I can’t say I wasn’t warned. Like-minded friends with children older than mine had been issuing the same caution for years: Beware of third grade.
But being wary of our educational path was nothing new to our family. Several years ago, we tried homeschooling our oldest daughter, Izzy, now 8. After a two-week stint, upon watching the neighborhood kids walking about with their backpacks and lunchboxes, Izzy informed me that she wanted to go to “real school.” Not certain enough about what we were doing, my husband and I bit the bullet and sent her to our Brooklyn neighborhood’s zoned public school. Despite our many misgivings (topping the list was a deep dread that we were relinquishing control of our daughter to some type of thoughtless machine), Izzy thrived both socially and academically, passing from one great teacher to the next. We had to acknowledge that we had been wrong. Public school was great for Izzy. That is, until this year: third grade.
Enter the dreaded state tests.
Spanning two weeks, the New York State Regents exams consist of one part math and one part ELA (English Language Arts); each takes three days per week, 80 minutes per testing day.
At the curriculum meeting a few weeks into the school year, I listened as Izzy’s teacher relayed with dismay how she sees the level of anxiety skyrocket among my daughter’s age group; the culprits, of course, are the state exams. She went on to vow a lighthearted approach to preparing the kids for the two weeks in April dedicated to number-two pencils and bubble sheets. What more could I ask for, really?
Apparently, a lot.
For starters, less homework. Despite our school’s “no homework over holidays” policy, Izzy’s teacher launched a creative coup, devising “projects” that needed to be completed over break. Nighttime assignments extended well past the school’s suggested hour mark, with a large degree of them taking place in a workbook tailor-made for test prep. Students were actually encouraged to take a huge practice state test over spring break.
Less pain-in-the-neck paperwork would be a huge relief for parents, as well. For a school that was supposedly environmentally conscious, I shudder to think of the trees that befell the exorbitant notices we received outlining the new rigorous state standards. After one that began with, “This is the fifth letter in a series … ” I stopped reading.
And the one thing that’s really missing from this school year? Fun. What a miserable drag this year has been for Izzy. No extra recess until state tests are over. One field trip a month instead of the usual two. No take-your-child-to-work day. For those so inclined to send their child to Saturday school, an optional two-hour test prep course spanning several weeks, even your weekends weren’t free. I was astounded that we were one of only three or four families who didn’t send their child to Saturday school. Forget sleeping in and lazing about in jammies — there is test prep to be done!
Surely with all the hoopla, these tests must matter greatly for the future of these children. Except they don’t. Unlike the fourth grade exam (problematic in its own right), this year’s tests have no bearing on middle school acceptance. At the first parent-teacher conference of the year, I was told, upon asking, that this year is basically just practice. So our kids spend three-quarters of the school year practicing for the practice? It seems so.
That just didn’t jive with me.
It has been many a year since I’ve been considered a rebel. My rule-breaking days have given way to the rule of the day planner. But before you judge me as some old fogie sell-out, consider this: running a family of five is difficult without organization. Devising a schedule to “rule” our otherwise chaotic existence is practical. But this test prep? This is beyond impractical and, dare I say, approaching dogmatic. The teachers complain about having to teach to the test, and the parents fail to see the benefit. Supposedly the principal, with his learn-through-play Bankstreet background, is loath to implement the whole pushy rigmarole, yet, under the pressure of programs like No Child Left Behind (which links test performance with federal funding), feels he has little choice.
There are many complicated avenues winding down the rabbit hole of testing. Sadly not one of them validates any benefit for the children. So when I looked at my fun-loving and incredibly bright 8-year-old, it was strikingly simple. We would not participate in the madness. Izzy was not going to take these tests. Summoning a bit of my youthful swagger, I decided instead that a road trip was in order.
I heard my voice quiver as I asked to speak with the assistant principal, feeling a bit like a child about to get in trouble. I was determined, however, to tell the very uncomplicated truth: we didn’t agree with the testing and decided instead to take a beach vacation for the entire duration. Although she did not endorse my choice, the assistant principal respected the authority we, as parents, held over our child (a rare and priceless commodity these days).
I would be lying if I said I wasn’t nervous during the first day of testing that we missed. But as I loaded my three girls and their seemingly million pounds of accoutrements into the car for our impromptu vacation, I had never, even in all my days of youthful rebellion, felt lighter.
Over the course of our trip, Izzy wrote several songs, learned how to figure out the tip on a restaurant check, saw manatees, got a sunburn, and played with her sisters. After her first day back to school, I laughed as she told me they had a pizza party to commemorate the end of testing. While the other kids were being rewarded for their performance, I would like to think Izzy was celebrating being part of a family that had her back on this one. I know I am proud.
Since our boycott, I have been stopped numerous times by other parents. At first, I was certain I would be judged negatively. But over the course of these conversations, a common narrative emerged. It went something like this: “I would have loved to do that but I was too afraid. Didn’t Izzy get in trouble?” The short answer is no. Sure, there was chatter from her friends that over the course of her absence the teacher had some choice words about our decision. Had Izzy been seriously penalized for our choice, it would have only confirmed our growing reservations about the public school curriculum, but for now, we will hang in there so long as we can navigate around what we feel is wrong.