If all goes according to plan, public school testing will drum out any vestiges of creativity by the start of first grade.
If all goes according to plan, public school testing will drum out any vestiges of creativity by the start of first grade. Credit: Erin Althea

It was the fourth week of school—day 21, to be exact—when the kindergarten students of a veteran teacher I’ll call Donna Reed finally completed round one of their standardized tests.

I say round one because they still have to work through two more rounds of testing this school year.

To all the problems the Chicago Public Schools face—budget deficits, bad relations with parents and teachers, ceaseless pressure to privatize from certain politicians and their friends—we now add this: there’s way too much test taking.

This year CPS has added a new test to the array already faced by grammar school students: the REACH. It comes on top of the TRC, the MAP, the EXPLORE, the ISAT, and DIBELS. Two of these are teacher accountability tests. Two are diagnostic. And the others are a combination of both. One way or another, they all cover the same ground. It’s good to be a standardized-test salesman.

Perversely, the testing craze hits hardest on the kindergarten kids. There are four standardized tests two or three times a year. Apparently, it’s part of the larger education-reform goal of improving schools by making children hate them at an early age.

“This is what we did for the first 21 days of the year,” says Donna, who, like other teachers I spoke with, asked that I not use her real name because she’s afraid of retaliation from administrators. “We also have to take these tests in the middle and end of the year.”

When all is said and done, kindergarteners will have spent up to 60 days of class time—or a third of the school year—taking various standardized tests. And you wonder why so many wealthy people send their children to private schools.

In fairness, I can’t completely blame Mayor Rahm Emanuel for this madness. So Mr. Mayor, you’re free to leave the courtroom.

Instead, the blame for the latest test goes to the General Assembly and Governor Pat Quinn for passing the Performance Evaluation Reform Act, which has to be suspect since it includes the word reform.

The purpose of PERA, passed in 2010, is to hold teachers accountable for how much their students learn—or at least how well they score on standardized tests, which is not always the same thing. But the idea is that high-scoring “good” teachers will keep their jobs and low-scoring “bad” teachers will be fired, presumably to be replaced by the thousands of “good” teachers eager to come to Illinois to give more tests.

In defense of Quinn and the legislators, they had to pass PERA in order to be eligible for money from a federal program called Race to the Top. That’s the brainchild of President Barack Obama and Arne Duncan, his secretary of education, that makes states compete for federal education dollars in part by holding teachers accountable for how their students score on standardized tests. It amounts to a nationwide grant-writing contest with the winning states getting money, the losing states getting rejection letters, and students taking more tests.

In defense of Duncan and Obama, they felt compelled to create Race to the Top to prove to Republicans that they, the Democrats, were not afraid to beat up on teachers and their unions.

In defense of the Republicans—well, I can’t think of any defense for the loonies who’ve taken over that once-great party.

By the way, Illinois didn’t get Race to the Top money and the Republicans continue to bash Obama for being soft on the teachers’ union. As Paul Simon once noted, every way you look at it you lose.

Nevertheless, in order to comply with PERA the students of Chicago are now stuck with something called the Recognizing Educators Advancing Chicago—REACH, for short. According to the CPS website, it’s “our new, comprehensive teacher evaluation system.”

In the kindergarten test, the teacher reads the students a story called The Big Bug Dug, about a bug who digs deep into the ground, passing a snake and a gopher on the way, until he finds a quiet place to sleep.

The test follows.

But since these are five- and six-year-olds who can’t read, that means one-on-one testing. So while the other 29 kids are occupied with busy work, the teacher calls a child to her desk to answer questions: What’s the story’s setting? Who’s the main character? And how does the bug feel in the middle of the day?

“Most of the kids just look at me,” says another kindergarten teacher who asked not to be identified. “They’re five. They don’t what a ‘main character’ means.”

Some of the questions are tricky, like the one that asks how the bug feels in the middle of the day. The test guide says the correct answer is “anxious.” And that’s what the kindergarteners are supposed to say.

But “anxious” is not a concept most five-year-olds can articulate, though they certainly may feel it after being subjected to this test. So the teacher is supposed to look for an answer that best approximates “anxious.”

Actually, the more I think about it, I’m not even sure that “anxious” is the correct answer to this question. The bug may feel determined, as in, “I really want to dig this hole.” Or he may feel purposeful, as in, “At last—I’ve discovered what I want to do in life!” The question gets at his motivation, which is subject to interpretation and debate.

Of course, there’s no room for debate in a standardized test—there’s only right or wrong. Presumably, by the end of the year the child will know enough to say the bug feels anxious. At which point the teacher will get to keep his or her job, for at least another year.

All is not lost with this test, however. Several students came up with some delightful twists on the story. One little girl in Donna’s class drew a picture of a swimming pool and picnic.

When asked why, the girl responded: “I thought the bug might get hot and want to go swimming. I thought he might get hungry.”

Dutifully, the teacher recorded that response. And somewhere in that student’s file her delightfully original take is marked: “Wrong!” If all goes according to plan, the tests will drum out any vestige of creativity in that little girl by the start of first grade.

Here’s the twist. All teachers record the answers. Think about this, folks: teachers get to grade their own accountability tests. Damn, if they had this for students back in the day, I might have passed chemistry.

My suggestion to teachers: if you want to keep your jobs, make sure your kids are struggling with The Big Bug Dug in September and plowing through Tolstoy by June.