For Gladys Ortiz, a parent with children at McKinley Elementary, the night before her children take a standardized test is full of worry.
"I see that my children are nervous," she says, "and I feel nervous for them, but I tell them to try their best and help them get a good night's sleep."
As federal and state laws have increased the stakes, standardized tests have become the "Holy Grail" of student achievement. As Ortiz suggests, this has left many parents and students in Philadelphia feeling anxious and frustrated as children fail to perform at high levels.
In recent conversations the Notebook had with parents and students at several schools in Philadelphia, they raised many questions about the fairness of standardized tests. Why don't test scores match report card grades? Why aren't students adequately prepared for the tests? Shouldn't the focus in schools be on teaching subject matter rather than teaching to the test?
As test scores become increasingly important for decisions related to grade promotion, school funding, and other resources received by schools and families, these questions about tests are hard to ignore.
Standardized test scores have for years been an important factor in whether Philadelphia public school students can be admitted to special admission or magnet middle or high schools. More recently, students' test results have begun to play a role in whether their schools get financial rewards from the District and the state, whether students are expected to attend extended day classes and summer school, and even whether their schools are turned over to private management companies.
The 'shock' of test scores
Parents, often feeling left out of the educational process, asked why standardized test scores and student grades don't correlate more often. They regularly recounted experiences of receiving report cards that showed their children performing well, or at least adequately, and then seeing test scores that said their children were failing.
"I am concerned when they take these tests because my son gets B's and C's and got picked for Upward Bound but did very poorly on the standardized test," said Hattie Staton, the parent of a 12th grade student.
Ortiz said that her children's performance on the tests wasn't important to her, at least "not until I saw how low their scores were. My kids were shocked. They didn't think they would be so low."
For Luz Ruiz, this was reason enough not to care about the tests: "To me those tests don't matter. They don't mean anything to our kids. I don't believe children are prepared, so I don't worry about them."
Are students ready?
Ruiz raised an issue echoed by many parents and students. When the level of work given to students in the classroom does not match the material on standardized tests, students are left feeling unprepared and set up to fail.
Teresa Duncan, whose child attends Germantown High School, described her apprehension when sending her child to school on test days: "I wonder if he is truly prepared and if his teachers have prepared him, and [I hope] that he is confident and that he scores above Basic."
Anthony Stewart, a student at Gratz High School, told us that he felt "unprepared" on the days he took standardized tests. "Some of these things on the test, they don't teach it in the classrooms so that we can all understand it [and do well on the tests]."
For some students, this felt unfair and was in stark contrast to their experiences taking tests for classes.
"You know what's going to be on the test [for classes]," explained Larry Southerland, another Gratz student. "On the TerraNova, they just give it to you and they think that you should already know the stuff that they have on the test."
Students also expressed frustration with the length of the tests and said they sometimes had to take tests in uncomfortable environments, such as the school lunchroom.
Focus on subject matter, not tests
Despite their concerns that students aren't prepared for standardized tests, all of the parents interviewed wanted teachers to focus on teaching so their children learn subject matter, and did not want teachers to "feel pressured to teach to test."
"I feel that teachers need to spend time teaching," said Ortiz, "not teaching to test, but teaching kids what they need to learn."
And, according to Duncan, the increased focus on testing is also distracting parents from weightier concerns.
"When I talk to parents about testing, it's about 'Did they pass?' [Parents] are missing the boat on what students should be learning," Duncan said.