My daughter started writing books in first grade, was a better writer than me by third grade, and now here she is in fifth grade, afraid of a standardized writing test.
This is like Einstein being afraid of Algebra 1.
Adult angst over testing has filtered down to the kids. So over our traditional pre-test breakfast of Reese’s Waffles, which has produced stellar test scores in our house for years (recipe below), I dial back the pressure.
“Do your best,’’ I tell her. “Don’t rush through it. And no matter how you do, I’ll continue feeding and housing you until the age of 18.’’
She smiles, leaves her dirty dishes on the table despite all training to the contrary, packs her backpack, grabs her Razor scooter and heads off on her commute to school. That evening, I ask about the test.
“It was,’’ she says and then pauses, “kind of fun.’’
Fun? How could this be?
She then tells me the writing assignment, which I am not allowed to divulge. To be as unspecific as possible, it involved reading an essay on a particular piece of folklore and then determining whether there was any historical basis for it based on the evidence presented.
My daughter, a natural litigator on issues ranging from doing homework to practicing the piano, enjoyed arguing her case.
This test is something new, reflecting the transition of Florida schools to the more rigorous Florida Standards. In the past, the test simply had a prompt along the lines of: We all enjoy summer vacation. Describe your best vacation and what made it so special.
With the new test, students have to digest information, compare countering arguments, pick a side and explain the logic behind their choice using material from the essay.
I talked to a language arts teacher, who likes the new format. She said what concerned her about the old prompts was that not all kids shared the same life experiences. One child may have gone to Disney World for summer vacation, a second to Walley World and a third may not have left the neighborhood. That obviously could affect their responses.
The new test creates a level playing field because all kids start with the same knowledge. Instead of regurgitating information or relying on memories, students must analyze information. And then they have to explain that analysis. This turns a test that was based largely on formulaic writing into a test that is largely based on critical thinking skills.
And those are the skills teachers now are learning how to teach. There certainly is a learning curve for all involved, and the transition will not come without hiccoughs. But it is a transition that must be made, particularly for kids not blessed with the advantage of being raised in Lake Wobegon. For them, the classroom is the only enrichment in their lives.
These kids must develop the same ability to think critically and solve problems as my daughter. Those are the skills necessary for success in college or any skills-based job.
The upcoming reading and math tests likewise will involve more critical thinking. We are moving kids beyond just giving answers to explaining answers. That certainly won’t be an easy transition, but it most assuredly is a necessary one.
My advice to parents is this. Don’t impart any testing anxiety you may have on your kids. Encourage them to try their best, with no pressure on outcome. And try the Reese’s Waffles.
(Recipe: Mix one cup each of pastry whole wheat flour and white whole wheat flour with a half-teaspoon of baking soda and whatever salt and sugar you want to add to your kids’ diet. Then whip together two cups of buttermilk, two eggs and a quarter cup of canola oil. Gently mix wet and dry ingredients and add to one hot waffle iron. Open the iron when done and insert a chocolate chip in each pocket. Remove waffle when chips soften. Cover with natural peanut butter that has been warmed in microwave.)
About the author
Mike Thomas @MikeThomasTweet
Mike Thomas serves in the communications department, writing editorials and speeches. Prior to joining the Foundation, Mike worked for more than 30 years as a journalist with Florida Today and the Orlando Sentinel. He has written investigative projects, magazine feature stories, humor pieces, editorials and local columns. He won several state and national awards, and was named a finalist in the American Society of New Editors’ Distinguished Writing Award for Commentary/Column Writing in 2010. As a columnist for the Orlando Sentinel, he wrote extensively about education reform, becoming one of its chief advocates in the Florida media. Mike graduated from the University of Florida with degrees in political science and journalism. His wife is a teacher and he has two children in public schools. Contact Mike at Mike@excelined.org