Are we using scare tactics to pressure kids to perform better on state tests?

DeKalb parent Patti Ghezzi addresses an issue many parents have experienced firsthand: Children fearful and nervous they'll be held back because they don't perform well on state reading and math exams.

Georgia Department of Education policy links promotion in third, fifth and eighth grade to performance on the Milestone tests. This is not DOE or state Board of Education policy but a state law. Despite the law, retention is unusual.

The vast majority of students who fail gateway-year exams still go onto the next grade anyway. For example, of the state's 9,500 eighth-graders who couldn't pass the state math exam in 2007, 92 percent were promoted.

Do students know retention is rare or are they terrified they could flub the test and stay back? Do kids need to believe there are ominous consequences so they'll approach state tests seriously?

Ghezzi says even children at little risk of failing still get stressed because of the scary spectre of retention. A  former education journalist, Ghezzi now works in university communications. (Ghezzi covered education for the AJC from 1997 to 2006.)  She wrote this essay to present to the state Board of Education and state school chief, but never got the opportunity.

By Patti Ghezzi

Good morning, Georgia Board of Education members and Superintendent Richard Woods:

I am here as a parent of a fourth-grader to express dismay about Milestones testing and its negative impact on classrooms, families and students. These negative effects seem to offset any purported benefits. While I have many concerns, I would like to address the disingenuous way the tests are framed to students.

Most third-grade students and parents think failing the Milestones means failing the grade and having to repeat. This fills students and parents with fear and anxiety. They believe this because this is what they’ve been told by educators they trust. The truth is more complicated, but the truth could alleviate stress and help kids perform better. The truth is that failing the Milestones means the opportunity to get extra help during the summer and then a retest. The truth is that parents have the right to appeal retention, and in that case a committee meets to determine what is best for the child. The truth is that retaining students in grades three and higher is rare. The vast majority get to move on.

I assume the lie of automatic retention got started as a way to scare kids into working hard and taking the test seriously, but I have witnessed the opposite. Several of my child’s friends were stressed out to the point of illness and emotional distress. Yet these children are good students, who were never in any danger of retention.

The school climate during Milestones season is insane. Real learning grinds to a halt and is replaced with test prep and high anxiety. The perception of high stakes is an enormous contributor this pressure-cooker environment.

Please, can we be honest with children and parents about the consequences of failing the test? And while we’re at it, can we be honest about how these tests are graded?

For as hard as our children work to prepare for the tests and learn the highly particular way they are supposed to answer constructed response and essay questions, the state promises a tight turnaround with grading. I cannot imagine graders are able to spend more than a few seconds assessing each answer. We let these flawed, difficult-to-administer tests take over our schools and our lives, and then we are supposed to accept without question that they have been correctly graded?

I have always viewed education trends as a pendulum that reaches a peak and swings back. But this pendulum seems stuck because no one in power is willing to acknowledge what a disaster it all is. We have been grinding away at accountability for at least 10 years, and we have so little to show for it.

Unless you are a testing company. In that case, these have surely been banner years. Yet so little is expected of the testing companies, relative to how much is expected of our teachers and our students. There seems to be so little accountability on the test company’s end. They just apologize for their errors, promise to do better and keep on collecting taxpayer money. We’re supposed to suck it up and deal with the test’s flaws, while testing companies get endless do-overs to try to get it right.

As a parent looking in, it appears the testing companies are leading our education leaders around on a leash.

The negative impact of high-stakes testing in the classroom is widespread, the result of directives pushed down from the top. My Gwinnett County friend found in her third-grade daughter’s backpack a test on how to take a standardized test. A DeKalb County friend reported that recess, a stress reliever, vanished for her stressed-out third-grader during the Milestones.

The accountability model is pushed on schools, and teachers are left to figure out how to implement the model, often on top of special programs their school offers, such as International Baccalaureate or STEM. It’s not working. I realize your job is to set policy, but please take a look at how testing policies have influenced teaching and learning.

Please take a hard look at what’s going on in Georgia classrooms, assume responsibility for this situation and make spring a season of learning and growing, not fretting and crying.

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About the Author

Maureen Downey
Maureen Downey
Maureen Downey has written editorials and opinion pieces about local, state and federal education policy since the 1990s.