Over the years, I have heard many people refer to this rapidly growing phenomenon in education: teaching to the test. I have heard many educators complain about the inefficiency of teaching in this manner, how teachers find themselves tailoring lessons to help students secure the highest ratings possible, how parents struggle to encourage their third grader to complete the hours of homework that they’ve been assigned, how students suffer from a stifled sense of creativity and levels of stress that border on anxiety disorder. I have heard of kindergarteners labeled as “slow” because they don’t begin their first day of school as proficient readers, as well as third graders who are old enough to be entering middle school who are now in danger of being held back for their third consecutive year because they failed their “assessment.” And most devastatingly, I have heard of a college athlete and scholar who had an incredible life ahead of her who succumbed to the demands of the American education system and our society at large and chose to take that life and cut it short. These demands seem to be without end, and our children just can’t take it. But is that because our children are weak? No, I think it’s because they’re children.
I heard a lot about the sad reality of the American education system and its impact on the psyche of our children, but I have never witnessed this firsthand. Until last week. Our Tuesday religious education session began as all of them have: with prayer, Scripture, and reflection, but then my fifth graders were dismissed to take the ACRE Assessment. This assessment, as I repeatedly informed my students, is not a test, but rather a way to gauge the fruits of our programs, as well as to understand their strengths and weaknesses. We submit individual assessments and we receive back a general report that helps us to develop our programs to fit the needs of our children. In essence, the ACRE Assessment isn’t ultimately about their individual levels of knowledge, but about the depth of knowledge that the fifth graders have as a whole. In fact, after submitting our assessments, we don’t even receive individual scores for students; we are provided with general facts and figures that allow us to improve our religious education programs. Individual scores are only important as a means to arriving at the averages. No one will ever know how any particular child scored, and frankly, I have no need of that information. But there seemed to be no way to adequately express that to my students.
As the fifth graders settled down to begin the ACRE Assessment, several things became apparent very quickly. For one, the children were clearly nervous, and no degree of calm reassurances seemed to help- and this was before even the answer sheets had been passed around. Once those were revealed, any sense of calm that might have been apparent in the faces of the children virtually disappeared and was replaced with the wide-eyed stare of a deer caught in headlights. Just the sight of the Scan-tron answer sheets was enough to terrify my students. I began to fear what might happen when they caught sight of the assessment booklets.
As I passed around the answer sheets and booklets, I found myself repeatedly reassuring nervous children that this was “not a test, but an assessment.” While this seemed to be a very comforting statement to me, it did nothing to subdue the students’ fears. When I asked them why they looked so afraid, their response was, “That’s what the teachers always say.” Yes, in their public schools, teachers, reading the bold print in the instruction manual just as I was, promised the students the same thing. “This is an assessment, not a test. It has nothing to do with your grades.” Lies masquerading as truth- that’s what those words are in most cases. No, it’s not a test where you will get a grade that will show up on your report card. But you’re being assessed, and the results of your assessment will not decide your class rank for the year, but your entire future. You failed your first grade assessment because you couldn’t read very well? Don’t worry, this isn’t a test, but your failure means that you’ll have to be held back this year. You failed your third grade assessment because you couldn’t do long division with remainders quickly enough? Don’t worry, this doesn’t mean anything for school, but you’ll probably never manage to find a “real” job. We might be well-meaning teachers just trying to do our jobs, but we’re lying right to our students’ faces when we tell them that the “not-grade” that they get on this “not-test” will NOT impact their lives. Children know better. They feel the pressure. Parents want their second graders to get into a good college; teachers just want to keep their jobs next year. So much rests on the “not-grades” of these “not-tests,” these assessments that aren’t supposed to have anything to do with our educational success or lack-thereof. And yet, the state pressures teachers, and teachers find themselves pressuring their students to score well. And parents pressure their children too, because we all know that this “not-test” is a load of lies. The state wants these assessments to count, and students and educators in public education find themselves struggling to satisfy the state’s demands. It’s no wonder my students became a bunch of basket cases when they heard the word “assessment.” They know exactly what it means: test. “But it’s not a test, I promise…”
The ACRE Assessment really is exactly what it claims to be: an assessment. It’s not a test. There are no grades, or scores, or anything that will remotely impact a child’s future religious education. You can’t fail the ACRE Assessment. You can’t be kicked out of your religious education classes because you didn’t score well enough. Our children really have nothing to fear, but they have had these lies shoved down their throats for so long that they cannot recognize the truth even when it stares them in the face. Instead, they just stare back with their wide-eyed expressions, like deer caught in headlights.
Even after my students were done and their relieved laughter filled the air, they stayed far away from my stack of number two pencils, Scan-tron sheets, and assessment booklets. As more and more children were dismissed to leave this dismal testing world behind, the number of students left finishing the assessment dwindled- until there was only one. But this last student did not look at me with big, doe eyes, but with eyes glistening with tears. While the anxiety of most of the students dissipated, hers only grew. Finally, she had to be dismissed, her assessment to remain forever unfinished, because she just couldn’t take it anymore. She whimpered about what the state would do, whether she’d be banished to remedial religious education classes because she just wasn’t proficient enough to remain with her friends. She spoke of this entity, “the state,” that somehow controlled her educational progress, that studied her, rewarding her when she scored well and punishing her when she did not meet its expectations. As I tried to calm this poor girl down, I really began to understand the monster that the American public school system has become for so many of these students. Children’s nightmares should consist of monsters in their closets, not in their classrooms, but today’s children are more afraid of assessments than they are of the boogeyman. And why not? When the boogeyman invades your dreams, you just wake yourself up. But even the youngest child knows that there’s no waking up from this educational nightmare. This boogeyman, this bodiless “state” that causes children’s hearts to quiver with fear, is not going anywhere. You’d think that in the context of religious education, where we teach God’s love and mercy, children would be safe from the demands of the “state,” but it seems that the fear cannot be chased away so easily. The separation of church and state has never seemed so impossible as it did as I looked into the tear-filled eyes of that poor fifth grader. The state’s notion of education has scarred her for life, and it will take a lot more than an hour and a half a week to heal her. I just thank the Lord that miracles are possible, because today’s students certainly need them.
Mary Help of Christians, pray for us!