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Derek Jennings 

Test stress

That long, soft, whooooosssssssshhhhh sound that you're hearing? That's the collective exhalation of North Carolina schoolchildren who've recently completed the latest round of all-important annual end-of-grade (EOG) tests. That "drip-drip-drip" that you hear? That's the sound of students, teachers and administrators sweating the test results.

My kids are fairly low maintenance when it comes to academics. My wife, Tricia, picks them up after school. Once home, they sit and do their homework, under her occasional prodding. They get the answers right. When in school, they do their work. They pay attention. They get very good grades. And yet, even for them, there's a palpable stress that accompanies the month of May.

The cause of this stress is the dreaded EOGs. Of my children, two are old enough to take the EOG plunge. Despite the fact that they've been on the honor roll all year, having remained comfortably above grade level in the process, they still felt the pressure of this test. They felt the same pressure that permeates not just their school, but the entire school system. Like the bugs that run rampant through students and staff during cold and flu season, the EOG dread spreads similarly. It's pervasive.

As test time approaches, normally easygoing teachers become tense and tight. Serious implications accompany the high-stakes testing mandated by the state of North Carolina's ABCs program, and now further stipulated by the federal government, as part of the No Child Left Behind Act. In addition to the potential negative impacts on their students, test scores can affect teacher pay, morale, and, more troubling, with NCLBA, can lead to future reductions in school funding.

My oldest daughter is now in fifth grade, so I know of whence I speak. She's taken the tests three times now, in two different schools, and the symptoms remain the same.

"People are nervous," she told me. "Even the nicest teachers turn evil. There's more fussing."

Her teacher this year took the extraordinary step of calling us a few weeks prior to the EOGs to let us know that our daughter had been making a few careless mistakes in math lately, and that she would hate for her to slip up and do less than her best on the test.

"Wow," we thought. When parents of an A-B honor roll AG student get a courtesy call because she's showing signs of spring fever, things must be pretty tense. We spoke to our daughter, reminding her that school was not over yet, and that she needed to focus, particularly for the upcoming tests. While we greatly appreciated her teacher's concern, applauding her efforts, neither my wife or I seriously considered that our daughter would have trouble with the test. In retrospect, though, if I were the teacher I'd probably make the phone call, too, just on the outside possibility that a bad test score could keep a bright and able student from graduating. I most definitely would hate to have to make phone calls to or receive calls from parents whose children didn't pass this test.

I asked my daughter how other kids felt about the EOGs.

"Everybody's nervous," she said. "People say, 'I'm gonna get this (grade) or that.' Some of them say, 'I'm gonna fail.' They're nervous and they're spending their time studying. Some of them had to do retesting."

In the schools, the kids are discouraged from asking each other's results, although they are allowed to say what they received. Nonetheless, kids talk, and kids figure things out. For instance, a week after the first administration of the EOGs, children who failed one or both tests during the first go-round are given the opportunity to take a retest. Kids aren't stupid. They can easily do the math to figure out that if a classmate has to retake the EOG that they failed one or both sections.

I asked my daughter how she'd feel if she failed one or both. "Stupid," she responded, "and mad at myself and disappointed." As parents, we certainly would do our best not to let her feel like that for long, but that was her honest answer.

During the week of the test, I saw a peculiar sight out in the street in front of my house. It was an odd gathering of kids; odd because it was not the normal mix. Several older kids who normally don't have anything to do with the younger ones were congregated with them. They sat on their bikes in the middle of the cul-de-sac in an impromptu teen and pre-teen summit. My oldest son, a third grader, told me later that they were discussing the first days of testing.

"What color test did you get? Was it hard? I thought the questions were tricky. Did you take math or reading? When did you finish?" They asked each other all of these questions. Eighth grader, third grader, 10th grader, fifth grader É the repulsive force of age which usually divided the kids into three or four groups was overcome for this instant by the attraction of test stress and their need to decompress.

A week later, while going to an end-of-year party for the students in the tutoring program at my church, I overheard other children in the halls commiserating over the EOGs:

"What'd you get? I failed math. You failed math? How'd you fail math? That was easy. I failed reading. I gotta take a retest."

I'd spoken with the mother of the first grader that I'd tutored in reading this year. Despite the fact that he'd made significant progress during the year, and was on grade level for math, she told me that his teacher was recommending that he repeat the grade. She would tell him after the party. I winced at the prospect of him digesting that later, along with the pizza, juice and cookies.

Although it's always difficult, at least in the first grader's case the decision to hold him back is being made after consideration of his progress and performance throughout the entire year. For kids in third grade or above who bomb the test, an entire year of solid or even good performance could be rendered irrelevant by the EOGs. Stakes are high, indeed.

Although North Carolina is out at the forefront of the high stakes test movement, this phenomenon is by no means limited to our state. In Florida, another high stakes hotbed, as many as 14,000 high school seniors will be unable to graduate this year, solely because of poor test performance, prompting protests and outrage from advocates for the poor and minority children who, predictably, bear the disproportionate brunt of the punitive provisions of their testing laws. In Baltimore, Md., its been determined that up to 80 percent of students who have been held back a year or more in school will eventually dropout. If those stats hold up nationally, that's a sobering and saddening thought, considering that as many as 30,000 fifth graders in North Carolina may be in danger of being retained due to test results.

While testing can provide useful information on what kids know, and help in assessments of students, teachers and schools, the current high stakes testing craze represents a serious confusion of means and ends--their use as a sole determinant is often in direct contradiction with the directions of the developers of the tests. The maniacal and myopic over-emphasis on testing has the added effect of further marginalizing non-tested skills and disciplines, including the arts, science, social studies, citizenship, critical thinking and creativity. Not to downplay math and reading, but more than those two skills are needed to cope in the real world. Perhaps that's the hidden benefit of high stakes testing, the preparation of young students for a life as stressful adults. If that's an intended aim, I say we should beef up our stress curriculum--make the kids hold down jobs, have families, pay bills. And then lay them off.

To help our kids cope with the test stress, my wife pulled on her history and some common sense. When she was a schoolgirl in Baltimore, and standardized test time approached, her mother would make sure that she got extra sleep at night, and fix a big breakfast on test mornings, to get her off to a good start. Neither the tests that she took, nor the ones I was taking up in New Jersey, were as critical as those our children face today. Then, as now, there wasn't really much that could be or needed to be done to deal with the academics--a lifetime of parental involvement, encouragement and expectations pretty much set the stage for success.

Accordingly, we just did what we could this year to keep the kids from succumbing to the pressures being felt all around them. And Tricia made sure they got their sleep and a good breakfast on EOG-day.

Both my daughter and son received the maximum possible scores on their exams, four out of four in both reading and math. They can exhale, and look forward to their summer. As can we. I've no reason to think it will be any different for our younger children. But I'm not stressing over my kids now, I'm stressing over everyone else's. What has me stressed is the feeling that the people who most fervently support these high stakes testing policies (which are notable for their goal setting and punishments, but offer nothing in terms of remediation) do not have the best interests of the masses of children at heart. EndBlock

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