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Crying Over a Test

How the state exam is hurting my children.

By David Keyes

Soon it will be test day. My second- graders will clear off their desks, sharpen their No. 2 pencils, and sit down to take their annual standardized exams. This is supposed to help schools close the achievement gap, but it has many unintended consequences.

The tests will take two-and-a-half hours, though that is not the only time devoted to them. We have a rigorous test prep program that starts in October.

At first, my students were excited when I passed out their shiny test prep books, but it wasn’t long before excitement was replaced by groans. The work was boring—three-sentence passages reminiscent of Dick and Jane. I struggled to keep my own groans inaudible.
Also, the test prep program completely changed the classroom culture I worked so hard to establish. I put a lot of effort into convincing my students it is OK to make mistakes. I use open-ended tasks so they can work at their own level. In writing, I might expect a well-edited paragraph from one student, two simple sentences from another. The test prep program sends a very different message: Each question has one correct answer, which all students must find. My students quickly forgot my mantra that mistakes were OK. The X’s next to their wrong answers speak louder than my words.

Test prep has also hurt my efforts to get students to work together. In one assignment, I put students in groups to read about the lives of famous African-Americans. On the way to lunch, they excitedly bombarded me with facts about Harriet Tubman, Jackie Robinson, and Martin Luther King Jr.

This excitement vanishes when we get out our test prep books. Perhaps it has to do with the file folders students must put between themselves so they don’t copy each other’s work. The engagement I see when they work together is replaced by animosity as they guard their answers.
Students who get correct answers clench their fists and exclaim, “Yes!” while those who make mistakes yell, “Stop bragging!” I try my best to stop this behavior, reminding students that bragging hurts people’s feelings, but my efforts are futile.

Recently, two struggling students who had failed to get a single answer right all week broke down in tears.

Last week, I was the one crying—not over a test, but a biography of Hank Aaron I was reading to them. His story of growing up in poverty and overcoming racism to become a baseball star touched me deeply. When I said, “This book is making me cry,” my students at first didn’t believe me. But then they looked closely at my eyes. “He is crying,” they whispered to each other.

They became as engrossed as I was. Some asked me to read the hateful letters fans sent to Aaron again, which prompted an engaged discussion on racism. All cheered when I read about his mother coming onto the field after he broke Babe Ruth’s home run record.

Afterward, I planned to have them write pretend letters to Hank Aaron. But one asked if he was still alive.

“Yes,” I said.

“Can we actually send the letters to him?” she asked.

What a great idea! I felt fantastic as I walked around watching them compose their letters. They talked excitedly with each other about what they wanted to say. Students who normally struggled to put two sentences down on paper were going onto the back of the page. It was the pinnacle of my year.

One student wrote, “I liked when you got hate letters and you still ignored them.”

Another said, “I think you were brave because when you got death threats you still tried to beat a White man’s record.”

A third student began similarly. Then, out of the blue, she added, “I’m in second grade and I’m about to take the tests. I am nervous.”

How had this thought gotten into her letter? It was completely unrelated to everything else she had written. Was her test anxiety so deep that it came out at random?

I’m anxious, too. I have nightmares that when my students sit down for their tests, it will all be too much—the months of dogged work, the file folders separating them, the desperate search for the right bubble to fill in—and the entire class will erupt in tears. If that happens, I’ll probably join them.

David Keyes teaches second grade in Bel Pre Elementary School in Silver Spring, Maryland.

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