Too Young for Test Anxiety

For the uninitiated, TAKS stands for “Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills.” It’s a standardized test given to Texas school children. The descendent of tests first created during George Bush’s governorship, they are required for advancement through Texas public school. And they are first given to students in the Spring of their third grade year.

And, from what I can tell, my daughter is anxious about passing it. I don’t have any doubt that she will pass it. She’s a very bright kid. She’s made really fine grades in school so far. But she’s worried. She has friends who just finished the third grade. She’s heard stories about how you have to study for it, and about how you have to pass….or else…

And so, my third grade daughter has test anxiety.
About a test that she won’t even be taking for another semester.

Doesn’t anybody else think this is a little screwy?


Picture199_14Aug06

I guess I should have seen this coming. Way back when Maria was on the cusp of kindergarten, we went to a parent meeting at her school. The kindergarten teachers were in attendance. The Principal was there. The idea, we supposed, was to help us new parents understand exactly what this brave new world of kindergarten would be like.

And the very first words the Principal told us were:
a) we shouldn’t worry, and
b) our children would be well-prepared for the TAKS test.

I kid you not. These were the first words she said. She said something like “Welcome! We’re so glad you’re here. And we want you to know that your kids will be well prepared for TAKS.”

Frankly, at that moment, test preparation was the furthest thing from my mind. I had no idea what TAKS was. I just wanted to know if my kid was going to get to make watercolor drawings and macaroni art.

But what I took away from that meeting was that the teachers and staff were worried about TAKS. It’s not their fault. It really isn’t. They are good teachers, and it’s a great school. And now that I know more about the situation, I understand why it was the first thing on their mind. Because, like all public educators in our state now, they are simply trying to comply with state law and parental expectations (which are high in our part of the world…).

However, teachers and parents have seen a couple of years of TAKS now. And a lot of them don’t like what they see. Because it’s changed the way school is taught. In many cases, it’s changed the whole nature of how and what kids learn.

New Texas laws will probably make the situation worse, not better. From an editorial in the Lufkin Daily News:
“Texas Gov. Rick Perry last year helped institute teacher pay bonuses that are tied in part to school TAKS scores. That’s a great idea if all you’re worried about is making scores higher; it’s a terrible plan if you’re wanting to reduce the incredible amount of time that students must spend on preparing for the test.”
http://www.lufkindailynews.com/opin/content/news/opinion/stories/2006/08/10/eddy/TAKS_test.html

That’s absolutely right, of course. If teacher pay and bonuses are tied to these test scores, where do you think the incentives will be:
A) To teach “critical thinking?”
B) Or to teach to a test?
(Choose one, and bubble-in your response. This is not the essay portion of our exam today…)

And if the goal is to raise children’s educational levels, why did the legislature create this linkage between test scores and teacher pay? Why did they think THAT was a good solution?

I’ll tell you why: because they wanted to be able to show they had “done something.” But what they have done, maybe unwittingly, is to create a situation where the nature of teaching itself may chance.

Here’s what I mean by that…

In most jobs, merit pay, bonuses, and raises are based on a yearly evaluation of a person which takes into account their overall skills and how well they fulfilled whatever their basic job description is.

So, if a teacher’s financial future –and even future job security– are based on whether or not their students perform well on a standardized test, haven’t we, de facto, made this a main (maybe THE main) component of their job description? We may not actually SAY this in so many words. But if that’s how they get raises and bonuses, it’s more than implied.

And is that what we want of our teachers?

OK, let me answer that (this is the essay part of our test today):

It’s not what I want from Texas teachers. I want teachers who, sure, can teach a kid how to pass a test. But I also want teachers who instill a love of knowledge in kids…who inspire them to begin to think for themselves, not just how to memorize answers. I want teachers who help kids see that learning is a lifelong process, that it never ends, and that it is far more than passing a test.

Teachers like that will inspire kids to think about what they will do when they grow up…what kinds of possibilities will be open to them….what kind of careers and learning they will need to get there…what kind of people they will be.

And I guarantee you this: it’s why everyone get in to teaching the first place. I’ll bet you a million dollars there’s not a teacher alive who got into teaching because they had a burning desire to teach kids how to take standardized tests. But I fear, if we are not careful, these are the kinds teachers this laws will create in the future.

I’m all for raising standards for all children. That’s a good thing. It really is. And I really have no beef with whether the test is too hard or not. Personally, I vote for hard, rather than too easy.

No, my beef is not with the idea of standards. My beef is when, in our attempt to mandate and raise those standards, we:
Devalue learning, and overvalue testing…
Create kids who are more worried about passing a test than learning to think…
Create a situation where instilling the love learning in a child takes a back seat to jumping through academic hoops…

When my third grader comes to me, worried about a test on the night before the school year starts, aren’t things a little out-of-whack? Isn’t that a “canary in the coal mine” to tell us that maybe, just maybe, this quest for standards has gotten a little out of hand?

I tried my best to assuage Maria’s fears that afternoon. I told her what a good student she is. I told her that she had made great grades so far. I told her that I was certain she would pass TAKS, and that I knew she would work hard. But she stayed worried about it that entire afternoon. She hasn’t brought it up since, but I’m sure it’s not the last time she will.

Because, apparently, we live in a world where it’s OK for a third grader to get test anxiety.

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Eric Folkerth is a minister, musician, author and blogger. He has been Senior Pastor of Northaven United Methodist Church in Dallas, Texas since 2001. During his tenure, church membership has grown almost 30 percent, and a completely new church facility (sanctuary and education building) has been constructed. Northaven is a leading progressive Christian congregation in the Southwest. Northaven is an eclectic collection of gay and straight families, artists, musicians, theater folks, academic theologians, lawyers and judges (go figure), socially conscious community activists, people who don't "check their brain at the door," and a wide array of others who either see it as their "last chance" inside the "institutional church," or their first trip back in decades. Eric is an avid blogger and published author.  Eric is also an award-winning singer-songwriter, who performs throughout Texas and the Southwest. He's an engaging live performer whose first CD was released in 2000. His songs have won honorable mention in both the Billboard and Great American song contests; and he's been a finalist in the 5th Street Festival and South Florida Folk Festival songwriter competitions. Eric is also a leader of Connections, a unique band comprised of United Methodist clergy and layfolk from throughout North Texas. Connections performs "cover shows" of artists like Dan Fogelberg, Chicago, Eagles, Doobie Brothers, Billy Joel, Stevie Wonder, James Taylor and others. Their shows draw crowds of between 300 and 1,000 fans, and they have raised more than $240,000 dollars for worthy charities. Eric has led or co-led hundreds of persons on mission trips around the globe, to places such as Mexico, Haiti, Russia, and Nepal. He has worked with lay persons to build ten homes, and one Community Center, in partnership with Habitat for Humanity of Dallas. He's a popular preacher, and often tackles challenging issues of social justice in his writings and sermons. His wife, Judge Dennise Garcia, is a State District Judge for Dallas, County. As judge of the 303rd Family District Court, she consistently gets high ratings from area lawyers, and was named "best judge" by The Dallas Observer. First elected in 2004, she was the first Latina ever elected to a county-wide bench in Dallas County. She was re-elected for a third term in 2010. They have the world's best daughter, Maria, and an incredible dog, Daisy. (As always, if you like this post, then "like" this on Facebook by clicking the box below, so others can see too...)

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