Mental health professionals learn to expect and recognize additions to the common words and phrases we hear. ‘Facebook Feud’ and ‘emotional affair’ have been added to the lexicon of couples and family therapy. When working with teens ‘cyber bullying’ and ‘sexting’ are sad additions to the counseling vocabulary. In substance abuse treatment we strive to keep up with the latest slang for the various drugs and their methods of use, from ‘huffing’ to ‘spice’ and ‘Special K’. Listening for repeated words and phrases tells us much about local and societal trends and where we need to focus our clinical attention.
I am stunned and saddened, therefore, by how often my colleagues and I are hearing ‘Standardized Testing’ coming from the mouths of anxious children. Whether the anxiety initiates within the student or is picked up vicariously from school personnel doesn’t matter – the distress makes a comfortable home within the brains and bellies of children and stays there.
Students tell me stories of how standardized testing is discussed on the first day of school, and that ‘intervention’ periods are hijacked for endless practice tests. Children hear their favorite teachers talking in the hallway – or even at the front of the class – about how their jobs are on the line and it is understood – covertly or overtly – that the kids must save the adults.
Rumors get started, and are not corrected, that 50% of a child’s grade is based on testing results and that ever-dreaded summer school could be in the child’s future if they don’t score well. Kids hear the urgent message on the home answering machine telling parents to insure their child gets plenty of sleep and a well-balanced breakfast before testing days – as if sleep and good nutrition are not important on learning days – and as if we aren’t fully aware that these messages paradoxically result in difficulty eating and sleeping. Children know that the stakes are high, and they feel the burden of the American educational system on their shoulders.
Whether standardized testing improves education, or whether it is an adequate assessment of teacher effectiveness or what a child actually knows, are arguments I will leave to others. My concern is that I should not be hearing about the ‘OAAs’ within the walls of my Ohio counseling office. I and countless colleagues beseech educational policy-makers to find other ways to accomplish whatever it is that the high number of standardized tests are meant to accomplish. Children already have enough reasons for stress, anxiety and depression.