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We need future adults, not fragile snowflakes

Parents and educators alike increasingly complain that "high-stakes” testing in school causes too much stress for students and fails to provide a complete measure of their learning.

A few weeks ago at a meeting of the New Haven Public School Advocates organization, a city Board of Education member and pediatrician, Tamiko Jackson-McArthur, said the prospect of final exams and mastery tests gives students headaches and insomnia. "High-stakes testing does not take into account the social well-being of children,” Jackson-McArthur said, adding that she does not permit her children to take such tests. She echoed calls for less formal and more opinion-based measures of learning.

Of course there now may be far more stress on everybody than an occasional test imposes, what with school suspended everywhere amid the virus epidemic and children stuck at home all day with parents or relatives, who in turn are stuck with them all day. But if those "high-stakes" tests are abolished and there are no test scores, only a teacher's evaluation of whether a student did well with book reports or a science fair project, the tendency may be to conclude that − as in Lake Wobegon − all students are above average.

For without "high-stakes” tests there will be no verifiable and comparable measures of learning in basic subjects. Teachers are already under great administrative and political pressure not to fail anyone, and Connecticut's main educational policy long has been social promotion. School systems no longer have the political strength to uphold standards.

While students may get anxious as a "high-stakes” test approaches, why shouldn't they become so? Life itself sometimes involves high stakes and requires an ability to handle stress. Gaining that ability is what growing up is about, since Mommy and Daddy won't be around forever.

Besides, in a system of social promotion, how much stress can there really be? It may be impossible for any Connecticut student to get to third or fourth grade without realizing that his learning or lack of it has no bearing on his advancement. By high school most students have realized that not only will they be graduated even if they learn nothing but also, if they desire it, they will be promoted to a community college or state university where they can take remedial high school courses, just as most freshmen in Connecticut's community colleges and state universities do.

Mastery tests, college entrance examinations, and other standardized tests are not perfect but they are probably the most comprehensive educational measures possible. These measures long have been conveying poor performance, and if the risk of stress to students is to be eliminated, what incentive will many students have to perform any better?

That so many high school and even college graduates these days are skilled for little more than menial employment argues powerfully for more anxiety in education, not less.

Of course it is easy for those who have already endured the trials of school and growing up to disparage the anxiety of today's students. Not all today's grown-ups are as educated as they should be.

They may remember Alice Cooper singing (screaming, really) 50 years ago, "School's out forever!” Amid the virus shutdown they may wonder: "Why couldn't they have done it before we got too old to enjoy it?"

Chris Powell is a columnist for the Journal Inquirer in Manchester.

 

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