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Life with Liz: Enough with the testing

The end is near! The light is at the end of the tunnel. Just a few more weeks, and this unique school year will behind us. But before we close the books for the summer, we had to have one last insult added to the injury: standardized tests. I know not all districts are electing to carry them out this year, and while I’m happy for you, they’re going to catch up with you at some point, I’m sure. You may get a double dose next year. At that point, you’ll probably want to scream as much as I do right now.

We’re looking down the barrel of fifth- and seventh-grade PSSAs, and ninth-grade Keystone exams. Now, personally, I have always loved standardized tests. From the Iowa Achievement tests in kindergarten, through the SATs and the GREs, I loved taking them, and I usually did well. There was something so satisfying about the predictability of them, filling in all those circles neatly, and yes, I was that kid who slammed the pencil down when I was done, so everyone in the room would know I just conquered that test.

For all of that, though, other than SAP prep work my senior year of high school, I don’t remember obsessively preparing for any of them. I certainly never had a dedicated period just for PSSA prep once a week in elementary school. I don’t remember days and weeks of practice tests and learning strategies. I don’t remember instructions to get a good night’s sleep, eat a good breakfast, and send high quality No. 2 pencils in every day. Maybe all of that happened, but I don’t think it did. When did we get so obsessed with these tests and why, in the middle of everything going on in the world right now, do we think this is a good and necessary thing to do to our students and our teachers?

I do not know of one teacher out there who isn’t already pushed to their limit. They’re still showing up every day and giving it their all. I get email responses, text messages, and phone calls from my kids’ teachers at just about every hour. Teachers have been available online, offline, all the time, any time my kids need them. They’ve prepared online classes, virtual classes, PowerPoints, Gimkits, Kahoots, and so many more different learning modules for kids, as well as conducted in-person learning.

What are we expecting these tests are going to show? There isn’t a single kid who hasn’t been impacted by the changes over the past year. For the few kids who may truly have kept up with all standards, or possibly exceeded them, I do not think that we need to have a standardized test to tell us that in general, our kids are probably going to need a little extra going forward. But the thing is, this is across the board. That’s the thing about a pandemic: Everyone has been affected. Sure, there are some kids who may have been better able to navigate this, some may have even thrived, but in general, all of our kids are going to need more going forward.

Not just more learning, but more mental health support, more guidance, more of all the things we’ve come to hold our schools responsible for providing. This year has been particularly tough for E. Although she’s doing very well academically, she has started to express concerns about moving to the middle school next year. She’s worried about having five or six different teachers, which would be overwhelming enough, but after a year of having one very dedicated classroom teacher available to her virtually, and one mom teacher that she is with 24 hours a day, separation anxiety is going to be very real for her. (And, to be honest, for me, as well) A standardized test may give her the go-ahead to sixth grade, but it’s not going to do squat to help either of us with our emotional and mental state on the first day of school next year.

So, what are these standardized tests going to tell us? Do any of us think they’re going to be great news? That our students have come through this and are all super students? Do we think there are going to be accolades and back pats and gold stars to be handed out to everyone? I’d love to think that we will see that, but the reality is, I see another avenue to blame and finger point, and tell our teachers and our schools that they didn’t do enough, and then more pressure applied to “improve” next year.

This past year has exposed plenty of cracks that are quite obvious without the administration of a test. Things like a lack of access to the internet, the breakdown of social support networks that many kids have relied on for wellness checks and stability, even a decreased access to the meals that are provided daily through the schools. Is acing a ninth-grade Keystone literacy exam going to shed any light at all on the stress and anxiety that my freshman has dealt with over the past year, as he worries that he’s not doing enough to keep up with his classmates in school?

I’ve had quite a few conversations with educators over the past few months, and one of the other things I’ve heard a lot more than I would have expected is “it hasn’t all been bad.”

I think that online and remote learning has forced many of us, albeit kicking and screaming at times, into the world of technology. I have been impressed at some of the amazing programs that are online and also surprised at how engaging some of them can be. I don’t think there will ever truly be a replacement for the one-to-one relationship between a student and a teacher, but I think there are a lot more supplements available to make that relationship even better in the future.

Finally, I just don’t see how we are going to benefit from using the same old standardized testing module to evaluate a world that didn’t exist until a year ago. I’ve seen how long it can take bureaucracy to catch up, and I don’t think there’s a chance that the standardized testing powers that be have been able to change horses in the middle of the stream, like our education professionals have had to.

We’ve been handed a rare opportunity to hit the reset button. I think rather than still trying to hold on to our old metrics and standards, it would be a great time to move forward. Let’s start by kicking these tests to the curb and engaging in meaningful conversations with our educators about how we can really evaluate what our students need to succeed in the future.

Liz Pinkey is a contributing writer to the Times News. Her column appears weekly in our Saturday feature section.