Care and Feeding

My Child’s School Has the Most Absurd Testing Policy

Collage of a middle school boy taking a standardized test with an answer bubble sheet in the background
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Goldfaery/iStock/Getty Images Plus and Radila Radilova/Getty Images Plus.

Care and Feeding is Slate’s parenting advice column. In addition to our traditional advice, every Thursday we feature an assortment of teachers from across the country answering your education questions. Have a question for our teachers? Email askateacher@slate.com or post it in the Slate Parenting Facebook group.

My children’s school has quarterly countywide assessment tests to track their progress. These tests are used for class placement, as well as consideration in advanced coursework, and students know that they measure more than, say, a weekly algebra or Spanish test. The test is taken electronically, and students always receive their score upon completion of the test. I find this practice very wrong, since all it results in is children comparing their test scores to one another.

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Recently, our middle school took this process even farther, however, by sending students via email the same notice that was sent to parents, which outlined students’ scores as compared to others. Students saw whether they fall in the “high,” “middle,” or “low” range of test scores. What do you think of this practice? And if you agree that it’s as bad as I do, how do you suggest I address it with the administration, without seeming very adversarial? If you think this is OK, I’d love to hear why.

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—Testing Troubles

Dear Testing Troubles,

Oof. Yeah, this is a terrible practice.

Imagine your kid’s doctor measured their height and weight quarterly, told them their body mass index, and showed them where they land on the curve. You’d find a new pediatrician because you know that, first of all, BMI doesn’t take into account fat mass, muscle mass, genetics, blood pressure, mental health, or any other health markers. BMI cannot predict how often a person exercises, nor how many vegetables they eat. Second of all, how does this practice help your kid?

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Never in my 20 years in the classroom has this ranking approach helped kids in any way. Indeed, it has harmed some students. Kids who work really hard and still end up low will throw up their hands and ask, “Why bother?” And those who score high—what do they gain? They’re already in advanced classes.

I’d definitely ask the administration. (And this is one time I’d skip talking to the teacher because the teachers are, or at least should be, against this policy.) My question to the administration would be this: What purpose does giving kids this one particular measure serve? How does it help the students? Does it tell them how to improve? Does it provide resources to fill any content or skill gaps they have?

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You asked how to address this issue without seeming adversarial. Maybe I’m the wrong person to ask because just thinking about it has me taking my gloves off. But I guess, as calmly as you can, ask those questions, and explain your concerns. If no change is made, recruit other parents to inquire as well. If the administration says it is a district policy, take it up the ladder.

Go make good trouble.

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—Ms. Scott (high school teacher, North Carolina)

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My daughter just started kindergarten this year after being in full-time day care/preschool since infancy. It has been over a month, and nearly every single day she has a pee (or even, sometimes, poop) accident during the aftercare program. She’s never done this before!

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It seems to be that she’s scared to use the bathrooms at the school because they’re too loud. We’ve tried everything we can think of—a reward chart with short-term and longer-term rewards, having a teacher flush for her, talking to her about the importance of using the bathroom regularly. The teachers take her in regularly and have her sit, but nothing happens—she just tries to hold it until she can’t anymore. We’ve had her checked out by her pediatrician—they don’t find any signs of constipation or other physical problems. She doesn’t want to bring headphones to wear over her ears because she would feel embarrassed. We are at our wits’ end.

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Is this normal? Will she still be wetting herself in high school? Help!

—Accidental Nerves

Dear Accidental Nerves,

No, she will definitely not be wetting herself in high school. Fear not. This too shall pass. The advice I always offer parents is this: Whatever your child is doing to make you crazy will end. Sadly, it will be replaced by an equally infuriating behavior.

Although wetting herself on a daily basis isn’t typical for your daughter, my wife, a kindergarten teacher, said she has seen kids go through phases where they wet themselves daily.

Three thoughts:

Make sure that the very last thing she does before leaving her regular education classroom is use the bathroom.

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If headphones can solve the problem, is there some way to discreetly hand her the headphones after she is in the stall? The small effort this may require is certainly easier than helping a child change her pants and underwear.

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Is there a different bathroom in the building that she could use? I’ve had students who need a more private restroom for a variety of reasons, so the restroom in the nurse’s office or even a single-use adult restroom has been made available to them. Might this be possible?

My wife finds that kindergartners aren’t as embarrassed about wetting themselves as you might think, so when the embarrassment of having an accident overtakes the embarrassment of headphones or the challenge of loud sounds, this will likely solve the problem, too.

Best of luck.

—Mr. Dicks (fifth grade teacher, Connecticut)

I’m a teacher. This is my 15th year in the classroom. Though my school ended the 2019–20 school year remotely, I taught in person throughout 2020–21, and I am still doing so. I’m exhausted. I’m jealous of my friends who worked from home throughout the pandemic. I feel like the administration just asks more and more of the teachers, with less and less time during the day to plan and grade, and it’s becoming impossible to do my job well and also live a fully human life. The kids are sweet, and they’re all doing their best! It’s the systems in place around all of us that are failing.

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For financial reasons, I will probably finish out this school year. But I’m getting older, and my physical and mental health need to be a bigger priority in my own life. I don’t think I can keep teaching and be happy.

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That said, teaching has been my only adult job. I have a master’s degree in education and another in English. What other jobs am I qualified to do? I’d be happy to work on textbooks or curriculum materials. I’d be happy to be a secretary! But I feel like I don’t know how to apply for those types of jobs, or how to spin my teaching experience in a positive way. What is your advice for jobs I might apply for, and ways to go about making myself look suited to them?

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—Exit Plan Required

Dear Exit Plan Required,

I know exactly how you feel. So much so that I myself have transitioned out of the classroom after nine years in. All the factors you point to—the endless tide of tasks piled atop a mountain of planning and grading and then, oh yeah, the actual instruction of students, the sinking realization that it is not humanly possible to complete it all (let alone well, or within contract hours), the struggle to feel both successful and happy, the exhaustion and defeat—those were my signs it was time to go too. And I also still loved my students and my subject area! The thought that kept nagging at me was that teaching was satisfying and fulfilling and deeply rewarding, but that being a teacher … really kind of sucked a lot of the time. And so I too required an exit plan.

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When I was seeking a new job, I worried that I might be pigeonholed after many years in the classroom, or that potential employers wouldn’t recognize how my teaching experience could be valuable in a different setting. I also felt really guilty! The noble sacrifice narrative is strong, and it got in my head. But the good news is there are lots of education-adjacent paths and fields, populated by plenty of people who have also wanted to remain in the field but not in the classroom, and they will not be looking at you askance or demanding your repentance for wanting a new job. As best as you can, try to go forward unapologetically, with confidence in what you have to offer.

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As far as what other jobs you might do, I would start with this: What do you love the most about being a teacher? We both know that the title encompasses a hundred different facets of work; which are the ones that have kept you invested for the last 15 years? Do you enjoy curriculum development? Mentoring newer teachers? Exploring new technologies and modes of delivery? Is it really important that you remain actively working with students, teachers, or schools, or are you open to a more back-end role in program or product management? At first, take a position of curiosity and exploration; see what’s out there. Take a look on sites like Indeed or Idealist; use different combinations of search terms and see what Google turns up. Browse for organizations that do interesting work and check out not just their careers page, but their staff page—it helps to wrap your head around positions that exist, even if they aren’t currently available. I would also think about your logistical and financial needs. You will definitely encounter a lot of listings for part-time, contract, or freelance opportunities; are you in a position to consider those?

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Once you start to get a sense of the types of roles you’d most like to apply for, start tailoring your résumé to highlight your most transferable skills. When I was in the trenches of job hunting, I had five different versions of my résumé going: the curriculum development résumé that highlighted units I’d written and assessments I’d designed; the student support résumé playing up my adviser role and clubs I’d supervised; the program management résumé, which focused on committee participation, teams I’d led, meetings I’d facilitated, and so on. Highlight those relevant skills in your cover letters too, linking specifics of the job description to related experiences of your own. If you get to the interview stage, be ready to explain your pivot in honest but optimistic terms, and do your homework about the organization, the role, and how you’re prepared to transition. (Do your homework and prepare yourself well for interviews in general, anyway. Looking up past interviewee experiences on Glassdoor is super helpful!)

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Apply to a lot of jobs. Take a chance on some big swings; the worst they can do is say no. Keep a thick skin and keep trying. Good luck, and just wait until your first day of being able to go to the bathroom whenever you feel like it. You’re going to absolutely love it!

—Ms. Bauer (middle and high school teacher, New York)

I recently got an email from my son Dylan’s kindergarten teacher who stated that the first few weeks of school were great, but following a weeklong absence from illness (the standard back-to-school cold) he was having issues listening, even in small groups. A more recent email echoed that these issues were continuing. She asked for any insight from home. I explained that Dylan had been in the same day care/preschool from infancy through pre-K, and that he shared an amazingly strong bond with his teacher Emma. He adored Emma and said many times in the last year he wasn’t going to kindergarten, he only wants his preschool and Emma. My husband and I were prepared for a very rocky transition. We were amazed when the first few weeks went so well! What’s happening now is more on par with what we were expecting.

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Dylan is very sweet and funny, but he doesn’t listen or sit still well and never has. He is at times impulsive and requires very frequent redirection. He is also extremely stubborn and is not easily talked into anything he doesn’t want to do (most especially schoolwork). I had many worries that he was either not ready for kindergarten (he turns 6 in the spring, so he is not young for the grade) or will be an ADHD child. I conveyed all this to his (very experienced) teacher. I stated I would trust her judgment and many years of experience, but was not thrilled at the notion of having him evaluated and potentially labeled this early on in the game. On top of all that, we are in a private Christian school, and getting services might require switching to public school (our public school system is fantastic, so switching would not be the end of the world).

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I have had a heart-to-heart with Dylan, and he plainly states he does not want to learn to read, write, or learn math. He especially hates sitting at a desk all day doing schoolwork. I’m torn between starting evaluations for potential services (which certainly seems to be what his teacher is hinting at) or trying to support my son in the middle of a tough transition. I don’t want him to be prematurely labeled, but I also don’t want him to miss out on services he may need. I’m hoping your insight will help me decide what may be best for my boy.

—Wait It Out?

Dear Wait It Out,

I would recommend having your son evaluated. The more information you and his teachers have, the better. Here’s the important thing to remember about this process: You will be the most important member of the team. If the team makes a recommendation after they complete the testing, it will be exactly that: a recommendation. You will have the choice to accept the determination and the recommended modifications and strategies to be used going forward to meet your son’s needs. You can reject them completely. As the parent, you have final say.

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I’ll also add that the “labeling” of a student—in the eyes of teachers—is simply the indication of strategies that will be required in order to meet the student’s needs and oftentimes results in a greater degree of understanding for atypical behaviors.

When my daughter was diagnosed with autism and ADHD, for example, it changed the way teachers viewed her in a very positive way. When her focus waned or she became fixated on a single topic, it was no longer viewed as a choice that she was making but a unique characteristic of her learning profile that demanded specialized attention. It was a more empathetic approach to instruction knowing that she learned differently and had little choice in the matter, and it also expanded her team of educators considerably, which has been a blessing.

I wish you the best of luck. Also remember that your son is in kindergarten, so lots and lots of changes are ahead. The little boy he is now is not going to be the same young man he will be in a few years. He has lots of time to grow.

—Mr. Dicks (fifth grade teacher)

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