Middle School Suicides Double As Common Core Testing Intensifies

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Here’s a high stakes testing statistic you won’t hear bandied about on the news.

 

The suicide rate among 10- to 14-year-olds doubled between 2007 and 2014 – the same period in which states have increasingly adopted Common Core standards and new, more rigorous high stakes tests.

 

For the first time, suicide surpassed car crashes as a leading cause of death for middle school children.

In 2014, the last year for which data was available, 425 middle schoolers nationwide took their own lives.

 

To be fair, researchers, educators and psychologists say several factors are responsible for the spike, however, pressure from standardized testing is high on the list.

 

In fact, it is a hallmark of other nations where children perform better on these tests than our own.

 

In our efforts to emulate these countries, we’ve inadvertently imported their child suicide problem.

 

In South Korea, one of the highest performing nations on international tests, youth suicide is a national epidemic.

 

According to the National Youth Policy Institute in Korea, one in four students considers committing suicide. In fact, Korea has the second highest youth suicide rate among contemporary nations.

 

For several years, the Korean school system has topped the roughly 70 member countries of the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) educational league, which measures 15-year-old students’ knowledge through the PISA test, an international student assessment exam within OECD member states.

 

However, the system is roundly criticized for its emphasis on memorization and test prep with little real-life application. In fact, 75 percent of South Korean children attend “cram schools” where they do little else than prepare for standardized assessments.

 

 

Likewise, Chinese students suffer similar curriculum and rates of child suicide. Though Shanghai students have some of the highest scores in OECD, abuse runs rampant.

 

According to the China Daily, teachers at Hubei Xiaogan No 1 High School in central Hubei province actually rigged their students up to IV drips in the classroom so they could continue studying after being physically exhausted.

 

Brook Larmer of the New York Times reports visiting student dormitories in Maotanchang, a secluded town in Anhui province, where the windows were covered in wire mesh to prevent students from jumping to their deaths.

 

In the United States, education “reform” hasn’t reached these depths, but we’re getting closer every year.

 

Efforts to increase test scores have changed U.S. schools to closer resemble those of Asia. Curriculum is being narrowed to only the tested subjects and instruction is being limited to testing scenarios, workbooks, computer simulations, practice and diagnostic tests.

 

A classroom where students aren’t allowed to pursue their natural curiosities and are instead directed to boring and abstract drills is not a place of joy and discovery. A school that does not allow children to express themselves but forces constant test prep is a lifeless environment devoid of hope.

 

But that’s not the worst of it.

 

American students are increasingly being sorted and evaluated by reference to their test score rather than their classroom grade or other academic indicators. Students are no longer 6th, 7th or 8th graders. They’re Below Basics, Basics, Proficents and Advanced. The classes they’re placed in, the style of teaching, even personal rewards and punishments are determined by a single score.

 

In some states, like Florida, performance on federally mandated tests actually determine if students can advance to the next grade. Some children pass their classes but don’t move on purely because of test scores well within the margin or error.

 

The results are devastating.

 

Marion Brady tells a gut-wrenching story on Alternet about a 9-year-old Florida boy who tried to hang himself after failing the state’s FCAT (Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test) by one point.

 

His mother explains that he had to take a summer remediation course and a retest, but still failed by one point. She couldn’t bear to tell him, but he insisted that he had failed and was utterly crushed.

 

After a brief period where he was silent, alone in his room, she became apprehensive:

 

“I … ran down the hall to [his] room, banged on the door and called his name. No response. I threw the door open. There was my perfect, nine- year-old freckled son with a belt around his neck hanging from a post on his bunk bed. His eyes were blank, his lips blue, his face emotionless. I don’t know how I had the strength to hoist him up and get the belt off but I did, then collapsed on the floor and held [him] as close to my heart as possible. There were no words. He didn’t speak and for the life of me I couldn’t either. I was physically unable to form words. I shook as I held him and felt his heart racing.

 

“I’d saved [him]! No, not really…I saved him physically, but mentally he was gone…The next 18 months were terrible. It took him six months to make eye contact with me. He secluded himself from friends and family. He didn’t laugh for almost a year…”

 

The boy had to repeat the third grade but is haunted by what had happened as is his mother.

 

And this is by no means an isolated incident.

 

According to U.S. Census Bureau statistics, the suicide rate for 5- to 14- year-olds jumped by 39.5 percent from 2000 to 2013. The rate for 15- to 24-year-olds, which was already 818% higher than for younger children, also increased during the same time period by 18.9 percent.

 

That’s more than 5,000 children and rising each year taking their own lives.

 

Again, high stakes testing isn’t responsible for all of it. But the dramatic increase along with a subsequent increase in high stakes testing is not unrelated.

 

The Alliance for Childhood, a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization that advises on early education, compiled a report from parents, teachers, school nurses, psychologists, and child psychiatrists noting that the stress of high-stakes testing was literally making children sick.

 

On testing days, school nurses report that their offices are filled with students complaining of headaches and stomachaches. There have even been reports of uncontrollable sobbing.

 

In 2013, eight prominent New York principals were so alarmed by this increasing student behavior that they wrote a letter to parents expressing their concerns:

 

“We know that many children cried during or after testing, and others vomited or lost control of their bowels or bladders. Others simply gave up. One teacher reported that a student kept banging his head on the desk, and wrote, ‘This is too hard,’ and ‘I can’t do this,’ throughout his test booklet.”

 

And they’re not alone.

 

In fact, student anxiety is so common on test day that most federally mandated tests include official guidelines specifically outlining how to deal with kids vomiting on their test booklets.

 

School counselors note increasing student anxiety levels, sleep problems, drug use, avoidance behaviors, attendance problems, acting out, etc. that increase around testing time and during test prep lessons. This is a major contributor, they say, to the unprecedented increase in the number of young children being labeled and treated for psychiatric illnesses ranging from learning disabilities and attention disorders to anxiety and depression.

 

And the psychological trauma isn’t limited to the students, alone. The adults also suffer from it.

 

In 2015, Jeanene Worrell-Breeden, a West Harlem elementary school principal, took her own life by jumping in front of a subway train to escape a standardized testing scandal. Under intense pressure from the federal and state government to improve academic achievement, she had allegedly instructed her staff to change students’ answers on a new Common Core aligned high stakes test.

 

But the trauma isn’t always so dramatic. Teachers and principals often suffer in silence. And when it affects the adults in the room, imagine what it does to the children.

 

It isn’t that teachers aren’t trying to teach or that students aren’t trying to learn. It’s that the expectations and testing are developmentally inappropriate.

 

Middle school children’s brains are still growing. They are only physically able to learn certain concepts and skills, but we’re forcing them to deal with increasingly advanced and complex concepts at younger ages.

 

And when expectations and high stakes consequences come crashing down on children, they can feel there is no way out.

 

This is why thousands of parents have refused to allow their children to take high stakes standardized testing.

 

This is why there is a growing grass roots movement against these sorts of assessments and other corporate school reforms.

 

It’s time the media connect the dots and report these sorts of stories in context.

 

Don’t just shrug when reporting on child suicide rates, if you report it at all. Give the microphone to experts who can point the finger where it belongs.

 

And the rest of us need to make sure our representatives at the state, local and federal level know where we stand.

 

High stakes testing is child abuse. We should not emulate other nations’ scores especially when they come at such a cost.

 

The fact that we don’t engage in the worst abuses of Asian schools should be a point of pride, not jealousy.

 

We should cherish and nurture our children even if other nations sacrifice theirs on the altar of competition and statistics.

If School Computer Use Reduces Standardized Test Scores, Doesn’t That Prove the Tests are Inadequate?

ipad-kids

Melvin’s hand is up.

He’s a 13-year-old African American with too much energy and not enough self-control.

He’s often angry and out of his seat. He’s usually in trouble. But today he’s sitting forward in his chair with his hand raised high and a look on his face like he’ll explode if I don’t pick him right this second.

So I do.

“Mr. Singer! Can I show my imovie now!?”

This is a first. He hasn’t turned in a lick of homework all month.

“Wow! You’re really excited about this, aren’t you?” I say.

“Yeah,” he responds. “I was up all night finishing it.”

I start to doubt this, but he does look awfully tired underneath that urgent need to share.

Airdrop it to me from your ipad,” I say, “and I’ll put it up on the SMART Board.”

This takes a few minutes.

Let’s face it.

We live in a world of high technology.

Our cell phones have more computing power than the Apollo missions to the moon.

The best, high paying jobs opening up on the world stage require increasing levels of computer literacy.

Yet according to a new study, America’s students don’t succeed as well academically if they have access to computers at school.

How can this be?

How can exposure to new technologies cause a nation of young people to fail at a system supposedly designed to prepare them for the jobs of the future?

Doesn’t real world experience usually make you better prepared?

A future chef would be helped by more time in the kitchen.

A future doctor would be helped by more access to dissection.

But a future computer-user is hurt by more time at a computer!?

Something is very wrong here.

But according to a new study by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), students who use computers more at school earn both lower reading and math scores on the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA).

The organization studied 15-year-olds across 31 nations and regions from 2012. The study just released in September even controlled for income and race.

Yet here in my classroom I see the exact opposite. Computer use increases my students test scores – on my teacher-created tests.

Melvin’s movie was ready. He had been tasked with explaining the differences between external and internal conflict. I pressed play.

High adrenaline music poured from the speakers. Pictures flashed across the screen of boxers and football players.

“This is external conflict,” came rushing forward followed by a brief definition. Then an image of Homer Simpson with an angel and devil on his shoulders. “This is internal conflict,” came zooming by our eyes.

The film might not win any Academy Awards, but it was pretty impressive work for 40 minutes of class time and however long Melvin decided to spend at home.

It’s the kind of thing my students never could have done before they each had ipads. And when they took my test, few of them got the questions wrong about conflict.

Yet according to the OECD, I was somehow hurting my students academically!?

Even in my high poverty district, students have always had access to technology. But the nature of that technology and how we use it has changed dramatically this school year.

I used to have eight computers in my classroom, but they were slowly becoming obsolete and inoperable. Some days they functioned best as extra illumination if we shut out the overhead light to show a movie.

Still, I tried to incorporate technology into my lessons. I used to have my students make their own Webpages, but reserving time in the computer lab became almost impossible. And even then, the district couldn’t afford to keep the devices in the lab updated enough to run anything but the most rudimentary software.

The one lab in the building that had new devices was reserved almost exclusively for a drill and kill test prep program we had received a state grant to operate. THIS was the apex of school technology – answering multiple choice look-a-like questions. It bored students to tears and didn’t even accomplish the stipulated goal of increasing standardized test scores. Yet we were blackmailed by the state government into initiating the program so we could gain additional funding to keep the school operational.

THIS is the kind of technology use you’ll find at most poor schools like mine. And it’s one of the reasons the authors of the OECD study came to their conclusion. It’s also one of the reasons why teachers like me have been skeptical of technological initiatives offered to impoverished districts.

However, the best use of technology is something quite different.

This year my district received a gift of ipads for all the students, and it’s changed everything. No longer do I have to beg and plead to get computer lab time for real high tech lessons. I don’t need it. The technology is already in the classroom in the palm of their hands.

But policymakers clutching their pearls because of this study have already began to make changes to international school curriculum. Schools in Asia have begun cutting back on student computer time. Should America follow suit?

Absolutely not.

The problem clearly is not computers. It’s the antiquated method we use to measure success.

Standardized testing has been around since 206 BC as an assessment for civil servants in ancient China. The same process spread to England in the 19th Century and then to the United States during WWI. Through all that time, the main process of rewarding rote learning through multiple choice questioning has remained the same.

But the world hasn’t. We’ve moved on a bit since the Han Dynasty. We no longer live in a medieval society of peasants and noblemen where the height of technology is an abacus. We live in an ever-changing interconnected global community where a simple search engine provides more information than could be stored in a thousand Libraries at Alexandria.

How can we possibly hope to rely on the same assessments as the ancients? Heck! Even as far back as 970 AD, standardized testing was criticized as being inadequate.

But a global multi-billion dollar industry relies on these primitive assessments. It’s the basis of an exceedingly lucrative business model.

So it shouldn’t be surprising that the same people who promise standardized testing and Common Core will best prepare students to be college and career ready are passing the blame.

They claim this report isn’t an indictment of their cash cow industry. It’s a warning against over-reliance on computers. And, yes, they’re right that technology is not a panacea. The mere presence of a computer won’t make a child smarter. Likewise, the mere presence of a book won’t make a person wiser. One must know how to use said computer and book.

But what I’m seeing in my classroom primarily is an opportunity – not a danger. Students like Melvin are more engaged and willing to take chances. They have greater freedom, intrinsic motivation and excitement about learning.

Many times when sharing Keynote presentations, after one or two, students ask to have their work back so they can improve them. That doesn’t happen with test prep.

They often elect to take ipad assignments to lunch and work on them between bites. That doesn’t happen with Pearson worksheets.

I’m not saying it’s easy. It’s up to me, my colleagues and administration to ensure technology is used to its full potential. Never should these devices be time fillers or babysitters. Nor can they ever replace the guidance of a thoughtful, creative educator to determine their best use. Teachers need to create and assign lessons that promote creativity and critical thinking skills.

Education professionals are constantly advised to individualize their lessons to meet the needs of diverse learners. Technology allows them a unique opportunity to do so. With district ipads I can talk to an English Language Learner in his own language. A struggling reader can have the device read test questions aloud. A student with poor motor control can type journal responses and have his writing be understood.

And these opportunities for enrichment don’t even need to be planned ahead of time. For instance, when discussing a short story about a character that was exceedingly proud, one of my students brought up the Seven Deadly Sins. She wasn’t exactly sure what they were or how exactly they related to pride, but one of her classmates quickly looked it up on her ipad. Then another found a medieval woodcarving to which someone else found a related manga text. The subsequent discussion was much deeper and relevant to these children’s lives than it would have been otherwise. And none of it was pre-packed, planned or standardized. It was individualized.

This is really no surprise. Administrators in charter or private schools aren’t asking themselves if they should close their computer labs and put their devices on ebay. They know the value technology can provide in the classroom, but they aren’t constrained by high stakes testing.

Even rich public schools don’t have to worry to the same degree because their students already score well on federally mandated assessments – after all, standardized tests are designed to favor children with wealthy parents over those from impoverished or minority backgrounds. It’s only in poor school districts where technology is either second hand or a charitable donation that administrators and school directors are being pressured to cut back.

As usual, best practices for the privileged become questionable when applied to the poor and minorities. You want technology? Prove it will boost your test scores!

It’s nonsense.

Think about it. Even the best use of computers won’t boost standardized scores. Computer skills aren’t on the tests.

Nor could these things ever be assessed effectively in this manner.

Yet such skills are exactly what education researchers tell us demonstrate the deepest levels of understanding and an ability to meet the demands of the best jobs of the future.

I wonder what Bill Gates thinks of this report. The Microsoft co-founder is also one of the biggest advocates for school standardization. If he had to pick between his two favorite children, which would he choose – laptops or Common Core tests? Maybe we needn’t wonder. His own children go to a private school with no standardization and a plethora of technology.

There comes a time when you have to admit the truth staring you in the face: standardized tests are poor measures of academic achievement. They are suitable only for turning our children into factory drones. They are for pawns, patsies and robots.

If we really want to prepare the next generation for the jobs of the future, we need to scrap high stakes testing. We need to invest in MORE technology, not less. We need to ensure technological lessons are being overseen by trained educators and the devices aren’t used as a babysitting tool. As such, we need to provide teachers with support and professional development so they can best take advantage of the technology they have.

America can prepare its children for the world’s high level management and administrative positions or we can prepare them to do only menial work that will soon by replaced by machines.

Computers do the former. Tests the latter.

Choose.


NOTE: This article also was published on the Badass Teachers Association blog.