Thoughts on standardized testing

Jonathan just turned three, and with his birthday came his three-year-old "well child check-up" with the doctor. About five or ten minutes before the doctor came in, I was given an "Ages and Stages Questionnaire: A Parent-Completed, Child-Monitoring System." I always find these interesting. They’re like little attention-getters, saying: "Hey, at this age your child might be doing ______." I’ve actually learned that Jonathan can do some things—and do them very well—from these questionnaires. Things I never even noticed. Like walking "up stairs, using only one foot on each stair." I knew he could do stairs well, but I never noticed how he did them, before! (I have to admit, I’m not always an observant mother.)


So I filled out this questionnaire. Some things I couldn’t test because, well, I was only given the form a few minutes before I was supposed to have it all filled out (the doctor said they’re working on a way to get it to the parents earlier). One of the questions was "Does your child try to cut paper with child-safe scissors?" (to make sure a child can open and close and hold scissors). Umm . . . I actually have NEVER given Jonathan scissors. It just never crossed my mind. And since there were no "child-safe" scissors in the office, I just put "not yet." But that’s OK. This questionnaire isn’t dreadfully important—it just gives us an idea on how he compares to other children. :)

I’m not at all concerned about Jonathan’s development. He is a SMART little boy. Not the smartest, and not the first to learn everything, but still quite smart. And his body seems to work just fine.

But, what I didn’t realize, was that these questionnaires are "graded." Not given a letter grade or anything, but they are scored and then compared to shaded boxes which have a cut-off line between "normal" and "below normal."

The doctor walked in with the "graded" paper.

"So, I see we have a few concerns with his fine motor skills and problem solving."

"No, not really."

Half smile (maybe thinking "I understand" or maybe thinking "Another one of these parents). "Well, just keep an eye on him and if he doesn’t pick up these skills in a few months, make sure to call a developmental therapist so he doesn’t get behind."

Suddenly my mind flashed back to an article I read about problems in diagnosing early childhood problems. Though there is a problem with doctors not being able to pick up on early warning signs, those doctors who do often face parents who are unwilling to accept the fact that their child has a problem. I did a quick self-check: "Am I one of those parents?"

Maybe I am. But I don’t think so. Why is Jonathan "below normal"? In Fine Motor Skills, it’s because he doesn’t yet draw a circle, use scissors, or hold a pencil like an adult does. Perhaps that’s my fault—honestly, I’ve put much more of a focus on reading and have kind of forgotten to encourage "writing." I need to remember to fix that.

In Problem Solving, it’s because he labeled a half-drawn "person" as a possible dinosaur (I was to ask, "What is this?" He looked and said, "Is it a dinosaur?"—and I realized that it could appear that way), and he didn’t copy me by lining up four objects or stacking them in a design. Frankly, I had to scrounge for objects to use for this test, and he ended up more interested in studying these weird, plastic-encased "specimen collection cups" or in knocking down any designs I made than in copying me. I honestly don’t know if he would do these things at home—I’ve never tried testing him—but he surely wasn’t in the mood to do them here.

For me, these skills that he didn’t have are things to work on (well, the fine motor at least—I’m still not quite sure what the "line up four objects" thing was supposed to be testing, especially since I wasn’t supposed to tell him specifically to copy me). But I’m not concerned about anything he can’t quite do yet.

This got me thinking about standardized testing in general, and I realized that "standardized testing" actually has a lot of variability in it. How much is a test swayed by the person who is giving it? For example, I’m not very observant, but Bryan is and probably could have remembered Jonathan doing things at home. How much is an IQ or development question simply based on experience? Like the fact that Jonathan has never been given scissors to use or a trike to ride (another question). How many of the questions stem more from what our culture regards as "right" than on real, proper development?

Another example: The last question in the Communication category asked, "When you ask, ‘What is your name?’ does your child say both her first and last names?" Sometimes Jonathan does, and sometimes he just says his first name. But if you ask him, "What is your full name?" or "What is your last name?", he will answer. Or at least he can. (Sometimes he first gives his pat answer, "I don’t know" and I have to just sit and wait for him to give the real answer. I know he does "know the answer," so I know to wait—but someone else administering the test wouldn’t know to do that.)

And I remember my brother, Golden, "failed" his IQ test. When my mom pressed the psychiatrist as to why, he finally gave the example: "Well, I asked him what a cow was and he just looked at me and said, ‘A cow.’" The test required a description. Mom then went home and asked Golden the same question, and got the same response (with a giggle). Then she said, "Golden, describe a cow." And the description flowed out.

Also, no test can measure a full person’s abilities. There will always be something left out. For instance, Jonathan can count. Not just name numbers in order, but associate the number with a concrete amount. He can’t go very high (things get hazy after 11) and he doesn’t always do it correctly (sometimes he gets excited and counts the same thing multiple times), but he usually does a pretty good job. But this skill simply wasn’t on the questionnaire.

I’ve never had a problem with standardized tests. Personally, I’ve always done well on them—I’m good at taking tests, at giving the answer that the test is looking for. But now, as a mom, I have realized that my children will grow up in a world obsessed with testing—even more than when I was young. In too many cases, testing has morphed from being a tool (and it is a useful one, when interpreted properly!) to being an end, a goal. And this is a problem if we want to raise children who can do more than parrot and see more than the obvious. Are the tests made for the children, or are we supposed to be "making" the children for the tests?

I’m not going to boycott standardized testing. It has a place, and can provide important insights and guidance. And, as much as the ideal sounds appealing, I’m probably not going to home-school my children—I don’t think I have the patience I’d need! But I do know that this is an issue I need to face. And hopefully, in time, I’ll know what—if anything—I should do about it, other than not worry because my child can’t "perform" properly on every test. But in the meantime, I’ll just try to remember to give him a paper and pencil more often.

One Response to “Thoughts on standardized testing”

  1. Oh, for goodness sake! Who made up THAT test? It is good to test a child’s development, but don’t take it too seriously. All our children are individuals and develop individually! For example, Payton has only fair eye-hand coordination, but is an amazing reader at the age of 7, and an outstanding gymnast. As far as the scissors thing, it is a little early but not too early to start giving him the idea. Have him cut a newspaper etc. without trying to cut a specific object. And writing? Give him the opportunity but no pressure. Since when is the medical community the expert in child development? They see a child for 15 minutes and expect to evaluate them? Of course, once you get a medical degree, you are an expert in everything! Not!

Leave a Reply