Here in Pennsylvania we’ve been in full-on, lock-down, test taking mode for the past two weeks. It’s the ordeal we call PSSA (Pennsylvania System of School Assessment), and if you’re a teacher, school administrator, or a parent whose child takes this or another state test, I’m sure you know all that I mean by “ordeal.”
First, there is the “official” letter telling parents about the PSSAs, who takes them, and why. Then there are the less formal requests for snacks, the reminders to make sure kids get a good night’s sleep, and the last-minute alerts about every student eating a healthy breakfast.
So why don’t we do these things the other 34 weeks of the school year?
Shouldn’t we always worry about the whole child?
Perhaps it’s because I’ve had a shift in my perspective about teaching and learning. I’m thinking more than ever about my kids, who they are as whole children, and what the real worth of the schooling they receive might be. I’m wondering why we educators, both administration and faculty, don’t send these same kind of notes home all year long. Why aren’t sleep and nutrition and stress reduction equally important the other 171 days of the school year?
Maslow himself tells us that in order for an individual to be successful at any task, his or her basic physiological needs, along with safety and social needs, must be met. Then learning can take place. Yet throughout the school year most schools completely ignore these needs, continually pushing students to focus on meaningless state standards while cutting programs and support services that would help the kids meet those basic physiological, safety and social needs.
If it is so important for our students to get a good night’s sleep and a healthy breakfast each day during the weeks of testing, you might think that it’s even MORE important for them during all the days before, when they’re supposed to be learning what’s on The Test. If we expect them to take charge of their learning and take anything lasting away from all the days they spend with us, then our response must be an emphatic, “Yes! It IS more important!”
Another bit of hypocrisy, beyond the sudden and limited requests for sleep and breakfast, is the line, “You get to chew gum for the tests because it helps you focus better.” And you know what? It really does! If you do a quick google search, you’ll learn about several studies (like this one and this one) that discuss how chewing gum leads to improvements in concentration and other positive cognitive benefits, without side effects. So again: if this is a true statement and the research is there to support it, why are we only allowing kids to chew gum during testing situations? Why not give the gum (that dreaded arch-enemy of the school custodian and desk bottoms everywhere) to students all the time? It seems like a cheap and easy way to address a common problem — the inability of students to focus — and help boost learning and achievement all year long.
Show me a 5th grader who doesn’t fidget . . .
The final joke we play on our kids during these two weeks is to assure them that they can sit still, be quiet, and remain focused for two hours or more. Have you ever been to a faculty meeting? We can’t manage those three tasks ourselves for 20 minutes, and we’re adults! This expectation is simply not developmentally appropriate for our younger learners. Imagine what it must be like to be an 8, 9, 10, 11 or 12 year old and to be trapped in your seat for 120 minutes. You may not get up, you may not go to the bathroom, you may not talk, you may not draw, you may not color, you may not blink, you may not breathe loudly… okay, I may be exaggerating a bit there, but you get my point.
While frequent breaks are acceptable accommodations for our most challenged learners, they are not permitted for our average or above average learners, and these kids aren’t any different when it comes to fidgeting. With brain research expanding daily, we know that brain breaks are an important key to learning and retention for any learner no matter his or her age. Yet once again, we play a cruel joke on the kids who are tethered with invisible chains to the testing hot seat. Teachers know they need these breaks, but we aren’t allowed to give them.
I understand that these tests aren’t going away any time soon. All I am asking is that we as educators and parents value EVERY day of a child’s educational career as much as or more than we value those days when they take these tests. We need to meet our students’ basic needs, period. We need to allow kids to do beneficial things, like chewing gum, throughout the school year, and design assessment situations that are developmentally appropriate for our young learners. Then, and only then, will we ever get an accurate picture of what our kids know and are able to do.
So let me ask the question once more: Why are we so much more anxious to attend to our students’ hierarchy of needs during the two weeks of high-stakes testing? Hmm. Maybe the answer can be found in the very phrase high stakes. High stakes for whom?