The Standards Movement is Garbage
Schools Have No Business Giving Standardized Tests to Kindergartners
I’m starting nursing school in the fall of 2022, but in the meantime I’m working on completing a minor in psychology, which has been my favorite subject for as long as I can remember. To me, the way the human mind develops over the course of the lifespan is absolutely fascinating, and, although I don’t yet have my degree, from what I’ve learned so far about human development, I know that kindergartners are simply not developmentally ready for standardized testing. “But, Celia,” you might say, “everyone knows that about kindergartners.” Well, friend, that’s what I thought too, so you can imagine my shock when I learned that, until recently, and maybe even still, kindergarten students were, in fact, being evaluated via standardized testing. Clearly, the people in charge don’t care that “the results of a standardized test at the kindergarten level have only a 50-50 chance of being accurate,” as it seems that they just want to test the kids (Miller & Almon, 2009). However, I do not place the blame on the schools. Every teacher I’ve had the pleasure of knowing is, at best, dissatisfied with the current state of the education system. I believe the party at fault to be none other than the standards movement.
The movement began back in the 1950s, when the United States started to feel self conscious after the Soviet Union was able to launch the first satellite, Sputnik, into space before the U.S. could accomplish anything similar. The subsequent Napoleon complex launched the States into a frenzy of attempted curricular reform, a reform that was led not by psychologists and educators, but rather by politicians. Their first move was to create a new curriculum, but it turned out to be so difficult and poorly designed that it “sailed over children’s heads and was generally abandoned during the 1960s” (Crain, 2016). This was the first red flag that the focus was not on effectively educating children, but was instead on proving the United States’ superiority to the Soviet Union. Although that may not be the goal today, the standards movement still aims to rigorously assess students and standardize education overall, hence the name, standards movement.
The standards movement as it exists today is essentially built around the concept of standardized tests, which are tests that “inform federal, state, and municipal officials on how well students are meeting their goals and standards,” and, based on the scores of these tests, “officials reward some school districts and close down other districts” and even “determine if students can advance to the next school grade and graduate from high school” (Crain, 2016). However, the “goals and standards” mentioned don’t really involve making sure students have effectively learned the material and ensuring that each student has been adequately prepared for the next grade level. Instead, the goals “focus on preparation for college and the competitive workplace,” leaving little time for providing extra help to struggling students or for teaching important material that may not be included on the test (Crain, 2016). As a result, many students feel that they haven’t actually learned the material by the end of the year, and that they’ve spent most of the school year preparing for these exams. This is what students mean when they complain about teachers only “teaching to the test,” an issue that has been around since the conception of the standards movement. Additionally, this method not only puts students “under considerable stress,” but it also robs “them of the chance to develop the special strengths of their own phase of life” (Crain, 2016).
As someone who spent K-12 in the public school system during the era of the No Child Left Behind and Every Student Succeeds Acts, I will be the first to say that the standards movement has a huge negative impact on students. We started taking standardized tests in the 3rd grade, when students are around 8 or 9 years old. I remember sitting at my little desk while my teacher explained the review documents carefully placed under a clunky projector that would now be considered ancient. Looking back, we truly had no business being placed under such immense pressure to perform well on a test. At that age, children want to play, and play time is severely restricted when children are subject to hours upon hours of testing. As a result, “today’s children lack opportunities to develop their imaginations through make-believe play and to develop their conceptions of fairness through social games” (Crain, 2016). Children learn so much through play, and removing those opportunities is extremely harmful to both children’s education and development.
Unfortunately, though, this would continue throughout the rest of elementary school, only for a new standardized test to be introduced in middle school, this one including timed essays. The ridiculousness and underlying ableism surrounding timed essays is a topic for another day, but the anxiety I felt while being forced to crank out an A+ essay in under 45 minutes is something I will never forget. I also remember when the ESSA was passed in 2015 to replace NCLB, and when the tests were changed in 2016. The students didn’t like it and the teachers didn’t like it. No one liked it. The whole thing was moved online and it was a disaster, to say the least. Additionally, the “push for early academic achievement” does an excellent job at “crowding out the arts,” as these tests, which can be hours long and require a great deal of classroom preparation, create less and less time for the arts. This includes everything from music classes to theater to even just creative class projects. When the focus is put so heavily on academic achievement, the arts, which are crucial to children’s development, become less important, even irrelevant.
Yet, despite the demands for change from both students and teachers, the standards movement has persistently continued in stressing out children and making teachers hate their jobs. When I shadowed a teacher friend of mine for career day during my senior year of high school, she told me that if she had to go back and do it all again, she probably wouldn’t have become a teacher because it pains her so much to see her students struggle under the current education system. And she’s certainly not the only one who feels that way.
Overall, the standards movement can be detrimental to development. The movement’s call “to ‘raise the bar’ and pressure students to perform more challenging work” creates a requirement for greater external pressures, despite the proven fact that “it is far better to base education on intrinsic motivation” (Crain, 2016). Additionally, this extremely challenging work has the tendency to undermine children’s development of independence. Children are forced to seek outside help when struggling with assignments, causing them to learn to rely on outside authority instead of thinking for themselves to solve the problem.
Clearly, today’s school system and the movement that created it are in desperate need of reform. Testing itself is not inherently harmful, but we must consider if the tests and education style aligns with the child’s growth and development, and if the curriculum allows ample time for children to explore interests relevant to their phase of development. Children, by nature, love to learn, but the current setup of testing causes students to hate school and, in turn, learning. However, all hope is not lost, and there are things you can do to inspire change. Create and sign petitions, write to your local and state legislators as well as your representatives, or present your ideas to your school board. At the end of the day, it’s crucial that we demand our government acknowledge the facts and change the school system accordingly. Our decision makers can do better, and they must do better because our children deserve better.
Crain, W. C. (2016). Theories of development: Concepts and applications. Routledge, Taylor & Francis Group.
Miller, E., & Almon, J. (2009). Crisis in the Kindergarten: Why Children Need to Play in School. College Park, MD: Alliance for Childhood