There's an 8-year-old boy in Fayetteville who gets worried, anxious and even angry when it comes time for testing. A middle schooler in Vass combats headaches and sleeplessness the night before a test. A 10-year-old boy in Mebane worries that he won't move on to the next grade. These are some of the stories that we heard from WUNC listeners when we posed a simple challenge online: "Kids and Testing: Tell us Your Story."
Seamus is ten. He's in the fifth grade in Mebane and is a struggling reader. When he passed the third grade reading end-of-grade test (with a three out of four) the family celebrated. "We were actually shocked that he did that well," mom Billie Lanigan says. Seamus has struggled with reading since he was diagnosed as legally blind in the first grade.
With glasses and hard work, Seamus had been making progress. He did so well on the third-grade tests, the family was pretty sure that he'd do even better on the fourth-grade end-of-grade (EOG) exam. But Seamus received a one (out of four) on the reading portion.
"His reading had improved so much since third grade and finding out he got a one, not even a low two, was a horrible blow to his self esteem. His teachers insist he is on grade level, but the test tells him he's a failure," Billie says.
Billie Lanigan didn't tell her son how he'd done on the test, but he heard her venting her frustrations to a friend. So Billie had a frank conversation with Seamus. She told him that the year-end tests don't matter because they don't count toward his grades. Even so, her son is very worried. "He's afraid he won't go to middle school with his friends."
Billie also teaches middle school science. She's thought deeply about what to say to her students about testing. "I'm afraid I would get in trouble if I told them it didn't matter. But lately, I tell them it reflects more on me than it does on them. I tell them that it's more a measure of how well and how much I've taught them. I tell them to just do the best they can."
But with her own son, she's thinking radical thoughts. It's her understanding that in North Carolina, if a child misses the EOG test day, he would have to take the exam the next time that he's in school. But, if Seamus missed the exam, and then never came back to school for the rest of the year, could he still move to the next grade? She's exploring the issue, browsing material in an online anti-testing group, BAT (Bad Ass Teachers.)
Even as she explores opting out of the testing culture, Billie still wonders if her son could do better on last year's test. "I almost want him to [re-take the fourth-grade end-of-grade test] to prove he could do better, but it will enforce in his mind that he's not good enough."
Hannah Yoder is in middle school in Vass, NC. Her grandmother Patricia Komorowski wrote to tell us that the end-of-grade tests are felt throughout the household. Hannah gets headaches morning and night. She has trouble sleeping. She cries easily.
Hannah doesn't hide her concern. "She'll say, 'Grandmom, there's this test is coming up, I've got a headache, I can't take this'," says Patricia.
Hannah confirms her grandmother's account. She adds that in addition to the headaches and sleeplessness, she gets a stomachache in the morning on test day. Her concerns are particularly related to the end-of-grade tests. Hannah says that one of her friends got held back in third grade, and ever since, Hannah has been concerned that the same thing could happen to her.
"I asked the teachers about it, they said even if I had A's and B's and I don't do good on the end-of-grade test, they won't pass you," Hannah says.
Hannah has high hopes for herself. She dreams of being a veterinarian; she loves science. But she has a hard time with math. The school doesn't send home textbooks, so Hannah's mom Shannon pulls out the book she calls "Math for Dummies." "That's not really it's name, but I had [the book] left over from college when I took the lowest level math course, so I called it 'Math for Dummies.' I get that book out. I am so thankful that I didn't turn it in for money, it's the only way I can help her."
Grandma Patricia says everyone in the family tries to encourage Hannah. "Her mother, grandfather and myself have all tried talking to her to tell that all the test is doing is finding out how much she has learned during the year and that it doesn't affect her grades," but the headaches and sleeplessness continue.
When Hannah was younger, Patricia says, she wondered what all the fuss was about. "I looked at some of the questions on these tests, and I said 'Holy….!' This was in the third grade! I grew up in Pennsylvania and back then we didn't have tests like that."
Patricia Komorowski has determined that one thing she can do is be someone Hannah can talk to about her worries. She lives five miles away and sometimes when Hannah is over, Patricia tries to give some grandmother-ly advice, saying things like "Hannah, if Grandma got a 92 in math, she'd be doing cartwheels!" But nothing seems to help.
We asked Hannah recently, "If you could wave a magic wand and make something different what would you change?" Hannah did not say "Take away the tests." She suggests that students be evaluated by an end-of-grade test in conjunction with his/her class grades.
Kathy Pettiss is a longtime volunteer in classrooms. She's currently working four days a week at Glenwood Elementary in Chapel Hill.
"Even in first grade, the students I work with are very nervous about all the testing that is happening in school," Kathy says. "They tell me about older brothers and sisters crying or with stomach aches about school. They wonder if they will have to stay in first grade if they don't pass their tests. Apparently that is what they're hearing from older siblings."
"I find it stressful to see these children worried about tests and actually feeling ill with the stress," she says. Kathy asserts that in her time as a school volunteer, she has seen a huge change in the amount of tests the kids are taking. "Absolutely a change. There's too much testing now and kids think of school as test. They don't think of school as fun anymore."