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Autism, Standardized Testing, and Hey, Why Don’t We All Just Move to Finland?

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There’s a new thing I’m doing that forces the teachers to remember that I’m part of Connor’s “team” at school, and it keeps me informed about any issues that are going on. What I do is I meet with his resource teacher every month now, and it seems to be working.

Last week was our monthly meeting, and we discussed progress and challenges. Towards the end, we somehow got on the subject of testing, and the standardized testing that starts in third grade. I casually mentioned that Connor didn’t need the extra pressure, and that I would be opting him out of testing when the time came.

“But you can’t opt-out of state testing”, she said.

“Yes I can. People do it. There is a way to opt-out.”

And the kicker was when she said, “I’ve never heard of anyone in this district opting out of testing.”

Now granted, she teaches K-2nd, and is not directly involved with testing, so she probably isn’t up-to-speed on things. And she did agree with me about how standardized testing has had a negative impact on teaching.

But damn. A teacher wasn’t even aware that you could not be forced to take the standardized tests.

Not that opting-out is right for everyone. But I happen to believe that standardized testing has narrowed the scope of teaching so that teachers are focusing more on test-specific material, and losing out on other teaching opportunities. It forces them to keep a pretty rigid pace in class, which means that they can’t afford to spend an extra day of class time exploring Mark Twain’s other literary contributions if a class has shown particular interest in him after reading The Adventures of Tom Sawyer.

In addition, many school districts instruct their teachers to identify their “bubble kids”, children on the cusp of meeting proficiency but needing extra help, and putting in extra time and focus on those children. This leaves children that are further behind and desperately in need of extra help left behind.

You know what else is interesting about standardized testing? There’s about four companies that produce the bulk of the testing materials, and they are making an ass-ton of money. Which means, lots. Lots of money being made to produce the testing materials mandated by the government under No Child Left Behind. Money coming out of our school districts. Money that isn’t being used to provide services for special needs kids, or extra support for typical children that need additional help.

In addition, these tests aren’t necessarily making our kids any smarter. Finland continues to score top marks in education, year after year. They do not have standardized testing, but instead assign less homework and promote more creative play. They also have no private schools, even on the college level. So people attend school equally from elementary to college. The most interesting quote I read was that “education has been seen first and foremost not as a way to produce star performers, but as an instrument to even out social inequality.” But see, that’s not what we’re about here in America. We’re about individual achievement and standing out.

But I can put all that to the side when I consider standardized testing for Connor. The thing is, he’s already stressed from the pressures to keep up with his peers. He’s always just a bit behind the others, and works hard to keep it together at school all day, only to come home and do more homework at night, in an effort to “catch up”. He has learned so much this year, and has come so far, but it has not been easy. When I think about adding the intense pressure of testing to that load, I can’t even fathom how he would manage.

And why should he? He is learning, he is working as hard as he is able to work. That is enough for me.

In a year-and-a-half, I might be the first and only parent in our school district to opt their child out of testing. Am I worried?? Nah, I’ve been raising a child with autism for almost 7 years now, they don’t scare me. But it is Texas, so if you don’t hear from me….

Here are some official references and stuff, because I’m a sophisticated writer like that.

Bubble Kids:

http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2009/04/19/AR2009041902096.html

http://eduratireview.com/2009/04/excessive-focus-on-bubble-students-html/

Test Materials Publishers:

http://www.rethinkingschools.org/special_reports/bushplan/test192.shtml

http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/shows/schools/testing/companies.html

No Child Left Behind:

http://www.npr.org/2011/04/28/135142895/ravitch-standardized-testing-undermines-teaching

Standardized Testing Outcomes:

http://www.saturdayeveningpost.com/2011/08/16/in-the-magazine/trends-and-opinions/american-schools-crisis.html

Education in Finland:

http://www.theatlantic.com/national/archive/2011/12/what-americans-keep-ignoring-about-finlands-school-success/250564/

Opting Out:

http://optoutofstandardizedtests.wikispaces.com/

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28 responses »

  1. What an awesome post!! Am definitely sharing!!

    Reply
  2. Good post… I will be looking into those links…and Finland is really doing a good job in education even during the recession the quality of education did not suffer.
    Finnish is just so hard to learn…

    Reply
  3. I’m Finnish and I have to say that I like the philosophy behind our education system. It doesn’t put needless pressure on students and it’s more about equal opportunities than competitiveness. The purpose of evaluation is not so much to determine a ranking order among students but to give them individual feedback so that they can learn to know their own strengths and weaknesses. We don’t believe that maximum stress results in top performance.

    However, when you think about the PISA results, it’s good to keep in mind that learning to read and write Finnish is easier than learning to read and write, say, English. That’s because we have a writing system where one letter always corresponds to one sound in speech. When you learn how the alphabet corresponds to the speech sounds, you learn how to write any Finnish word, even if you’ve never heard the word before.

    In English, there is often three or four different but equally accurate ways of writing a word. When you hear a new word, it’s often impossible to guess the correct spelling. Take “bhaji” for example: it could also be spelled bhagy, bhagee, bhajee, bhagie or bhajie, and it wouldn’t make any difference to the way it’s pronounced!

    That’s why English speaking kids take a longer time to learn the basic writing and reading skills while the Finnish kids can quickly move onto more advanced stuff, which is why they test better.

    (Not that our education system doesn’t deserve its fair share of the glory.) 🙂

    Reply
  4. Damn. I’m moving to Finland.

    Reply
  5. I find amazing that she didn’t know you could opt out of testing….gaw, that’s scary! Bet she looked like you just sprouted two heads too. The standardized testing bugs me for a multiple of reasons. They put so much pressure on the kids to succeed and score high, they take time away from other subjects to get them ready. That and so much is tied to the success of the tests……sigh.

    Reply
  6. Good for you. Sometimes I think we have to say NO to things, even when it makes other people look at us with wide eyes and declare “WHY, IT’S JUST NOT DONE!” So what? We are not sheep.

    Another thing: homework is bullshit. I am lucky, so lucky that I have a teacher that thinks kids spend enough time at school all week and need to unwind when they get home, so she sends home very little homework. School is bullshit anyway. Right now my son is supposed to memorize the parts of a SCREW. Jesus. Thank you deities for letting me be ALL DONE WITH SCHOOL.

    Reply
  7. Standardized testing is the equivalent of making sea lions learn tricks to get fish. In the end it teaches very little other than memorization. Great post with some food for thought.

    Reply
  8. confessionsfromhh6

    This is part of why I’m homeschooling. Did you also know that because of NCLB and the state testing and the promotion of mediocrity in our schools that they no longer do tracking until high school? At least not in our district. The only time my 10yo would have a chance to move at his pace would be in math where they have an advanced option in middle school. The rest of the time he’d have to spend waiting for the other kids to catch up. And what about the kids who need more time? What about the pressure they feel to keep up? It’s a mess, and they need to bring tracking back and get rid of just teaching to the state tests, and, and, and. We just had our IEP and I could go on for ages about this. My husband sees what NCLB has produced at the college level. It’s not pretty. We don’t promote standing out anymore. Our schools are promoting fitting in that damned box they want to shove everyone into and mediocrity.

    Reply
    • I don’t think I’d be good at home schooling, even if that was an option for us.

      Reply
      • confessionsfromhh6

        I’m not entirely either. That’s why we’re doing a cyber school. Our state has such strict laws, and I’m nowhere near that organized. I need someone to do the admin work for me. I can do the teaching and letting the kids go at their own pace, but the attendance and other tedious stuff would totally get forgotten if left totally my own devices. Honestly, I think the boys and I are going to have fun. (Remind me I said that when I ask for xanax)

        Reply
  9. Wow. You did a lot of research for this post. I was semi-surprised (but not really) about the testing companies… disappointed would be a better word.

    I have no doubts that you will do what is best for Connor by yanking him from that standardized testing if it stresses him out. I’ve read other bloggers whose kids actually like the testing and so they stay. It all depends. Of course, choosing to blaze a path is hard when someone is trying to force one into conformity. I’m quite sure you’ll be just find leading the way…

    And btw, for people thinking about Finland, it’s not a great place for special needs kids. I will quote this article (http://www.inklusion-online.net/index.php/inklusion/article/viewArticle/18/29) for perspective:

    “….This means that the traditional values of agricultural and industrial societies still prevail in Finland to a greater extent than in many other countries. These traditional values stress overall conformity and tend to reject people who are considered socially deviant. The Finnish traditional set of values also manifests itself in the internationally high proportions of past sterilization of people with disabilities, high proportion of disabled people in institutions, or in the exceptionally high frequency of fetal screening…”

    Finland isolates it’s special needs children to obtain the scoring it does on tests. 😦

    Reply
  10. Wow. I’ve already been asked to sign the Opt out of Testing form for Ted. And he’s in pre-fracking-K. I have refused to sign, because, hey – let’s give him a little bit and see what happens. Do I really need to sign something based upon what he may or may not be able to do in 4-5 years? Mind. Boggled.

    Regarding the tests themselves, I have to admit, I never gave it a single thought to where they come from or who makes them. I thought it was something the state DOE made up. WTH. More people making money off the backs of children. Bah!

    Reply
    • That is crazy!!!!

      Yes, testing is big business. The big company, McGraw-Hill, the McGraws are long-time family friends to the Bush family. Not that that means anything.

      Reply
  11. I live in NYC and spent some time in a very challenging public school in Brooklyn. There, an entire HOUR of every day was spent on a test-prep workbook, where I would teach important lessons on fascinating topics such as “Finding the Main Idea of a Sentence” or “Eliminating the Obviously Wrong Answers in a Set”. Who can nurture a child’s love of learning when this is the focus? I wish that I was more hopeful about the future of public education in this country, but it is very difficult to see the light at the end of the tunnel.

    Reply
  12. Thom m. Shuman

    Of course, most teachers are just as bothered by the focus on testing as you are. They cannot teach as they were taught to teach, nor expected to be able to do so when they went into the profession. Sadly, most of the ‘experts’ who devise such schemes as standardized testing, NCLB, etc., have not spent a day in a classroom as a teacher. Good to know about the ‘opt-out’ possibility; my wife subs in special ed classes and the stress on the kids, parents and teachers in during the weeks of testing is just unbelievable

    Reply
  13. What a wonderful post.
    I have been saying for years, even before I had a child with autism, that those standardized tests were the worst thing ever made. They are awful. And have they ever thought about the fact that our education keeps going down, down, down and it has only happened as the put more and more emphasis on those tests?

    I agree. We should just move to Finland. =)

    Reply
  14. Hey, you are on the right track! Learning is far more important than teaching (and yes, I am a teacher – and teacher trainer / mentor). School systems just have hard time understanding the difference, and thus want to keep on testing students to show some kind of accountability.

    As for your son, teach him to understand the intrinsic value of learning, and verbalize often that testing is just an imperfect method for measuring learning. This will help him externalize the pressure (i.e. it is not me, it is them, and they don’t exactly know what they are doing, but they have to try something), and help him keep on learning on his own pace.

    Empowering all learners to become self-sufficient would be my choice, but that is a very scary thought for those who want to have power over teachers, schools and students (and use tests to get numbers about how well they are educating kids – or are not).

    Two thumbs up to all parents who want to support the learning of their children!

    Reply

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