Two minutes late for the appointed retrieval time, I receive a frantic phone call from the middle-schooler.  By the time I arrive tears cling to her chin, her face is blotchy and she looks just terrible. I know why without asking, because this is not the first or even sixth time during the past two months that I have seen these symptoms: acute anxiety is easy to spot.  Alerting the grandma on the telephone of imminent need for sage advice, we embark on this well-frequented, no-win exchange:  “Please tell me what’s the matter”?! “It’s the CSTs, I’m going to fail them, I’m going to do a terrible job and my teacher will be in trouble and my school will be in trouble and I’m going to fail my class and everyone will know I’m a failure and …”.  The tirade borders on hysteria for approximately 5 minutes before any word can be uttered edgewise.

Can any non-parent truly appreciate the toll these tests extract emotionally?  The cost in terms of ‘man-stress-hours’ is excruciating to contemplate, excruciating to experience.  Stress is generated, in its full destructive, wasteful glory, in every conceivable direction: from the teachers regarding students, from the students regarding teachers, from the parents for the students, from administrators regarding teachers, from everyone for their school … on and on and on.  My child has endured at least three full-blown bouts of insomnia replete with physical manifestations of shaking and mental manifestations of worry just for fixating on the implications of these tests.  As a result several hours of actual, literal sleep have simply been lost: gone.  Insofar as a child’s purpose is to grow and learn, any loss to this end amounts to permanent, irretrievable damage.

I have had to drop my own adult work, to sit through long, iterative, pointless expressions of the child’s pent-up terror surrounding these tests and their implications.  I have repeated the same lecture at least a half dozen times:  ‘these tests are of the teacher, not of you; your performance is essentially your gift to the teacher, to the school.  You will not be, should not be, penalized for your performance.  You should do the best you can because you want to demonstrate what you know; no one can expect more than that.  Think of the tests as a mental exercise, like the crossword puzzles grandma loves.  Sit and puzzle, do your best, reflect your abilities faithfully and that is enough’.

But it isn’t enough.  Not for the children from whom these tests extract punishing, arbitrary adjudications of the very teachers they are meant to have developed a relationship with.  Whatever the child does, it will not be enough:  if under-par, their performance could be the agent of trouble for their teacher or school.  The guilt of responsibility for a consequence meted out upon a third party is fierce, worse, even, than any personal consequence.  But in this particular case the third party is the superior, the role-model.  What can it mean for the subservient to be in charge of the fate of the mentor?  This is an unnatural, discombobulating fear.

At par, their performance would fail to demonstrate the super-teacher status necessary to deliver the properly transferred teacher-friend from the jeopardy of the school’s intensely-charged, jobs-at-stake atmosphere.  Above-par and the responsibility for salvation is sharpest of all.  Anything shy of a perfect score unveils the child-defined tyranny of magic.  The kids feel it is up to them now to deliver protection for their entire school community from the trauma of  educational “reform”; school co-locations, enrollment loss, library-closings, staff and services dropped, and other sequelae of a society setting priority for their education way down at rank bottom.  The standard these kids are setting for themselves in just retaining status quo, is nothing less than perfection.

Thus, a perfect storm for misery.  On top of the impossible expectations is testing of “standards” not even in the curriculum.  As a working parent I must first deal with panicked shrieking over question topics that the teacher “has not even taught and which have never been seen before”.  The pervasive negativity that “I cannot do this” is unnerving and necessitates my attention to the exclusion, even, of work deadlines.

Countless wasted stress-hours multiplied across a half-million families across the city.  Across the country.  Among teachers’ and administrator’s families’, among staff’s families.  Because make no mistake, the drama of these tests shuts down functioning far beyond the classroom; it extends into households and across families and generations far and wide.  When a system as systemic as our public schools turns dysfunctional in the wake of these foolish tests, tendrils of its effect suffuse the fiber of our very society.

This is not a trivial matter, turning over our children’s schooldays to high-stakes, high-anxiety, disproportionately affective testing.  We are subjecting our youngest and most vulnerable members of society to the impossible task of righting trends they are innocent of starting.  More pernicious, we are saddling them with responsibility for it.  They shoulder culpability at a group-level (among teachers or school) for the consequence of their work collectively when they contribute to its measurement only as an individual.  Whichever way they turn results in irreparable consequences … to someone or something else.

We are torturing our children by relegating them to such feelings of doom and despair.  Why do we coerce our kids to participate in an exercise the only solution to which is personal, inherent failure?  Whom is this all for?  Obviously it’s not for the kids, but neither is it for the teachers or administrators – all this testing seems intended for no one in sight.  It’s for an idealized paradigm of our ability to tease out some truth statistically. But this is a capacity that just doesn’t even exist, at least not with such a clear signal.  No given test or even battery of tests can ever accurately rank a teacher’s or schools’ quality or worth.  But the process of asserting otherwise itself conveys a signal of the strongest measure:  all the collateral, ancillary unrest surrounding the testing is in itself, destructive beyond compare.