Covering parenting and child development issues
"The difference between school and life? In school, you're taught a lesson and then given a test. In life, you're given a test that teaches you a lesson." (Tom Bodett)
I had dinner with two of my former colleagues last night, and they reminded me that PSSAs begin next week. For the first time in more than two decades, I have no involvement in them whatsoever. They are, in fact, one of the things I don't miss about public education.
I hate what these tests have done to our educational system - I find the concept of teaching to the test abhorrent, and I don't know a single teacher who doesn't share that sentiment. Teachers didn't choose their career path so they could spend their time instructing a narrow curriculum that teaches kids to think a very specific way while effectively eradicating any trace of creativity from the teaching of major subject areas.
But PSSAs are a fact of life - at least until the pendulum swings back and the next educational reform is ushered in - and complaining about them is counterproductive. Opting out of the test for religious reasons is an option - but one that simultaneously punishes schools, who must meet minimum participation requirements or be sanctioned by the state.
So what is a parent to do?
If you truly oppose the PSSAs on religious grounds, do the research and consider opting your child out next year. If this is an avenue you choose to pursue, make sure you understand the ramifications inside and outside your own family before you do this. Will your child's school be sanctioned? What will that mean?
As I understand it, your child will still be required to attend school during these tests - what will he be doing while his peers are taking the tests? What impact will that have on him? The PSSAs are high stakes tests, and for most kids, preparing them for these evaluations that are as much about endurance as achievement is sufficient. Most kids would much rather do what their peers are doing than be singled out, and most elementary schools do the best they can to inject fun and relaxation into this week of school in particular.
Most kids will take this test. If your child is one of them, heed the school's warnings about enough sleep and a decent breakfast. For many families, this is a fact of life every day during the school year and will require no substantial changes. The main idea here is not to schedule that family vacation, late night out or overnight trip to Grandma's during testing.
But the biggest thing you can do for your child has more to do with your outlook on education, achievement and life in general than with this test in particular. Let your child know these tests are not life or death, that as long as she does her best, that's all she can do, and all you expect. Let her know that no one gets all the answers right. Make sure she understands that mistakes are a fact of life, and an important part of learning life's lessons.
Finally - and best of all - offer your child the experiences outside of school that financially-strapped schools can no longer provide. Go to the library, to museums and concerts. Pursue the arts in any way that interests your child - music lessons, dance lessons, art classes. Check with your local library, go online or subscribe to e-newsletters from arts organizations to to find out where you can access these things free of charge. If your child is so inclined, involve him in sports as a means of nurturing his physical self alongside his intellect.
Life is diverse, and full of tests. As adults, we seek balance by focusing on the positive during the times of stress. When we teach our kids to explore all of their potential, we keep these tests in perspective, proving the point that they aren't the be-all and end-all of their education - or their lives. For a week (or so), we treat the dreaded test with the necessary reverence, and for the rest of the year, we go about our business, showing our children how to live rich, full lives that refuse to be measured by - let alone governed by - a one-size fits all assessment.