“It is easier to build strong children than to repair broken men.”
Government and business leaders profess that today’s education policies will provide students with “21st-century skills.” If only these leaders had the 19th-century wisdom of Frederick Douglass, they would see that the education “reform” they are imposing has created a school environment that is devastating to our children’s development and mental health.
Our most vulnerable children often suffer “toxic stress:” prolonged activation of the body’s stress response system brought on by chronic traumatic experiences. Toxic stress disrupts the development of the areas of the brain associated with learning and can have lifelong consequences.
The effects of toxic stress must be mitigated, according to the American Association of Pediatrics. To do so, adults must reduce children’s exposure to continuously stressful situations.
It is imperative, therefore, that we make school a supportive environment free of the extreme stress that can harm healthy development. Some stress is productive and promotes growth. However, especially for children living in poverty, creating an unnecessarily stressful environment has long-term damaging effects.
Unfortunately, many public schools are generating, rather than reducing, anxiety. The explosion of almost continuous high-stakes standardized testing is a major factor.
This year, Pittsburgh students will take 270 tests; 33 just for fourth graders. Bridgeport’s testing schedule calls for six weeks of standardized district tests, a week of CMT science tests; then the final 12 weeks of school are set aside for the new Common Core standardized tests.
For children under 8, standardized testing is unreliable. Moreover, requiring young children to meet specific reading and mathematics goals ignores the fact that there is an acceptable range of ages for developing these skills. Child-development experts have decried the age-inappropriateness of the Common Core. In 2010, more than 500 people signed a statement stating that the “standards conflict with compelling new research in cognitive science, neuroscience, child development, and early childhood education about how young children learn, what they need to learn, and how best to teach them in kindergarten and the early grades.”
Dr. Samuel Meisels, director of the University of Nebraska‘s Buffett Early Childhood Institute, agrees that a school culture focused on high-stakes tests is exactly the type of environment that we should avoid for children who experience toxic stress. Dr. Marcy Guddemi, head of the Gesell Institute of Child Development maintains that for children under 8, current policies combining an age-inappropriate curriculum with standardized testing are nothing short of child abuse.
For older children, the overuse of high-stakes testing is just as useless and damaging. Children who pass state standardized tests one year are overwhelmingly likely to pass them the next. Thus, yearly testing is unnecessary to gauge a child’s progress. Moreover, according to the venerable National Research Council, high-stakes standardized tests themselves are of little educational value.
High-stakes tests impair a student’s brain function and mental health. Cornell University researchers found that the stress associated with high-stakes standardized tests disrupts the function of the brain’s prefrontal cortex, affecting memory and attention skills.
Photo by AP photo/Jeremy Waltner
Psychologists recognize that a focus on intrinsic rewards results in reduced anxiety and better life outcomes. However, as Boston College psychology professor Peter Gray has observed, “our system of constant testing and evaluation in school — which becomes increasingly intense with every passing year– … very clearly substitutes extrinsic rewards and goals for intrinsic ones. (It) is almost designed to produce anxiety and depression.” Indeed, the National Institute of Health finds that childhood anxiety is on the rise and is now the most prevalent psychological disorder in children and adolescents.
Mental health professionals report an alarming rise in anxiety-related symptoms, including self-mutilation, coinciding with New York’s Common Core implementation.
While the brunt of the psychic damage of high-stakes testing falls on children, the true targets of these so-called “student-centered” policies are adults. High-stakes tests are the means to fire teachers and close schools. Children are merely tools to achieve political goals unrelated to their education or development. Worse still, our children are being exploited for profit. The U.S. Department of Education hyped the Common Core as creating a “national market” for “educational entrepreneurs.”
And now, even our children’s anxiety is for sale. A Connecticut district recently received emails selling “Your Child And Standardized Tests — Grades 3-5; A Parent’s Handbook;” promising to help parents reduce a young child’s test anxiety. What kind of society are we, that rather than remove the known source of harm to children, we instead allow it to become a marketing ploy?
Wendy Lecker is a columnist for Hearst Connecticut Media Group and is senior attorney for the Campaign for Fiscal Equity project at the Education Law Center.