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Not me. I have my three children — ages 15, 11 and 8 —take every mandatory test that comes down the pike. And even sign them up for extra ones.
Why? Because nearly every day of our lives, human beings are forced to jump through someone else’s arbitrary hoops, be it professionally or personally. Might as well get as much practice as you can, and become really, really good at it.
It’s not that I’m a fan of the Common Core. I was born in the former Soviet Union where, like in most of Europe and Asia, algebra is taught starting in 4th grade. I think America’s new, “highly rigorous” standards are simultaneously too easy and, with their focus on narrative, needlessly over-complicated. (For this, I have been accused of being both a right-wing and a left-wing, brainwashed shill. Good to know the criticism is bipartisan.)
But it doesn’t matter what I think. If Common Core is the new law of the land, then it’s the new law of the land. In a few years, when the political winds inevitably shift, there’ll be a new magic bullet, and some new standards. And then we’ll study those, whether or not I think they’re any good.
It’s not that I think standardized tests are predictive of future success. IQ can go up and down by as much as 20 points on any given day throughout childhood, making all those 99th percentile “gifted” tracks and designations handed out in elementary school utterly meaningless. Not that there’s a particularly strong correlation between a high IQ and professional or personal success, in any case. Grit and mindset are much more important.
And it’s not that I even believe what’s actually being tested is of value. When my oldest took the Specialized High School Admissions Test (SHSAT) required by New York City, he was forced to complete a section called Scrambled Paragraphs. Imagine you are skipping down the street and, whoops, you’ve dropped the book you were reading in a shredder. Now put it back together, sentence by sentence. And if you get even one of five in the wrong order, the whole paragraph is marked wrong.
I’ve been a professional writer for over 20 years. I have never once needed to put such a skill into effect. My husband is an MIT-trained engineer. He assures me that the math on the SHSAT is equally irrelevant to the real world.
But, once again, what I think doesn’t matter. If this is the test my kids need to take in order to get into NYC’s top public high-schools, then that’s the test they’ll take.
Because it’s not the subject matter that I find valuable. It’s the experience of taking it.
Testing, like anything else, is an acquired skill. That gets better with practice. When my oldest took his first standardized test at the age of 4, he tanked it spectacularly (i.e. he was labeled “average,” the kiss of death in NYC). After a few years at the most academically rigorous school we could get him into considering his pathetic test results, he was scoring in the top stanines. “He’s a natural!” one of his teachers gushed.
No. He’s not. No one comes out of the womb hard-wired to bubble in Scantron sheets. “Gifted” test takers are made, not born. And anyone can do it.
The parents currently protesting across the country assert that rigid testing parameters stifle their children’s creativity. I tell my kids that it’s a test of how well they can follow instructions, and that they can be creative on their own time.
Parents claim that bright children over-think the simplistic questions and end up getting them wrong, as a result. I tell my children that it’s a test to see if you can figure out what answer they want you to give, rather than the one you may think is right.
Parents complain that children are making themselves physically ill, worrying about the high-stakes tests. I tell my children they’re right to be worried. And the only way to overcome that worry is to study so hard that you know you’ve got this. Lots of things in a kid’s life are stressful. Music recitals. Sports. Friendship. Chores. Monsters in the closet. Why should school be exempt? Especially when managing to control your anxiety in one arena will ultimately result in benefits across the board. Nerves are nerves are nerves. And learning to control them is fundamental, no matter what you’re doing.
Then again, I also tell my kids that test taking is fun! It’s a chance to demonstrate (show off) what you’ve learned up to this point, shine a light on skills you need to beef up, and, best of all, encounter material you might have never previously seen. What’s more fun than a brand new challenge?
My kids are so well brainwashed (right-wing or left; your choice) in this regard that my then 4th-grader was grinning ear to ear and bouncing up and down with excitement prior to taking the test that would qualify him for John Hopkins Center for Talented Youth Programming. The proctor even observed, “I have never seen somebody so happy to be taking a test before!”
That particular exam, an above grade School and College Ability Test (SCAT), is the perfect example of my philosophy. My son wanted to enroll in some classes that CTY offered. In order to qualify for the program, he needed to take the SCAT and hit a certain score on both their Verbal and Math portions. Because that’s all any test is. It’s a means to an end, whether that end is an enrichment program, a gifted class, a top-ranked high-school, a diploma, or a job down the road.
Giving The Powers That Be what they want, so that you, in turn, can get what you want. It’s probably the most useful life-skill there is.
And the best way for my kids to start prepping for it, is with a standardized test.
The more, the better.
Alina Adams is the NYT best-selling author of soap-opera tie-ins, Figure Skating mysteries, and romance novels. She blogs about parenting, media, and educational issues, and is currently writing her next book live on the web with real-time reader feedback at: www.AlinaAdams.com.