What I Learned from the New York State Tests

test bubblesI am wary of anything that makes life easier for my kids. In my experience, good parenting often involves making their lives harder, from kale at dinner to daily piano practice, from thank-you-note revisions to “sorry, honey—God’s just pretend.”

So what if it’s hard? It’s good for them!

That’s one reason I took so long to decide about opting out of the standardized tests that dominated school for the last two weeks.

Could I really write a letter that said, “While other children struggle for hours with essay questions and bubble sheets, mine shall doodle merrily—oh, and no repercussions, please”? Even if I were certain that opting out was the right thing, it would feel . . . wrong.

A commentary in our local paper proclaims, “The opt-out movement is the latest manifestation of a culture of instant gratification.” Ouch. A Huffington Post piece asks, “What message are we sending to children of this generation if we insist that if something is ‘too hard,’ they can ‘opt out?’”  Oof. “No, tests are not fun,” opines a Washington Post contributor, “but they’re necessary.”

Last year, we told our kids to grin and bear it. Even if the tests were poorly written. Even if it seemed all the teachers we knew hated giving up teaching time for prep time, and forcing their students—no matter how disadvantaged—to take the tests. What could we do? We shrugged apologetically (life is hard) and told our kids, “Do your best.”

But the more we read, the more we suspected that the testing situation was such a mess we should do something. Something more than just attend a rally on the Plaza and vote for the Green Party candidate for governor (what was his name?) instead of Cuomo.

We finally decided to opt out for Jesse and not for Lena, splitting the difference between helping their teachers in one way (sitting out the tests in protest) and another (bolstering test results with our generally high-scoring kids). And, I suppose, splitting the difference between taking action and not taking action.

Still I hesitated to go even that far, in part because tests are hard for Jesse. He tends to overthink. Last  year’s English Language Assessment included a nonfiction text on a subject he knew by heart followed by the question, “What did you learn from this passage?” Since the truthful answer was “nothing,” he left the answer blank. That’s a kid who should take more tests, right?

And yet, at the last possible minute, the day before testing began, I wrote the letter anyway. It made me queasy, a feeling that persisted for all three days of testing that week: I wasn’t certain I had done the right thing, I was uncomfortable with defiance (especially where I wasn’t certain), and I didn’t like letting my child off easy.

Jesse spent the first three days of testing reading Where’d You Go, Bernadette? He recommends it but thinks the ending failed to deliver. He’d be happy to discuss it with you.

Lena burst into tears on the third day of testing when she realized, with only five minutes to go, that she had written an essay on the wrong question. She knew that we had let her take the test because we thought her score would help her teacher, and she thought she’d let her teacher down. She sobbed in class and she sobbed in the car when I picked her up from the bus. (She would sob again if she knew I told you.)

I hugged her and tried to reassure her: she’d probably scored well despite her mistake. I told her Jesse didn’t even answer one of his essay questions last year and still did well.

And anyway, I said—echoing what I and I’m sure thousands of parents and some rule-breaking teachers had said that morning and the two mornings before—the test is stupid, they don’t do anything with your grade, it’s meaningless, it doesn’t matter.

“Then what’s it for?” wailed Lena.

I can answer that question about piano (and believe me, I have). I can answer it about eating things you don’t like and writing a better letter and even forgoing the comforting notion of Heaven. But I can’t answer it about these tests.

Near as I can figure (with the help of articles like this and this and this), these tests are so badly conceived as to be punitive and so poorly executed, scored, and reviewed as to be worthless. Hard, but good for nothing.

Next year, I’ll write that letter for both kids, and I won’t feel queasy in the least.


  1. Kate, you write beautifully. I enjoy reading your essays very much, and, I hope, one day, you will publish them.

  2. Amen! It’s difficult to go against the “rules/law” and make a stand especially when it affects your children and their education. After all, no one can predict the future. Sometimes you have to go with an informed, gut decision. We did at a point in our daughter’s education and it worked out.

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