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Why do we make our kids take standardized tests?

My son’s school put out the call for proctors back in May, so I blithely put myself down for three four-hour shifts.

Oh, this will be cake, I thought. I’ll have time to write a column and I’ll read a book. None of those things happened.

Here’s what I thought going in: I’ll be a proctor! I’ll be revered, an assistant to a mighty teacher. I’ll be his/her humble helper, handing out test materials serenely, giving encouraging pats to young shoulders.

Here’s what actually happened: Proctors are not allowed to touch the test materials. My job was to be present in the classroom and to have a pulse. One teacher graciously allowed me to hand out pencils and blank cover sheets to the kids. At the end of the four hours, I got to collect the pencils and cover sheets.

It was the highlight of my week.

So many of the kids had colds that week that my secondary task was to walk up and down the aisles of children, handing out fresh tissues and collecting used ones.

Yuck. It was like being the parent of a toddler all over again.

I also was allowed to escort kids to the toilet, one at a time. I had to be in two places at once. I had to dangle half my body inside the classroom to keep an eagle eye on the seated students. The other half of my body was perched out in the hallway to keep an eye out for the restroom-using student, and to make sure he didn’t communicate with any other kids in the hallway.

Because I had long stretches of time with very little to do, my mind began to wander. Here are my observations:

Teachers need extremely supportive footwear. My legs were aching and I only pulled a four-hour shift each day. How do teachers stand up for the entire day without whimpering? Their legs must be pure muscle.

Do they teach Teacher Font in college teacher school? I was assigned to three different classrooms, and all of their whiteboards had what looked like identical handwriting.

The kids who usually would whisper and fidget and pass notes and drop pencils were unnaturally silent. If you closed your eyes, you would not have known there were hundreds of middle school students present in the building.

Why were all these kids wearing long-sleeved hoodies, I wondered? The classroom was stuffy and it was 90 degrees outside. Then I figured out what the hoodies were for. The minute they finished the test, they yanked the hoods over their heads, put their heads down on the desk and fell asleep.

I could tell most, in fact, didn’t get enough sleep. One girl dozed during the pre-test instructions. She was snoring ever so gently, causing her classmates to snicker and point.

Some children didn’t even read the questions. One girl just stared blankly into space for several minutes.

Most of the kids had colds the day of the test; one child couldn’t stop coughing. I wondered which third of the class didn’t get breakfast this morning; was that because there was no food in the house or because it’s not cool to eat breakfast?

How are you going to score well if you can’t stop coughing long enough to read the question, or if you are too hungry to concentrate?

One thought kept coming to me, over and over: why are we testing our children like this? Surely the teachers know their own students’ strengths and weaknesses. Why is a test is the end-all and be-all? Testing only provides a snapshot of three hours out of one day of the academic year. Then we take those test scores and base everything on them: a teacher’s pay, a school’s ranking, a child’s placement in future classes. Plus, the time spent testing — and practice testing — could be spent in teaching more material. I was there for 12 hours of proctoring. Those 12 hours could have been used for — gasp — teaching.

In the United States, we test our kids all year long, sitting in unnatural silence and high stress. Kids spend less and less time outside. At my son’s school, you “earn” recess once a week if you have no behavior infractions and if you don’t need extra help in a subject. If I had to sit there all those hours, my bottom would be numb. So would my brain.

After I got home, I started investigating other countries’ testing processes. In Finland, there is no testing until the very last year of school, when they are 17 or 18. Also, Finnish kids spend 30 minutes inside and then move outside for 15 minutes, no matter the weather. All of that time is spent in instruction. I can see where wiggly — and sedentary — kids would benefit from more physical activity. Their kids master more material, too. Coincidence? I think not. Finland has a lot to teach us. Let’s ditch the test.

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