Tuesday, April 27, 2010

TEKS and TAAS: The Standardized Strangulation of Imagination

For several years before my first child was born, I worked as a copy editor for a textbook company. A small place, we took on weighty loads of a variety of textbooks from every major publisher you could think of. Although we specialized in reading, spelling, and phonics for younger grades, I worked on high school science and literature textbooks, and even wrote a 6th-grade math/social science textbook (which you can read to your horror and my shame on Google Books—there are reasons I wasn’t asked to do one again).

Standardized teaching and testing was an intimate part of my life as a copy editor. Every textbook we worked on, from every major company, followed what are known as TEKS and TAAS, the learning and testing guidelines laid down by the state of Texas. (For those conspiracy theorists who always wondered whether the entire national curriculum is really run by the state of Texas, the answer is, essentially, yes. Texas buys its textbooks for the entire state, whereas most states allow their districts to choose and purchase individually. Texas wields enormous power over how our children are educated because it is simply the most important slice of the market for textbook publishers. So yes, the fact that the Texas board is waging war on science should worry you.)

These guidelines are massive, thousands of little instructions and expectations, spanning all grade levels, covering requirements from the specifics of trigonometry in high school, down to the movement of large and small muscle groups in kindergarten. Let your imagination run wild as to how specific the requirements of your child’s education can get, and you can’t go far wrong.

I used to take all the stupid requirements and niggly publishing quirks in stride, with a sense of humor, but when you see on a daily basis the reality of what we’re forcing on our children for several hours a day, the humor starts to erode.

It wasn’t the New York State Regency exam that, in a multiple-choice question regarding the reasons behind most recent invasion of Iraq, failed to give as an answer/option anything close to the truth (that is, one that questioned the US government’s motives behind the invasion). And it wasn’t the failure of a high school history textbook’s glowing mini-bio of Henry Kissinger to note that he avoids traveling to Europe because he’s wanted for questioning on war crimes. It wasn’t even the exasperating project of writing that math textbook, during which I had to count the number of syllables in each sentence to make sure my writing was “age appropriate.” (Evidently the number of syllables per sentence in a paragraph is more important to your child’s education than information. Heaven forbid the lesson actually be interesting.)

What broke my heart, finally, was not the endless checking and cross-checking to see which sub-requirement a specific math problem or activity might cover in the TEKS, but the cross-invasion of standardized testing into reading lessons for kindergarteners.

As most of us know now, we teach to the test rather than teach to help kids learn, and I saw no more striking or sobering example than lessons for 5-year-olds that focused on questions such as: “Good readers look for main ideas when they read,” or “As you read, identify the main and supporting characters in the story,” and so on with plot and climax and all the elements you expect to be quizzed on when you take the Iowa Basics or similar for the first time. These were tiny little books about, you know, mice and clocks. But the children weren’t allowed to focus on the funny story, the personalities; they weren’t allowed to let themselves go and sink into the weird imagination-river that makes reading, on its own, so powerful.

I can’t think of a better way to kill a child’s budding curiosity about reading and books. And once you strangle a desire to read, imagination has little chance at all.

Standardized tests used to be something we took every few years, an anomaly in our education, something by the wayside. Now there are 2nd-graders riddled with nervous anxiety because their “education” is constructed around frequent quizzes and tests, to prepare them to do well in major standardized tests in the 3rd grade.

I can remember the first time I took the Iowa Basics, one of the country’s most long-standing standardized tests. It was in the 6th grade. Despite being one of the smarter kids in the class, the Reading Comprehension section took me longer than it should have because I got caught up and interested in the content, and had to go back to look for main ideas, supporting ideas, and so on. In other words, reading for me, as it would be for any child given the chance, was a completely separate activity from the comprehension skill the test was looking for.

Years later, editing those kindergarten textbooks, I felt ill. I come from an intellectual family of complete book addicts, yet the lure of reading would not have stood a chance if someone had stood in front of me day after day, telling me what “good readers do” and refusing to let me enjoy the story. But I might have gotten into the 99th percentile on the Iowa Basics rather than the 98th.

Over the last few years I’ve read and heard the complaints of many college professors that the students coming in lack not only basic knowledge, but the ability to think at all. These students, they moan, are always wanting to know “what the teacher is looking for” in a paper. In other words, they’re so used to being taught to the test, that it comes naturally to them to write to the teacher.

The younger we push standardized testing, the further back we seek to squelch true curiosity and the fierce love of learning that most children are born with, the less likely it is that the future’s college students will have any concept of what it means to enjoy learning, much less how to think for themselves.

But personally, I’m more concerned about those kindergarteners, who will never care about the mouse, the clock, and the cheese, or that it’s a funny story, because they need to remember for the Thursday quiz what the main idea was. And the ridiculous thing is, I couldn’t tell them either. It’s a story. It’s fun. I’m sure that future lessons will include books with far less scope for imagination, and far more emphasis on plot and characterization.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Occupational Therapy Evaluation: What Part of "I'm 2" Don't You Understand?

[This is Part I of the occupational therapy (OT) evaluation experience. For Part II, the report and slightly scary obsession with hugging, click here.]

The saga of our 2 1/2-year-old son John's evaluations for special services from the school district continues. I waited to write about the occupational therapy and psychology evaluations until we got the reports back from the evaluators. But the paperwork hasn't changed the initial conclusions, which included: occupational therapy evaluation, strike 3.

It was between the educational and occupational therapy evaluations that I started to seriously look into homeschooling. By the time this evaluation was over, I'd already signed up for the newsletters of two local homeschooling groups. That's how much this process is pissing me off.

The Evaluation: Your Son's Kindergarten Experience Will Suck -- for His Teacher

Actually, I'd thought the occupational therapy (OT) evaluation went much better, not borne out by the evaluation reports. But then I have a much longer acquaintance with John's personality and tantrums than the evaluator does. The evaluation was still, stupidly, an hour long, but it's all interactive--playing, basically. He did very well for about 35 minutes, did everything he was asked. Then he stopped playing along. The evaluator snuck that look onto her face and immediately asked that question I have learned to hate: "Is this typical, that he'll not want to do directed play anymore and will just stop cooperating?"

What could I say? Yes. Specifically, if I'm in the room, yes. If he's without me, say at daycare, he will do everything he's told. I pushed a little harder with her and asked if they really expected kids of his age to finish these [extremely long] evaluations. She said at least with OT, when they start moving from table activities to floor stuff, probably most kids will be fine continuing to play along because the activities change. With her, she didn't say "attention issues," but talked about the "ability to engage in non-self-directed play" for long periods.

In other words, do what they're told when they're told to do it. Speaking with several other early childhood workers in various parts of the country, I learned several things. One is that it's ineffective and inappropriate to start looking for attention issues at the age of 2. Everyone I spoke with, including two Soviet kindergarten teachers (who used to have parents trying to bribe them to get their kids into their classes) were shocked to hear of anyone expecting a toddler to "pay attention" to directed activities for longer than 20 minutes.

I also learned that about 75% of children will be able to happily finish the hour-long evaluations. At first this number surprised me, but when I think about the bulk of humanity ... well, let's just say that people who change the world, for better or worse, are more likely to come from the other 25%.

For John, a massive meltdown ensued while the evaluator looked on disapprovingly. Are these poor kids not allowed to get bored and tell people to piss off? Why would anyone continue doing something they don't feel like doing, if they don't understand why they're being asked to do it? Isn't that part of the definition of insanity?

I talked with our service coordinator about my concerns yesterday and she, although an admirable person in many ways, talks the party line: "In a classroom setting he needs to be able to sit and follow instructions, and pay attention to what's being asked of him. If there are attention issues, trust me, you want to find them early." In a classroom setting! Which is years away! What part of "he's 2 not 5" don't you understand? I feel like I'm talking a different language.

I notice, by the way, that not a single evaluator has asked how well he does with self-directed play. I'd be way more concerned about a kid who is unable to entertain themselves for an hour, than I would be about one who refuses to be told how to play for the same amount of time.

Thoughts on 'The System': Have We Forgotten What It Means to Be Two Years Old?

And this response to Up Against the System is from my younger sister, whom we'll call B. My sisters' thoughts about this whole process are so varied, yet so complementary, it's impossible to take one set without the other.

"I imagine John as, I don't know, the son of a sailor. I picture him out on the sea being wild and free. He has a certain quality that begs for independence. I would feel exactly like you do in this situation. I would want him to pass the tests, do well, and do what was expected, but I would also be angry that he was being fed such formulaic standards and labeled something based on a narrow view of who he really is. Perhaps he is behind in many ways. He was born premature and that gave him significant disadvantages. To me that means nothing about his future. I'm sure there are fascinating statistics out there and reasons why we should follow our formulaic methods of teaching toddlers, but the big picture is often not taken into account.

My boyfriend had to do kindergarten twice. He had a muscle issue with his eye that made one eye stay crossed so they had to cut the muscle and he missed too much school to complete the year. Tragic right? Except that it isn't a big deal at all now. Even more tragic to me is the fact that he, another good friend, and many others I know suffered from poor school systems that didn't bother to nurture and teach them much at all. Systems that, had I been in them I never would've accomplished half of what I did academically. I don't know when our education system took the turn and stopped being about developing the minds of our youth, but it has. From these early childhood exams to the public school system it is all about teaching for tests that are standardized by what? .... the Texas board?

What baffles me is that in the arts we understand what we need to do, but we never take those lessons and use them in real life. That may be confusing so here is my example. In Harry Potter and ... um... the one where he forms Dumbldore's army... the evil is the woman who comes and tries to rigidly standardize everything in the school. She teaches for the exams and provides no useful, practical skills for the students. We see this all the time in children's stories and movies, but yet in the real world we still commit these crimes.

What I'm trying to say is that John has a long and bright future ahead. Whatever happens he is set up for success by parents who actually care and take notice. I have known so many amazing people some of whom were born that way and some of whom took a long time to find their intelligent self. It sounds to me like these people that John is dealing with are hard wired to think that the flip charts will give them all the information they need. I grant they will find some things out, but the other part of me wants to grab John, run screaming from the building for no reason and find the nearest muddy pond and start jumping in it. He is 2! I mean, really, he is a toddler and a boy. They destroy and build and hit and run and throw. They are mini-testosterone carrying monkeys that want to do all kinds of crazy things. I have met some moderately patient two-yr-old girls, but boys... never. They are destructos. They hear what they are told and then proceed to immediately forget it.

I have also thought a lot lately about kids and forgetting how to be one. I think getting into being 2 when you are with a 2-year-old is a healthy thing we've lost. So, I try to be more like a kid. Our two nieces [ages 5 and 2] and I drew all over ourselves 'cause the two-year-old had a spot of marker on her nose. I figured she shouldn't be left alone so I drew on my nose. It snowballed from there. We had so much fun and there was nothing educational or constructive at all about it. Then the five-year-old and I made believe that we were a queen and a princess. Then she decided I was Sacajawea and she was the baby. Whatever... it was fun and meaningless. And healthy for us all."

Thoughts on 'The System': Meaningless Evaluation Metrics

With permission from my sisters, I am posting their very thoughtful responses to my post Up Against the System, which is a revised version of a way-too-long email to said sisters. I asked to post their responses to me because my sisters are some of the most insightful and intelligent people I know. Not only that, they're both great writers with completely different personalities, outlooks, and writing styles. Their perspectives keep my own balanced.

I am the middle of three girls, each 5 years apart. This first response is from my older sister, whom we'll call A:

"The evaluation you describe is just plain bizarre. I think if they took a random sample of children and administered these "tests", almost the only ones who would "pass" would be kids who were developmentally delayed in a way that inclined them to passivity. It sounds like someone took bits and pieces of substantive research (like learning size relations is a useful step on the way to learning more abstract mathematical concepts) and utterly distorted them in the construction of a meaningless and misleading evaluation metric."

[A note from me on this point: I hadn't thought about what the purpose of each metric was. But if they were looking for a sense of abstract mathematical concepts, they could have either asked me, or learned through observation. Thanks to his day care, John knows what triangles and octagons are. On his own he has been able to apply this learning in abstract ways: he sees triangles all over the place, where I hadn't thought to look, and octagons too. This ability seems a much more direct way of indicating his grasp of abstract mathematical concepts.]

"If I were in your position, what would anger and upset me most would be the niggling fear that John's future experiences of education and evaluation will look just the same. I would fear that instead of having partners in helping him develop into his truest, best self, I would face years of struggling to counter the malign influence of the educational establishment. It won't be like that though. You will find schools and teachers you can believe in.

I just pity the children who get caught in some of these inane diagnostic holes, and whose parents don't trust their own judgment, or don't have a support network to help them keep perspective. It's not that there aren't many children (smart ones included) who might benefit from various kinds of special help, but there aren't enough smart people to develop, administer, and interpret the evaluations. I now know enough parents to have seen several examples of stupid quasi-diagnoses arrived at by stupid (ahem, not insightful with regard to a particular child) teachers or evaluators."

Up Against the System: One Mother's Shock-Introduction to Standardized Evaluations

Our little family has been going through some tense times recently. As our son is 2 1/2 and receives Early Intervention services (while his intelligence and development are fine, his speech is delayed, likely due to his prematurity), which stop at age 3, we have been working with our local public school system to transition into the services they offer.

That is a mild way of putting what's really happening: the reality of 'the system,' which seeks to place all people, especially children, into manageable boxes and units, to make them easier to label and deal with, has come crashing into our lives like a semi-truck landing full-tilt in the living room.

We are not stupid parents. We are not blind parents. But the evaluators of our local school district would like to believe we are both, because they would like to label our son with handy little devices like "attention issues," no matter how wrong we think they are, or how unreasonable their expectations of a two-year-old are. My son is stubborn and easily frustrated and bright and curious and willful and logical. He does not have "attention issues."

I have been blathering at length to my sisters and parents and friends about what we're experiencing, but what better place to try to clarify a problem than on your own blog?

The problem is not necessarily in the services offered, but in the evaluations themselves. We've had a speech evaluation, which lasted nearly two hours, and then the education evaluation, which was about 45 minutes. We weren't able to fully complete either of them because John simply stopped cooperating after a time. Both the evaluators immediately brought up "attention issues," which, frankly, pissed me off. After some reflection, I realized that I'm angry and frustrated on a variety of levels, all of which are slightly silly because there's no requirement that I go through with this process at all. It's entirely the choice of the parents. But it does leave me a) concerned about the mentality of the people who will be responsible for his future education and development, and b) curious and exasperated with the methodology and expectations in the following ways:

1) John is 2 1/2. I realize I only have one child, and my experience is limited, but how long is a child of that age expected to pay attention to any activity? If he's really interested in something, he can pay attention for a good hour, sometimes longer. That doesn't mean his discipline doesn't need work. Yes, he needs, over time, to learn that he often has to sit and do things he doesn't feel like doing, and we're working on that. But I don't see any difference between his desire to be done with the evaluation, and his desire to run around a restaurant when he's done eating. There is a balance here between attention and discipline, but I don't think being "done" with a very boring task after 30 or 45 minutes qualifies as "attention issues," not at his age.

2) The evaluation is idiotic. Correction: it's a load of bullshit. What is it? It's a flip chart, where he has to identify objects and activities by pointing to different pictures. (Which child is swimming? Can you show me the triangle? Which animal is big? And so on and so forth, moving up skill levels designed for six-month developmental increments.) First off, sitting for a long period in front of a flip-chart seems like a silly way to evaluate such a young child, especially as the Early Intervention program focuses specifically on evaluating and working within the child's normal environment. And John only really stopped cooperating when he stopped understanding the questions/instructions. As his speech therapist said when I vented to her a bit, "Well, do you set yourself up for failure on purpose? He knows when he's not understanding something. Partly it's frustration due to the comprehension and speech, but it's also partly that he doesn't see the need to keep going when he clearly doesn't get it."

3) Standardized tests. After working in textbook publishing for so long, I thought I had about reached my limit of loathing of standardized tests. I was wrong. This was worse. First off, sometimes they ask things he simply hasn't learned, or might have learned differently (like, he gets marked down for not picking out the "big" or "small" animal in the picture, but I haven't thought about teaching him specific size relations yet). Second, my gosh, there were so many things in that education test that I don't think I knew until first grade! Third, he of course gets no credit for being clever outside of the test. Example: when he'd really had quite enough of the speech evaluation, you know what he did? He faked pooping. Seriously. Had the whole expression and position and totally fooled me. I rushed him out to the bathroom, which was in the entry of the building. As soon as we got to the the entry, he straightened up, ran to the door, and said, "car." He did this twice. Clearly, he knows that needing the potty is one surefire way to get me to move my butt out of there. I thought that was pretty damn clever. But there's no "ingenuity" or "problem solving" aspect on these tests, so no one else thought it was cool.

[A note on the standardized test mentality: later in the day, both my husband and I found ourselves "teaching to the test" without realizing it. "This is how it starts," I thought. Kind of pathetic. Does it matter whether he picks out which animal is big, or which ducks are "all in a line" now or in six months? No. And yet here we are, wanting him to pass the test.]

None of this sounds like much. But when you're a person like me -- like many of my friends, probably -- the realizations that hit when you're doing these evaluations are pretty rough. It boils down to "we need your child to perform in this certain way so that he can function in this particular system that we've designed, no matter how false or pointless it is, and no matter how unrelated to his or any child's function as a human being."

What worries and angers me is the concern that the entire process might stunt his development as a complete, realized human being. Yes, he needs to be able to do tasks that he might not like. Yes, he needs to be able to sit in school and pay attention and learn. But he's 2 1/2. Shouldn't there be a different expectation between that age and 5 or 6?

Most people with even the mildest level of intelligence find school a bit dull. How far will we go, how young will we reach, to root out the rich creativity and imagination and cognitive thinking that makes standardized schooling a difficult place for so many children?

[Pending my sisters' permissions, I will later post their excellent responses to this description. I will also be posting further entries as we go through the occupational therapy, physical therapy, and psychological evaluations. As the psychologist has already ruffled my spikes by mentioning "non-cooperative," the last should be interesting.]