State’s Stereotype Stunts Students

September 18th, 2013 | Categories: Uncategorized

Guest Blogger Moira LaBarbera

Last month the New York State Department of Education released the state standardized test scores for children in grades 3 through 8.  The state informed the public that 70% of the students who took those tests were failures.

As a parent of two children who took those tests, I had a visceral reaction to this announcement, even before knowing (and still not knowing) how my own children did on the tests.  In my mind, the state, the commissioner of education, and every other politician sitting up in Albany making hundreds of thousands of dollars every year, had no right to label my kid a failure.  So I called for the termination of John King, a politician with no educational background who sends his own kids to private school.  I wrote letters to the governor, and various representatives demanding that they abandon the educational road this state has embarked upon, asking that they hold hearings to determine whether the numbers had been tampered with and whether the tests were fair.  I joined Facebook groups railing against the tests, and read every article I could find denouncing the results, obsessing over how incompetent our state department of education has become.  In short, I quickly turned from rational attorney to a mother bear defending her cubs, lashing out at all who were responsible for harming my children.

Now that I have had a moment to calm down, I had to ask myself why I was so upset.  I mean, the results are ludicrous, right?  How is it possible that 30% of the students that took it failed?

And besides, it’s not like the results were unexpected.  The day before a single student sat down and started filling in their name on these tests, the New York State Department of Education predicted that the results would plummet this year.  So either the department is filled with psychics or they manipulated the results to make them like one.

Further, when the testing was happening in the Spring I told my children that the tests were meaningless, that they were not a true gauge of their abilities or knowledge, and that they meant absolutely nothing to me or their father.  And I truly meant it.  I already knew that my children were smart.  They also happen to be creative, witty, hardworking, strong, generous, tenacious and a million other things that were not going to be considered on those exams.  I did not need a test to tell me whether my children were succeeding.  I had so many other standards that assured me that they were.  So why was I so upset now that they had told me that 70% of the children in New York State were failures?

I realized it was because the state just stereotyped my kids as failures.  And the consequences of such an announcement are far more reaching than just the result of a silly test.

As parents we are trying to raise confident children who are able to face and overcome difficulties.  We want them to turn into adults who are able to problem solve and become assets in a society that we know is going to face more challenges than we have today.  We know that these skills provide the basis for any human being to succeed, no matter what career they find themselves in.  For many of us, this was the reason we allowed our children to take the standardized tests in the first place.  We were pulled between knowing the tests were not a realistic gauge of our children’s abilities, but at the same time, not wanting to give our children the impression that we didn’t want them to take the test because we, their parents, didn’t believe they would pass.   So we allowed them to sit for the exams alongside their classmates so that they knew that we believed in them, so that they would believe in themselves.

You don’t need to be an expert to know that if a child is labeled as one thing or another often enough, eventually he or she will start to believe it.  New York State labeling our children as failures hijacks our basic rights as parents to make choices about how we want our children to perceive themselves.  Calling our children failures poses the potential of becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy.  Eventually they will believe that they are failures and start acting like failures in other aspects of their lives.

New York State just labeled seventy percent of the children in this generation are failures. The politicians can even predict, down to the percentage, how many children are failures.  They expect you to fail.  And fail you will.  The same will ultimately be true of our teachers.  The state is insisting on publicly shaming them, telling the world that they have failed the children and therefore their jobs and careers should be impacted because of it.  The state is using the results of biased tests as a factor in the teachers’ evaluations.  So if seventy percent of the children are failures, then it goes to say that a majority of the teachers in New York State are also failures.  How long before the teachers throw up their hands and say why bother teaching when the standard by which I am measured is so arbitrary that it cannot possibly be met or sustained in any meaningful way?  Test preparation is no doubt easier than the true mind molding that we used to expect of our teachers.  If the standard they are held to is one of test preparation, when will they decide that it is not worth the effort of actually teaching and encouraging students to learn and excel.  They will all become test prep experts, resorting to teaching students how to answer questions on a test they will never pass.

The state is teaching our children a very dangerous lesson.  It is not only telling our kids they are failures.  It is also telling them that it is okay to label and call names.  Failure, stupid, loser.  These words hit hard.  Some will crawl into a ball and internalize such names. Others will lash out, calling others worse names to make themselves feel better.  The state has become a bully.  It is creating an army of bullies.

The worst part of this entire discussion is that these children are truly not failures, no matter what their scores on the state tests.  We all know that the state is manipulating the pass/fail rates after the grading has been completed, changing the score needed to pass from one year until the next.  We all know that these tests are not truly a measure of our children’s abilities.  We all know that the format and content of the exams are changed from one year to another so that no student can ever be truly prepared for them. We all know that the standards being pushed on these tests have nothing to do with education and everything to do with the bottom lines of corporations and the private interests of politicians.

But regardless of how meaningless we know these test are, it does not change the fact that by calling our children failures the state is very likely going to turn many of them into failures.  The state is telling them that no matter how hard they work, they are still going to fail.  What is that going to mean to the next generation of adults?  Will the constant fear of failure prevent our children from ever taking on the big issues affecting our world? Their experience is going to tell them that no matter what they do, they are going to fail, so why bother.

All of this name calling belies the question of why the politicians would be scapegoating the kids, the teachers and the school system in general.  Could it be that the President and his private school educated advisers are looking for someone to blame every time a national school system ranking is issued and the United States falls consistently somewhere around average?  Or maybe it is actually greedy corporations telling the United States that they are average so that U.S. schools will hire them to increase their ranking? (Click here for an article about Pearson, a company making billions off of the common core curriculum and new testing mandates, issuing a report denoting that the United States is average). Could it be that these same people have failed time and time again to resolve the poverty issue, which is really at the heart of the educational disparities in this country? Maybe it is because New York State has a Governor who is striving for the Presidency in 2016 and needs to show how all the kids in New York were failures until he stepped in and improved the educational system in New York (no doubt the cut off rates for passing will be lowered next year to ensure that progress is shown and that more children will pass).  Or maybe we just have an incompetent commissioner of education with a limited teaching experience who truly does not have the experience and compassion to understand the harm he is causing (or – more likely – he wants to be appointed as the United States Secretary of Education under his good friend Andrew Cuomo if and when he is ever elected).

Whatever the motivations, it is now up to us as parents to combat the inevitable negative impacts of the state testing.  We are going to be forced to undo all the harm that the state’s stereotyping of our kids has done.  It is up to us to reinforce confidence in our children, to make sure that they know that they are not failures; that they are succeeding in every way that counts.  I know that I for one will not be allowing my children to be called a failure by our state again.  Regardless of how my children performed on these exams, they will no longer be participating in the New York State’s testing regime.  I hope many of you will join me in refusing to allow your children to take these exams and sending a message to the state that it has no right to stereotype our children as anything other than the bright, creative, hardworking human beings that they are.


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