Scantron Nation

At schools across the country, kids are taking standardized tests. These days, it seems like that's about all students do.

Scantron forms, number two pencils, tense teachers, and my third-grader somberly asking, “Will you still love me if I don’t do well?” Yup, it’s standardized testing time—the sun of the educational universe. Even President Obama’s much-hyped Race to the Top reform initiative is rooted in standardized tests. Well, I’m not buying the hype anymore. I’m sick of standardized testing.

I’m not completely against tests. They provide a useful snapshot of a student’s academic performance. Even given their inherent cultural bias, I firmly believe most kids who are taught rigorous academic content can perform well on these tests. Instead of being used as a moment-in-time indicator of performance, though, these tests have become the end-all be-all of academic life.

When I was a kid, I took a standardized test called the Iowa Basics maybe three times in my K-12 educational career. In comparison, in just his K-3 experience, my nine-year-old has racked up an insane tally of 18 district and state standardized tests. He is on track to have approximately 72 district and state standardized tests under his belt by the time he graduates high school—and I’m not even including the California High School Exit Exam, the PSAT, the SAT, or the ACT.

If that doesn’t make you pause, how about this insanity: An elementary campus I sometimes drive by has a marquee in front that declared on the first day of school, “152 DAYS TILL STATE TESTING!” Sure enough, I drove by the next day and the number 151 was there. I bet on test day, the marquee read, “State Testing Day: You kids better do well, OR ELSE!”

That “or else” factor is real for schools. No campus wants to be on the receiving end of federal and state sanctions because students don’t score well. Since teachers are labeled incompetent and face losing their jobs because of test scores, they teach to the test. In fact, many teachers research exactly how many problems per academic standard are going to be on the test, and they then emphasize those standards in their instruction.

For example, if a teacher knows the math section will have 10 questions on multiplication, but only one or two division problems, in the minds of today’s teachers, it’d be stupid to spend equal time on division. You can also forget about elementary kids learning about science and social studies. If a subject doesn’t directly boost reading and math scores, teachers skip it.

The pressure on kids is equally intense. The worry and anxiety that leads to my son asking if I’ll still love him if he doesn’t do well on a standardized test is increasingly common. Kimberly Blaine, a national child development expert, parenting author, and founder of The Go To Mom, says she sees growing numbers of students getting depressed and physically sick over the high-stakes testing pressure at schools.

To counter this, Blaine advises parents to normalize the home and not make everything revolve around testing. “Our school sent a notice home last week that testing’s coming up, and we read it and threw it in the trash,” Blaine says. “We don’t talk about the test at home, or ask our son how he did on each section.” It’s hard to heed such advice when the schools pound into the kids' heads that they need to study hard, go to bed early, eat a good breakfast, and get to school on time—all so they can do their best on The Test.

What happens when testing’s over? My son’s class will go on their first field trip of the school year, a trip to a planetarium where they will interact with an astronomer who’s probably taken fewer standardized tests than the average elementary student. I’m sure the trip will be a fantastic, hands-on learning opportunity. Unfortunately, most schools discourage taking field trips until after testing's over for the year. After all, maximizing every minute of test prep, I mean, instructional time, is necessary.

One of my fantasies is that kids across the country will start a grass-roots rebellion against standardized testing. They’ll form Facebook groups where they’ll agree to purposely bubble in the wrong answer on every single test question. What would administrators, teachers, and parents do if every child “failed” the standardized tests? Would such a rebellion force educators to find some other less lazy way to measure student learning?

Comprehensive assessments of student progress aren’t easy, so I’m not holding out hope that our test-obsessed school culture will change anytime soon. With the path our nation is on, number two pencils won’t be used for sketching or writing essays; they’ll only be for bubbling in Scantron forms.