A STAARtling Realization

Springtime in Texas: the pollen descends upon us, and so does the STAAR. Debate over this standardized testing tends to focus on the impact on students and teachers. Another party with a vested interest merits mention, however – a party who, unlike students and teachers, actually benefits from this assessment.

A company called Pearson creates and administers the STAAR and other standardized state tests under a $500 million contract with the Texas Education Agency. As the self-proclaimed “market leader in educational publishing and services,” they also conveniently sell the test prep materials and tutoring programs for the exams – some of which are required to graduate from high school. If that doesn’t happen, guess who also owns the GED exam?

Over the last 15 years, this British conglomerate has set their sights on the burgeoning American education industry and acquired a laundry list of testing and publishing companies to aid in that pursuit. The education market to capture grew all the more lucrative in no small part due to government mandated accountability testing. By numerous accounts, Pearson, of course, helped lobby successfully in support of these measures. They continue to invest in legislative lobbying to protect their interests.

But Pearson’s sphere of influence expands beyond publishing and standardized testing. They now control teacher certification in seven states. Last year they acquired BioBehavioral Diagnostics and their Quotient ADHD test. The move, which they announced as a “strategic entry into healthcare markets,” should come as no surprise. The new book “The ADHD Explosion” presents significant research correlating a dramatic rise in ADHD diagnosis with – wait for it – increased state testing.

The propensity of corporations to profit where the opportunity exists, even from educational products or services, is not inherently pernicious. That’s supply and demand. But a company paid with our tax dollars for the exclusive supply of a demand they aided in orchestrating – and are continuing to perpetuate – should raise red flags.

Bolstering the testing behemoth, though, are a legion of lawmakers, administrators and even some parents who have been drinking the accountability Kool-Aid. They support this seemingly endless educational data collection and one-size-fits-all approach believing it offers proof of instructional success. Regardless of their intentions to ensure educational parity, the reality has been that more assessments just equal more anxiety, for both students and teachers.

Parents, teachers, and administrators would like to believe that their children are subjected to the rigors of these high-stakes tests for some tangible benefit to the greater good. But the $500 million elephant in the room is getting harder to ignore.

In celebration of celebrations

It appeared again after St. Patrick’s Day like a pile of green laundry. The mom blogger of Rage Against the Minivan, Kristen Howerton, beseeched in a witty post (linked below), “Can we bring the holidays down a notch?” I read it this time last year, and my response hasn’t changed.

In a word, no. No, I’m not going to bring them down a notch.

Yes, I am one of those moms who, to quote the chagrined author, sent in a “whole freaking goodie bag” for my kindergarten son’s Valentine exchange. And for his birthday treats earlier that week, I baked sugar cookies with alphabet cookie cutters, so each child in his class got the first letter of their name. I’m pretty sure she would frown upon that, too.

I didn’t plan either of those out of any sense of expectation, though. I just wanted to, because I thought the kids would enjoy them. For lack of a more apt phrase, that’s just how I roll. I love celebrating holidays with what I consider fun traditions. I don’t expect anyone else to feel compelled to do so.

I respect Howerton’s desire to carry on the tradition of pre-made plastic Easter baskets she says she had growing up. But that’s not what I grew up with. My mom baked wonderful homemade cookies, the recipes I use now. And I still have the special Easter basket she gave me that I looked forward to setting out every year.  My sister had a matching one. These are traditions I want to carry on, but to each his own.

Is there more holiday hoopla now? Maybe so. The creative Elf tableaus noted in her rant, for one, do seem to be a more recent addition. I was reluctant to embrace that one myself. It came to our family in the manner the blogger mom decries – something heard about at school followed by choruses of “But where is our elf?”

At first it did strike me as a bit much, and I recognize why the phrase “holiday overkill” came to her mind. But I must admit that Elf grew on me. It’s hard to argue with the gleeful excitement on my sons’ faces when they wake up wondering where they’ll find Elfie that day. I, too, delight in the fun of Elfie hanging from a chandelier, wrapping the Christmas tree with toilet paper, and driving the toy cars.

So no, I don’t think we would all be happier to take a more “slacker” approach to special occasions, as she suggests. For that matter, I don’t think there’s any reason we all have to take the same approach to holidays. We don’t all take the same approach to a lot of matters. Other moms have a lot less clutter in their houses than I do. Hats off to them! And by hats, I mean the ones strewn across my house, while theirs are hanging tidily. That discrepancy doesn’t bother me, though. I don’t tell them they’re “setting up expectations I just can’t maintain,” to quote the post again. That’s just how they roll.

The truth is, we may debate this seemingly endless parade of celebrations while our kids are in kindergarten, but by the time third grade rolls around it will be a moot point. In those few years the joyous 100 Days of School celebration gives way to the killjoy hundred school days of preparing for standardized tests.  The hours of blowing bubbles carefree cede all too soon to hours of carefully bubbling in bubbles.

So can we bring down the complaining a notch? We’re just trying to have fun over here and aren’t inclined to rein in our revelry to the lowest common denominator. You do your thing, I’ll do mine, or you’re of course welcome to join us. Just like holidays – in my book, the more the merrier 🙂