too familiar with telling our kids "It's not what you say, it's the way you say it." It is totally possible that we can work together, with the schools and the students, to figure out ways to cover those issues without creating even more of them. Three I can think of right away would be to offer more Physical Education, Music and Art since all three have proven themselves as activities which can relax the mind/body and release endorphins naturally. Candy doesn't have that kind of track record. I"m not against candy, I'm against candy being used as an educational tool. It's candy. Call it what it is, don't confuse it with something it's not.
After I expressed my concerns I noticed the color had drained from the school adminstrator's face. The realization of the message the mints brought, even though well intended, had made it into his brain. He understood the inappropriateness of that message. I don't think it had ever occurred to him, he hadn't thought the whole thing through. We then talked about the next step. He had already promised the students mints, he didn't want to break that promise. Totally understandable. As a parent, I don't like to go back on my word either. So I suggested if he were going to continue the mints, he re-frame the meaning; We're giving you a treat. Kids understand treats much more readily than medical jargon. Is this a perfect solution? No. I'd rather see the mints cease entirely, I'm just not sure that will happen.
I make no apology for my feeling that by providing the mints, the school is teaching the kids the equivalent of self-medicating as a means to relax or that brains need mints to function at their highest capacity. I didn't even touch on the issues it raises in regard to emotional eating and current concerns about childhood obesity. Being a therapist, obviously I am not opposed to Xanax or other prescribed medicines. They can be a life saver. No doubt about it. But physicians don't just walk into the Department of Motor Vehicles and hand out Xanax to everyone who is taking the test to obtain a driver's license.
And come to think of it, I've never seen a bowl of peppermints at the DMV either.