CHICAGO — I’ve once again survived that annual fall ritual that finds me and the kids braving the elements on a door-to-door search. No, not Halloween — it was way scarier than that. I’m talking about parent-teacher conferences.
It’s nerve-wracking to navigate unfamiliar hallways to face each of the men and women who spend their days with hundreds of middle-schoolers, including your own little hellions.
After a full night of handshakes and squeezing into too-tight student desks, I came home this year marveling at the American testing apparatus that has so many education policy wonks wringing their hands.
I laid the papers out on the kitchen table: Lengthy, detailed progress reports showing the grade and weight of each quiz and test for the quarter. Colorful line graphs displaying academic achievement over the course of three years in each of five core competencies. Authoritative bar charts clearly showing whether my child was below, met or exceeded standards in reading and math at the end of the previous academic year.
Yes, I love “high-stakes” testing. Though there are plenty of critics out there who would have you believe that standardized tests, and even grade-level common assessments, are meaningless, soul-sucking wastes of student time and enthusiasm, these tests do the job. In other words, they quantify how a student is performing in school.
Not too long ago, parent-teacher conferences were vague, qualitative affairs where I’d hear if the kids were doing “well” or “could do better” and I had to divine what it really meant when my child came home with an “A” from the notoriously easy English teacher or a “C” from the really tough math teacher.
Today, even though my kids go to a school that serves majority low-income community and suffers from severe budget shortfalls, the legacy of No Child Left Behind is that I know how my kids are performing overall and over time in the subjects that will determine whether they succeed in college.
And I can understand whether my efforts at home are making a difference in my kids’ progress because some of the reports allow me to quickly compare how my children are doing with others in their district, state and nationwide.
This might not seem like much to someone with kids in average-to-well-performing school districts. But to parents whose kids are stuck in failing schools, it’s extremely meaningful to be able to compare your own student’s performance to national averages.
Nearly a decade ago when I was training to be a teacher, the storm clouds were already gathering about increased standardized testing. Today they seem to be anathema to anyone who joined the education-industrial complex in order to save the world, mete out social justice, or raise children’s self-esteem. But those folks need to get over it.
It’s true: Testing is not the most fun way for a student to spend the afternoon. And yet as adults we withstand such boring and high-stakes situations all the time — remember this the next time you spend the day at the DMV and either pass or fail your driver’s license exams.
The fact is that assessment is a day-to-day reality in our modern globalized society. “Big Data,” analytics, and performance metrics drive innovation and help create efficiencies in innumerable aspects of our lives.
If this sounds far removed from the innocence of the classroom, then you just haven’t been paying attention to the debate over whether teachers should be evaluated or get to keep their jobs based, at least in part, on their students’ quantifiable academic performance.
Whether you like it or not, major education policy decisions from the federal to the local level are made based on what the numbers say about how students perform. The alternative is to make guesses based on fuzzy qualitative measures such as the relative emotional impact of a student’s collage or diorama.
Standardized tests wouldn’t be so terrifying to so many if they were well-understood (most people don’t know that rigorous, well-designed tests reinforce and supplement learning even as they assess student ability) and if teachers were thoroughly trained on how to interpret test data and use it to improve their lesson designs and delivery.
And parents might eventually emerge as the biggest advocates of testing if they were all consistently provided with their students’ detailed reports — and taught how to unlock the meaning of the many charts and graphs so they could truly understand their kids’ progress.
Esther Cepeda is syndicated columnist and an NBC Latino Contributor.