Standardized Tests and Kung Fu Panda?

I enjoy “kid” movies. Give me Mulan, Kung Fu Panda, E.T., Race to Witch Mountain, Frozen or any one of hundreds of long-shot makes good” movies any day of the week – and for good reason. Common Sense Media says, “Inspiration comes from a variety of sources, but movies can be particularly powerful for kids and teens.” They inspire and motivate children to believe that in spite of the odds you may face in this world, anything is possible. It is not by coincidence that these are our biggest blockbusters for the simple reason that children (and adults) want to believe that nothing can stop us from overcoming all odds and achieving success. It is also not surprising that children can watch these movies over and over again. They want to believe. These movies are special because of two reasons.

#1 – Each offers up a positive and uplifting message, or moral. I only wish our kids would continue watching them until they really believe them to be true, because the message they are sending is true!

#2 – Children’s movies usually feature an underdog or dark-horse protagonist fighting million-to-one shots to overcome adversity and obstacles and eventually win against all odds. And who doesn’t love an underdog? How many of us has been the underdog who comes out on top at one time or another in our lives? These are good dreams to be selling to our kids (just like we sell the positive benefits of education every day.) These were the “themes” instilled in us growing up as youths. “You can do anything!” “You can be just as good as anyone!” “Hard work and determination will take you as far as you want to go!” “You can be an astronaut, a doctor, a lawyer, or even President!” So what happened?

I just finished watching “Turbo” with my daughter. It was a cute – but inspiring – story about a snail who had a dream of becoming a super-fast race car, with all those around him thinking it was an impossible dream. In the end, he does become a race car and wins the Indianapolis 500. After watching this, I checked my mail and was besieged by a slew of articles saying that superintendents, teachers, parents and students demand that Standardized Testing be eliminated. When did this start? When did we lose the belief that anything is possible, and begin to view something such as a standardized test as the unreachable brass ring? When did the storyline go from:

“You can be anything you want – even President of the United States – but I am not going to allow you to take a math test at the end of the year because it is “unfair” or “too stressful” or “tricky and convoluted.” When did we begin telling our kids they cannot pass, and if they did pass, the results lack validity? When did we start telling them that we will not allow them to even attempt to participate in testing that their school is recommending? That it’s ok to quit before you start. When did we start telling our kids that they were not clever enough or well-prepared enough to take a test that has been given for years? (Forget the adult argument – this is what kids hear.) When did we realize that our teachers were not supplied with the skill sets necessary to help our students successfully navigate these tests? And if we knew this, why aren’t we asking, “How did we allow this to happen?”

Why do we allow Disney and Spielberg to make billions pushing the idea of anything’s possible (like Turbo becoming a race car) if we don’t really believe it ourselves? Why do we let our kids watch movies telling the true story of Hua (Fa) Mulan and her legendary accomplishments, yet reject a standardized test because we feel it it is unfair, unreliable and unbeatable? What are they taking for crying out loud, the Kobayashi Maru? Come on, Mulan saved China!

What will happen when these same kids are evaluated (and summarily rejected) by colleges, jobs… peers, colleagues and girlfriends or boyfriends? Are we building future leaders willing to take on tough challenges – and possibly be inspired to do better by failure along the way – or are we no longer willing to push our future leaders to greatness? Why are we sending the message that they can’t do this?

And those hearing the message of “You can’t do it!” are our most vulnerable, and at-risk students. These students desperately need positive and inspirational messages more than anyone else. Instead, in essence what we are saying is, “We failed you. We knew the test was coming, but the game is rigged. We failed to show you how to pass it.” We need to change this message of “You can’t do it!” to “Yes we can!” Or does that work only once?

Movies like Turbo, Mulan, Kung Fu Panda, Cinderella, Bambi, The Lion King, Snow White, The Little Mermaid, Finding Nemo, Sleeping Beauty all carry the same inspirational messages that Tony Robbins, Zig Ziglar, Harry Wong, and so many other motivational speaker put forth –

You can do it and don’t let anybody ever tell you that you can’t!

So how hard are these tests anyway? Let’s put it in perspective. How hard was it to…

  • Go to the moon?
  • Explore the galaxy?
  • Build the Panama Canal?
  • Explore foreign lands thousands of years ago?
  • Develop life-saving medicines and life-saving surgeries?
  • Build the tallest building? (Burj Khalifa – 163 floors)
  • Write the Constitution of the United States?
  • Draw plans for the Empire State Building? (2 weeks!)
  • Build the Empire State Building? (410 days!)

None of these feats were easy… but we did them!

And now we are telling our children that a test with ‘tricky” questions is too hard for them? Good luck, kids. You’ll need it!

(By the way, on On April 1, 2, and 3, 2014 my 11 year-old 6th grade daughter will be taking the New York State ELA exam, with the entire exam being based on close reading.

[Close Reading is a central focus of the Common Core State Standards (CCSS). It requires students to get truly involved with the text they are reading., and teaches them to notice features and language used by the author. How is this different from what we have been teaching all along?]

To prepare, she has been reading daily a wide variety of genres all year, and I have been checking her writing every night. Next step is a good night’s sleep, a healthy breakfast, and a “Do your best. Good Luck!” She is not nervous and no we are not building pianos here.)

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