High anxiety as testing expands in grades 3-8
Ohanian Comment: So school becomes the place that knowingly causes young children to vomit. People who think that a standardized tests reveals what students know should try interviewing children on why they chose the answers they did.
by Gary McLendon
Third-graders Yasmine Muhammed and Rae-Asia Foster are getting ready.
"I'm kind of nervous because I never did a big test like that before," said Yasmine, 10.
"I'm a bit nervous," said Rae-Asia, 8. "It's like Yasmine said: I never took it."
The girls attend School 3 in Corn Hill and are among 81,000 students in grades 3 to 8 across the Rochester region who are being prepared for standardized tests beginning in January.
Since New York state instituted exams in mathematics and English language arts six years ago, testing had been limited to grades 4 and 8. Now grades 3, 5, 6 and 7 are being added, affecting not only thousands more students but also more teachers, administrators and parents.
In the Rochester School District alone, the number of students being tested is rising from 6,000 to 16,000.
School 3 is a sort of ground zero for this expansion: It is the only public school in Monroe County where grades 3 to 8 are all in the same building.
"There's a lot of test anxiety from the children," said principal Connie Wehner. "I know we've had kids who've had stomachaches, have thrown up because they're nervous about this test. We do pep rallies and encourage the kids and always stay positive. ... It's a timed test. They say, 'Oh my gosh, I'm not going to finish.'"
The school is determined to help the students cope.
"All of our tests mirror the actual format of what the (state) test looks like. So the children are doing multiple-choice, short-response, extended-response, working with fiction and nonfiction," said Pat Johnson, School 3's English language arts literacy coach. "We ask the teachers to spend approximately half an hour every day familiarizing the students with the test format."
The expanded testing is a requirement of the federal No Child Left Behind Act, signed into law by President Bush almost four years ago. Critics of the law say it forces schools to "teach to the test," narrowing the instructional focus and hurting, rather than helping, many students.
Cynthia Coates, who has two children in Churchville-Chili schools, said one of them has been diagnosed with audio-perception difficulties and can be frustrated by standardized tests.
"Some students are just lousy test takers," Coates said. "They need auditory tests and visual tests. The state is just putting all students in the same box, and the students don't all fit."
Support for testing
No Child Left Behind has its supporters, too. They say that in an increasingly global economy, no segment of students — especially the area's African-American and Hispanic children, who are more likely than whites to come from low-income homes — can be left to flounder academically. There aren't as many "old economy" manufacturing jobs as there once were, jobs that used to be an economic safety net for students who didn't necessarily do well in school. With the law requiring annual testing, students are less likely to fall through the cracks, advocates say.
Marie Cianca, chief of the City School District's division of school development and operations, said frequent individual student assessment is sound policy.
"Not everybody learns the same way, at the same pace and from the same techniques," she said. "Regardless of the state and federal requirements, I think it was time in education to take a closer look at how individual students do and how our strategies should change to better meet their needs."
In Spencerport, Carol Robinson, district director of elementary education, said the standardized tests simply measure what the district has been teaching for years anyway.
"Based on my impression of what the (English language arts) test is going to look like, they're going to test on how children read, how they use the information they read and how they write," Robinson said. "Whether we are required to do standard testing or not, those are the skills we want students to have mastery of."
Educators caution parents not to overemphasize the importance of the tests, which could add to their children's stress. The exams, they say, are just one way to look at how students are doing.
"Standardized testing is one piece of the puzzle," Robinson said. "Day-to-day performance, in-class assessments, teacher observation of the child, report card grades — when you put it all together, you get the picture of the child's growth."
Rochester Democrat & Chronicle
INDEX OF NCLB OUTRAGES