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Standard and Poor

Standardized testing has destroyed public education. It’s the responsibility of us Jews, who benefited more than anyone from the system, to fix it.

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(Margarita Korol; iStockphoto)

My daughter Josie is starting fifth grade in a New York City public school, and that means this year is when we do the crazed round of middle-school visits and applications. Last year, I wrote about how stressful all the standardized testing is for the kids. There will be more tests this year. There will be tears, there will be playdates canceled in anticipation, and, once again, there will be puke. (Josie is not a puker, but she informs me that every time at least one kid horks before every test.) Depending on where we apply, there will be essays for my child to write, additional tests for her to take.

And I loathe myself for worrying. I have a kid who doesn’t want to be less than perfect. I see it as my job to get her to chill. I don’t want her to pick up on my anxiety. But I am plenty anxious.

I am also a hypocrite. I was so freaking self-congratulatory about her admission to a lovely, warm, diverse, progressive, mixed-age-classroom-having elementary school in our neighborhood. Admission was by lottery, and her admission was by no means assured. So, I’d had her do giftedness testing, in case we needed more options. She spent a year in a middling public pre-K program, where she was punched in the face by a 5-year-old and where an inexperienced classroom teacher had a temper tantrum so severe I watched her kick a door, repeatedly, as hard as she could. When I talked to the school’s parent coordinator about the chaos in the classroom, she blamed other kids in the class. By name.

In any case, Josie was admitted to the lovely little progressive school, so I had the delicious luxury of not having to send her back to the unimpressive school and getting to turn down the gifted program. I used to joke about being the only Jewish mother who didn’t want her kid in a G&T program. “No G&T unless it includes Bombay Sapphire!” I’d joke. Reading some of my early columns, I want to travel back in time to punch myself in the face.

Because if Josie hadn’t gotten in to this school, which I know is an unusual, special place, she’d be in a gifted program.

You see, I had two choices: the gifted program, or a lovely progressive school in another district that she could have attended if I’d lied about where we lived. Tons of New Yorkers do that. An administrator at that school encouraged me to get a friend in that neighborhood to put my name on her ConEd bill to “prove” I lived there. “We’ll never check,” the administrator assured me. “We want families like yours! If we didn’t admit kids from Brooklyn and the East Village we’d have no economic diversity at all!” I decided I wasn’t up for the moral lesson of telling a 5-year-old that rules are for other people, or the reminders that she shouldn’t tell her classmates where she lived lest someone else’s mommy rat us out to the Department of Education. Such manipulation and deception don’t seem very Jewish. So, if Jo hadn’t been admitted, by sheer luck, to her wonderful school, well, I most likely would have sent her to the gifted program. So, I can shut up with mystical fake-chill I don’t-care-about-test-scores self. And believe me, other parents, I really do have sympathy for the hard decisions you have to make as well.

Is it not clear that this system is broken? Test scores are a moronic way to dictate the future of 4-year-olds. I remember a friend’s child, a very bright, very cat-obsessed little girl, who bombed her Stanford-Binet test—the standard intelligence test for children—for Hunter College Elementary because the psychologist administering the test had a home office with a cat closed in the bedroom. The cat yowled to be let out during the entire test, and instead of thinking about triangles and cause-and-effect, the child could only think KITTYKITTYKITTYKITTYKITTYKITTYKITTY. Tests for four-year olds privilege savvy, well-connected parents with plenty of books and plenty of disposable income. Some very smart little kids simply can’t sit still for a two-hour test, or have separation anxiety or shyness around strange adults. One study found that only 45 percent of the kids who scored 130 or higher on the Stanford-Binet would do so again if tested on another day. That is not surprising.

But here’s the thing: Josie isn’t 4 anymore. We have to decide what happens next. There is a progressive public middle school in my district that doesn’t require a minimum test score, but it’s so popular there is no guarantee she’ll be admitted. So the question returns: Do we also apply for gifted programs? I am embarrassed of how quickly I looked at her standardized test scores when they were available online, and how quickly I looked to see if her scores were high enough for the possibility. I don’t want to be this person.

As I’ve discussed elsewhere, people who think standardized tests are a necessary evil, and that they measure what they’re supposed to measure, are not looking at the actual standardized tests our kids are taking. They are crap. On the English sections there are questions that are semi-coherent. There are huge problems with scoring and with tests being used for purposes for which they weren’t devised. If you read Todd Farley’s Making the Grade: Adventures in the Standardized Testing Industry, written by a guy who both constructed and graded tests (sometimes while massively hung over), it will curl your hair. Then we have the issue of schools being financially rewarded or punished for higher test scores, leading teachers and principals to change the kids scores—to cheat. And most distressingly of all, schools are teaching to the tests, sacrificing deep, wide-ranging, multidisciplinary, multifaceted education to train kids how to fill in little bubbles.

And you know whose responsibility it is to fix this? The Jews. We’re the ones who are better-educated than most Americans; we’re the ones whose parents and grandparents and great-grandparents came to this country and relied on public education to learn the language and climb the ladder toward the American Dream. Using our privilege to gain a place in a decent program within a broken system doesn’t let us off the hook. (And now that you’ve asked, yes, I do ponder my decision not to send the kids to Jewish Day School—all the time. But that’s another column.) All our school systems should emphasize good citizenship, multilevel instructional approaches, appreciation of diversity in all its forms, empathy, collaboration, individualized education, and professional development to help teachers teach to different levels in one classroom and handle discipline and classroom management. Because that could help all students.

But my kid is really good at filling in the little bubbles. And that’s what I’m angsting about as school starts this year.

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Steph F. says:

A strong public education system is in everybody’s interest, no matter where your kids go to school — even if you have no kids. You’re right to point out that Jews have a special connection and therefore responsiblity here, however. Like Rabbi Eric Yoffie once said, we shouldn’t “pull the ladder up after us” and ignore the crisis in our public schools.

I send my kids to day school, because we wanted their Jewish education to be as strong and central to their lives as their secular education. That should be the reason parents send their kids to day school, not because the public school system broken, and it’s a shame that it can sometimes be the latter and not the former that drives the decision.

The real solution is to get rid of federal schooling. If people in an area want to have a public school, they should be able to do so, but only those who want to participate (send their kids there or simply contribute) should have to. It should *not* have any federal connections whatsoever. Even state connections might not be appropriate.

As usual, Marjorie’s points are good regarding standardized testing. However, also as usual, they are so NYC-centric. Does she not realize that there is a whole country outside of Brooklyn and the East Village, who don’t give a cr** about Hunter College Elementary?
Shame on Tablet Mag for sustaining such a NY focal point in this area.

Brooklyn mom says:

My older daughter is just starting 6th grade, and she has been screwed by her slightly lower than “proficient” math score. ( 9 points lower, if you were wondering.)She is now starting at the most popular middle school in our district, in a class with kids who are a step above English language learners. Should she be penalized for one lousy test score? No, but this is how uppity the “elite” schools get. Uh, will my daughter still be able to get into the ultra-competitive college I attended– or is she doomed?

Pesele says:

There is both a societal and an individual component to the problem.
Individual families have one shot with each kid. Each kid has particular skills, abilities, interests, etc. Parents–like Brooklyn mom–are obviously worried about making sure each child has his/her individual needs met.
As a society, we have a stake in everyone being competent to participate in society–other we all pay in one way or another.
How do we balance the individual with the societal needs?
I think it starts with more choice. I don’t mean this as a euphemism for “lots more schools I can send my kid to, so he/she doesn’t have to interact with kids who don’t give a…hoot.” Every kid who gives a hoot should have a place. (And, by the way, I believe that, given the right circumstances, right teacher, etc., every kid has the potential to give a hoot.) I mean that we should have many different models for learning and teaching as possibilities.
We tried a bunch; some worked better than others depending on age and learning needs.
1. Homeschooling: this was a great opportunity to let the kids learn on their own. Most parents are scared stiff of it–don’t ask me why. It was–most of the time–much more pleasant than trying to put up with the nonsense school inflicted on the kids.
2. 4-H. Not to raise animals, but as a way to learn independently in small chunks from kids a bit older.
3. Junior college. My older daughter did high school this way. It was the perfect blend of independence and responsibility.
4. Regular old school. Yeah, it has it’s place. Simply not as the only option.
At the same time we were engaging in these options, we were involved in community and school system as volunteers. Learning never was or should be either/or–but school should never be the only option for learning.

Pesele says:

Argh! “its place” (**beats self with wet noodle**)

“Using our privilege to gain a place in a decent program within a broken system doesn’t let us off the hook.” I am sorry, but I got lost here. I don’t get where my great grandparents’ determination to learn English and discipline in school translates to a privilege. I am fourth generation of New York public schools. One grandpa taught math for over three decades in New York City public schools, and my grandma worked herself through night classes. They were and are dedicated to public schools, and I am still confused to how we, as Jews, have unfairly benefitted. I do certainly agree there are things that need to be fixed, though they are probably not exactly what you had in mind, and I don’t think any one group has a disproportionate responsibility to do so.

freida golden says:

I do wish you had only said that those of us whose children are successful at taking the standardized tests are responsible for helping to fix this.

Dvorak says:

I don’t see why I am responsible as a Jew to fix a problem that I didn’t cause.

I may want to help fix, it but nor because I have to.

Marjorie’s views are egocentric, as well a as Judeocentric.

We are not at the center of the universe.

Shmuel says:

Yeah. I was intrigued by the subhead’s claim that “it’s the responsibility of us Jews, who benefited more than anyone from the system, to fix it,” but nowhere in this piece is it explained how us Jews benefited more than anyone from standardized testing. There’s only a claim that we used “our privilege to gain a place in a decent program within a broken system,” with no elaboration. What’s the basis for this?

Usually Marjorie’s columns are great, but this one is almost incomprehensible to anyone who doesn’t have school-age kids and live in NYC.

Judith Ann Rabin says:

Dear Marjorie,

I really enjoyed your article in Tablet on standardized testing.

We sent out two daughters to Solomon Schechter day school and one is now at Pratt in Brooklyn studying architecture and the other is at Columbia grad school studying public health policy.

Anyway, you are spot on on the harm the obsession with standardized tests is doing to our children, our education system and our country. I blog for SchoolsMatter at http://www.schoolsmatter.blospot.com

As a Jew, in addition to realizing that we have benefited as a group from good public school education, I’m afraid there is another reason these tests you call crap (and you are correct) there is a more insidious danger – that is the mindless dumbing down of our nation’s children. In fact, I recently read Albert Einstein’s biography and in it, the author makes note of the German education system based on the Prussian education system which promoted drill and kill, following orders, not asking questions and a blind obedience to authority.

As a young student and as a college student, I majored in Jewish Studies and always wonder how the Holocaust could have happened and how so many people could have followed orders to kill millions of people. As the corporate interests profiting from the testing industry, politicians and business leaders continue to pursue this stupid, poisonous education policy, while blaming teachers and punishing them for everything that is wrong with a society in which inequality is growing and poor children are being left behind – I’m afraid if this madness doesn’t stop – if children are driven to compete in a survival of the fittest while millions are left in the mindless pursuit of crap and blind obedience to stupidity, the future for our children and grandchildren is a bleak one indeed.

It’s the pedagogy that matters. As Jews who are taught to question, to analyze, to interpret and to discern the truth and meaning from the world around us – we must stand up to this madness.

Overused and misused standardized testing is not just a NYC problem. It’s an issue in every state, thanks to the No Child Left Behind legislation passed in the Bush years; Obama is remaking NCLB but his Sec of Ed, Arne Duncan, seems to favor continuing testing as the primary measure of “accountability.”

Atlanta and DC are both currently embroiled in testing scandals; teachers and administrators changed kids’ answers on test sheets to get higher scores. (Why? Precisely because the tests are so high stakes: there’s a lot of money tied to meeting benchmarks and a lot of punishment tied to not showing year-to-year improvement.) The Washington Post and USA Today have done excellent reporting on these scandals. This isn’t a NYC thing; it’s a THING THING.

The G and T program was originally set up to bring middle class families back into the public school system.

The past ten years or so, downtown Manhattan has become among the most homogonous neighborhoods in the city….the cool factor and the “I don’t go above 14th street” silliness has been passe’ for over a decade now.

Simply living in the upscale homogonous psuedo-grity downtown Disney Land blinds the hipper-than-thou parents from the realities of the diverse neighborhoods above 96th street and in other boroughs.

Testing is not perfect, but unless you live in a neighborhood like the author where many clone progressives live, some type of evaluation is necessary.

The end result of pressure can be what has happened in a prominent high school in the middle of Silicon Valley…………students (yes, multiple)suicide at the railroad tracks. It should not be.

Jacob.arnon says:

Why am I more responsible for fixing the education mess than the wasps, the Irish, or the German Americans. All of us benefited from the education system.

The only reason fired better if that is the case is that we have fewer children to support.

This is not such a great bargain.

wallt235 says:

Don’t you love these phoney PC jooz who wring their hands over all the problems of the world?!? Phoney kike bastards!

Jooz will “fix” it?!? You bastards were the ones who destroyed it to begin with! The holohoax is the biggest lie of the 20th century, but also one of the best ideas!

Heather says:

According to a growing number of Voices in the Wilderness, college admissions advisors are wearying of the endless queue of homogeneous AP students from so-called elite schools. Just a few interesting books along these lines are: College Without High School, by Blake Boles (What?!); The Teenage Liberation Handbook, by Grace Llewellyn; and The New Global Student, by Maya Frost. If you’re at all concerned about your childen and the education they’re receiving (or not receiving), I would say to you: Take heart, be bold, and think outside the box (or outside the little oval)!

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Standard and Poor

Standardized testing has destroyed public education. It’s the responsibility of us Jews, who benefited more than anyone from the system, to fix it.

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