Though I wasn’t feeling well last week, there were a few commitments that I needed to keep…and those few things took all the strength I could muster. One of the most grueling commitments was to my son’s school where I had agreed to proctor a standardized test for the first grade class. Admittedly, it seemed ridiculous to me that standardized tests would be administered to six-year-olds–still does, in fact–but I agreed to help nonetheless.

Assisting with this test exposed me to even more uncontrolled variables that heavily weigh against the integrity of the assessment. Instead of measuring aptitude, these tests clearly assess student behavior more than what students comprehend. Students’ ability to follow a story, identify shapes, and figure simple arithmetic was evident during the 45 minutes, or so, of the test. As I walked between the students, it was clear that most all of them filled in the correct bubbles for those portions of the test. After that first slice of time, however, there was barely a child in the room with the self-control, discipline, or focus to consistently do their part to show what they knew; they were more invested in escaping time. Several students expressed urgent need to use the restroom or to blow their nose. Administering the test continued despite the various, unscheduled breaks that occurred throughout the day and most students were unconcerned about what they missed. As far as they were concerned, they were able to escape the boring, predictable rhythms of the exam.

On one hand, the teacher might bear some responsibility for failing to prepare her students through daily classroom structure and practices that would have aligned with the behavior needed to control for this variable in corrupting the desired outcomes. On the other hand, there are factors outside of any teacher’s control that influenced some of what I witnessed. Several children, for example, were clearly too sleepy to concentrate on the exam. In their case, going to the restroom may have been one strategy for staying awake. In one particular case, a student’s long stay in the restroom resulted from the meal he had eaten the previous night. The children’s teacher shared with me that many of her students have such busy lives with sports, dance, and visiting friends and family, in-town and out, that whatever means of discipline, focus, and self-control instilled in school are undermined outside of it. Though I see her point, there are other factors working to incite the frenzy beyond the activities adults select for their children. These factors include the instability caused by homelessness, the inability to focus that results from hunger, and the incapacity to enact self-control when one’s caretakers are given to violence.

Much of what I have read lately with respect to standardized tests highlights the cultural bias of the tests and the economic bias that enables middle-class families to pay for tutoring services for their children. My own experience in proctoring a standardized test laid bare the impact of (in)stability as a factor in a child’s life that greatly influences how equipped a student is to consistently demonstrate their understanding of course content through this measure. The conversation that the first grade teacher at my son’s school is prepared to have with her students’ parents about their child’s test results will most likely result in a lecture concerning the social choices parents are making for their children; essentially, she’s prepared to blame the parents for weak scores. What might be more useful, however, is to involve parents in discussions that teachers and administrators should have regarding testing practices and the needs of their demographic. Instead of calling out parents to “sin no more,” schools would be better off addressing what they can control–the way tests are administered–and the reality of their students lives. To that end, students who were typically tardy before the week of testing, were also tardy the week of testing. Given the reality that students in general will be tardy, it might better serve them to schedule exams in the afternoon. National data concerning student outcomes may not have used the conditions of your school’s population in considering what might be best for them. Those kids who didn’t get enough rest the night before testing or who were late to school would have been better served had their test been administered in the afternoon.

Standardized testing makes too many presumptions about the norms comprising students’ lives. The presumptive norms taken for granted here provide fodder for maligning parents while at the same time evading an examination of the biases created through the standardization of ideals.