Children Are More Than Their Tests
I talked recently with a Black grandmother with a second grade grandson who asked me to pray for him. He was in the middle of testing for the week in his exclusive private school and was stressed out. A smart child, she feared he might not be the quickest responder on the tests and thought the week long process was a lot of pressure for such a young child. He and she felt extra pressure because he was the only Black child in the room and she did not want him to feel or appear to be dumb if he didn’t do as well as his privileged White peers.
So many children are weighed down by the expectations and needs of adults – good and bad. Parents, teachers and administrators need to have high expectations for all children but they also need to be mindful of trying to judge children’s intelligence and talents just on the basis of tests or fit our children into a single label, simple box, and the convenience of school systems. Schools exist to teach and help children learn and develop the whole self: mind, body and spirit. Appropriate tests should identify children’s strengths and weaknesses in order to better help not stigmatize them.
I strongly support holding schools accountable for educating every child and support the disaggregation of children’s academic progress by race and income. But the do or die testing underway under the No Child Left Behind Act is causing many children great harm. Too many schools are teaching to the tests rather than teaching to the child. Too many educators are over labeling children as special needs children to exempt them from regular testing procedures so their school will look better. Too many children are being retained in a grade without getting the extra help they need which increases the risk of them dropping out of school and puts them at greater risk of being sucked into the prison pipeline. And too many schools are transmitting their fears of being labeled a failing school if children don’t do well on the tests by pushing them out of school for behaviors that are often a cry for help.
We need to remember that each child is an individual. Policymakers, parents and teachers need to see and respect the various ways and paces children learn and develop even as we try to make sure that they gain all the basic competencies they need to succeed in life. Reading, computing, writing and thinking are crucial but creativity and different talents in our children must also be honored.
I love a wonderful parable I first read in a book by the distinguished Black theologian Howard Thurman that I found again in an Outward Bound reader. “Once upon a time, the animals decided they must do something heroic to meet the problems of a ‘new world.’ So they organized a school. They adopted an activity curriculum consisting of running, climbing, swimming and flying. To make it easier to administer the curriculum, all the animals took all the subjects. The duck was excellent n swimming, in fact better than his instructor, but he made only passing grades in flying and was very poor in running. Since he was slow in running, he had to stay after school and also drop swimming in order to practice running. This was kept up until his web feet were badly worn and he was only average in swimming. But average was acceptable in school, so nobody worried about that except the duck. The rabbit started at the top of the class in running, but had a nervous breakdown because of so much make-up work in swimming. The squirrel was excellent in climbing until he developed frustration in the flying class, where his teacher made him start from the ground up instead of from the treetop down. He also developed ‘charlie horses’ from overexertion and got C in climbing and D in running. The eagle was a problem child and was disciplined severely. In the climbing class he beat all the others to the top of the tree, but insisted on using his own way to get there. At the end of the year an abnormal eel that could swim exceedingly well, and also run, climb, and fly a little, had the highest average and was valedictorian. The prairie dogs stayed out of school and fought the tax levy because the administration would not add digging and burrowing to the curriculum. They apprenticed their child to a badger and later joined the groundhog and gophers to start a successful private school.”
Is there a lesson here for how we treat our children in too many schools?
Marian Wright Edelman is CEO and Founder of the Children's Defense Fund and its Action Council whose mission is to Leave No Child Behind® and to ensure every child a Healthy Start, a Head Start, a Fair Start, a Safe Start, and a Moral Start in life and successful passage to adulthood with the help of caring families and communities.
Marian Wright Edelman
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