I think we can all agree that parents and teachers have always told kids that they can be anything they want to be. I know when I was in preschool, according to a home video, I wanted to be (and I quote) a “ballerina princess who helps sick puppies.” (Adorable, I know.) And guess what? Everyone told me that was wonderful and I could do it. But that is the last time I heard those words.
My life has been a series of highly fortunate events. I have always lived in a nice neighborhood with a solid school system, been given access to every resource I needed to get into college and been lucky enough to have parents who can afford to send me to a university.
But this post isn't about how great my resources have been. It isn’t about how wonderful many of my teachers have been, (because, don't get me wrong, I have had many amazing teachers). And it isn't about how my high school doesn't try to help their students succeed, because it does.
It’s about how the public school system failed me and fails every child who walks through the doors.
I feel lucky to have made it out alive.
The earliest I can remember feeling less smart than everyone else was in second grade. There were two reading groups, and it was clear which was the more advanced group. They were the smart kids; there was no hiding it. And do you know how the teacher choose those groups? Test scores.
Second grade, and I already felt like I wasn't able to be the smart kid. I had barley even started school; I didn't even have the chance to believe in myself.
When I was in 7th grade, a test score labeled me again, but this time the consequences were more severe. This score said I couldn't read well and I couldn't write. It was a score that told everyone I couldn't handle an honors English course, an AP English course; it was a score that didn't allow me access to those classes even after I begged my teachers to let me try.
By age 13, I was told by my school in black and white that I couldn’t handle an honors course.The test defined me, regardless of what teachers saw in class, or read from my papers. Regardless of what I wanted to work hard at, I was told no.
Standardized tests have been given to students all across the United States for decades. It’s understandable that these tests are the “easiest” way to assess a large number of students in the most efficient way possible, but that isn't doing students justice. Do we really want labeling a child’s ability to learn to be easy?
My parents are both public school teachers, and I can’t tell you the amount of respect I have for teachers. It is a job for very special people, for people with a kind heart and a calling. It’s unfortunate teachers can’t choose how their students should learn.
Teachers have to teach for a test. They don’t have an option. Teachers are victims of standardized testing as well. Their ability to teach is defined by how well their students do on these tests. Every day they teach their students how to pass an exam that will define them both.
Never once in school was I taught how to balance a checkbook, negotiate how to buy a car, or how to take out a loan. You know, things that aren't on standardized tests but are very useful in life?
And guess what? The job I will have probably doesn't even exist yet. And I can sure as heck tell you that jobs for the generation below me definitely don’t exist. So what are these tests even teaching?
When are we going to be able to redefine the system?
I wish I could tell the millions of kids who are bad at test taking, who might think a little outside the box, that they are smart. The same kids who can’t focus for five hours on one test because they are in 4th grade, and thinking about their kickball game after school.
A test I took in 4th and 5th grade determined the path I would be on for the rest of my life in the public school system. Once you’re placed on the lower track, there is really no way of catching up.
And that is the worst thing schools can do for any child; take away their confidence, make them feel like they aren't smart. Standardized testing is one of the worst things to ever happen America, the worst thing to happen to kids who are eager to learn and to succeed.
From the day I was told I couldn't be in “Honors English” as a 7th grader I thought I wasn't smart. My confidence went down and I started answering fewer questions in class. My test anxiety got so bad that I was failing tests that I knew every answer to.
I’m one of the rare lucky ones. My mom is a huge advocate in the school system for students with disabilities, and I didn't even have a disability! The tests were my disability. Anyway, long story short she got me into the honors course, but that didn’t give me my confidence back. It just made me feel like my mommy got me in, which is never really a good feeling.
However, it did give me the opportunity to prove myself. From 7th grade onward I would never again take a standard-level English course. Regardless of if I had to work harder, bring 20 drafts to my teachers or listen to a book on tape instead of reading the book, (because I couldn't understand Shakespearian language by reading it), I wasn’t going to let them win.
Now I’m in college and I’m an English/journalism major. That’s right, an ENGLISH MAJOR. Although I still struggle here and there (who doesn’t) my professors were introduced to me with a clean slate.
When I started college, for the first time since I was 13 years old, I felt smart. I felt like I was worthy of being in the classes I was taking and that I was worthy of getting an A.
So, instead of telling your children they can be anything they want to be, tell them to always remember that they define themselves.
Until the system gets changed, and for anyone who has a lost confidence in school, just remember that you hold the key to your own future. No test can tell you how far you can go in life.
Only you can do that.