School to Students: Shoot for the stars, but don’t expect to get there

By Sarah Lahm

Testing, from the inside out: I recently sat down with five Minneapolis Southwest High School students to find out why they–along with over 500 of their classmates–had chosen to opt out of the annual, standardized MCA test. I assumed, like another Minneapolis education writer has, that these students were opting out only because their evaluation-fearing teachers told them to. What I found out instead, by actually talking to them, was much more interesting and much more uncomfortable. 

If I had to boil my conversation with these five students down to one sentence, it would be this: It’s not the MCAs, stupid; it’s everything else. 

Just Kids

Just kids

The students I spoke with–Makenna Kirkeby, and her friends James, Emma, Harrison, and Will–are all juniors at Southwest High School, which is consistently ranked, by the people who love to rank things, as a top performing high school. And they are all top performers, or striving to be. 

And that is the problem. They are not anxious about the MCA test; they don’t have time for it. If they miss class time to take a standardized test, then, they told me, they would have to somehow find time to make up the class work they had missed.

And they don’t have time–that much is clear. Here is a snapshot of my conversation with them, which took place on a weekend afternoon, as they sat around doing homework. My questions/prompts are in bold; their responses are the bullet points that follow:

Tell me about the MCA test. 

  • The MCA test is really a low priority at our school. It’s not hyped at all; there’s no test prep for it, not like there was in middle school. 
  • The tests we care about are the ACT and the SAT because that’s how we get in to college. The MCA test doesn’t mean anything. It’s not a graduation requirement, it’s not about getting in to college.
  • We don’t learn anything from the MCAs.
  • Honestly, a lot of students just click through it, to get it done. Some students have even had races to see who could finish the test first; I think the record is one minute and forty-five seconds.
  • Yeah, some students have used it as an excuse to get out of class, because it’s not a timed test, so they’ll just sit there in front of the screen, getting out of class.

Dumb question time: So, why are there so many kids opting out of the MCA test this year?

  • Because we found out we could from our teachers, and the school’s “test guy,” who comes around to round people up to take the test.
  • As soon as we found out, we were like, “Great. Where do we sign?” 
  • Also, we’re supposed to take the MCAs close to the end of the quarter, when we have finals. It’s like sliding another test in, right when things are really stressful in our classes. That’s why.

As we talked, one thing was very clear: the MCA test is the least of these students’ worries. They are the most tested generation ever, but that’s just the tip of the rigorous homework/grades/college prep iceberg that’s always straight ahead.

First, the students did not seem to know what the MCA test was supposed to be for. Funding? No one was sure. 

Testing industry to Congress: Do Not Disturb Us

Then, they started to talk about their lives and what it means to be a “good” student today:

  • Testing is stressful; they make it seem like it will determine your life.
  • Being a good test taker is emphasized.
  • 11th graders want good grades, and to know the content of what they’re studying.
  • Retaining knowledge is more important to us. Homework and tests are so much stress; we’d rather be sitting in class, learning.
  • Getting a good grade is so important. That’s what we are always told.

What is the purpose of all of this?

  • There is so much pressure to get in to college, and to think about how we will pay for it.
  • We have to be well-rounded, doing everything. We work, play sports, have to have the grades, and do community service.

What is the impact of this, on your lives?

  • It is difficult to stay healthy. Mental health issues are a really big problem.
  • Our families never see us. If our families are going out to dinner or doing something fun, it’s like, “Oh well, I can’t go.” There is always so much to do.
  • We have to choose between sleep and cramming in homework.
  • I have struggled with my mental health.
  • We go to school, then go to work, then have soccer, and get home at 10 p.m. Then,  we can either sleep or do homework. And getting behind is not really an option, because It takes a lot to make up work.
  • Skipping the MCA test is a matter of prioritizing; the test just doesn’t matter.

The MCAs don’t matter, because everything else matters so much in these students’ lives. They are taking tests all the time, and described often having to miss lunch to take a test or do homework. 

  • Lunch feels really short. We have maybe 30 minutes. If we leave to get food, we have to come right back.
  • We have a lot of projects booked at the same time, like a 7 page essay, a quiz, a biology lab, Spanish–all due at the same time. 
  • We are IB students, and we take AP classes.

These students sometimes get the message that being average or getting a C is okay, but they are not convinced:

  • Teachers have a different idea about grades than we do. They will say a C is average, but for a student, it’s deadly. A ‘C’ means we’re not going to college.
  • If we get a GPA below 2.0, we can’t play sports, and a lot of good colleges won’t take a 2.0 GPA student.
  • We are expected to have high grades, jobs, and fit in volunteer hours. A 4.0 GPA is what everyone is supposed to have.

And then there are the tests that really matter to these students, because they are truly high stakes. For example, the ACT:

  • Some of us take a Saturday morning ACT prep class, which is basically a class about how to cheat on tests like the ACT because we’re told how to do the test.
  • The ACT is not about life skills and has no value, but it’s high stakes.
  • If you don’t learn test-taking strategies, you won’t do well on the ACT.
  • But, the ACT doesn’t really determine how smart you are.
  • If you are not from a family with lots of resources, to help you prepare for the test, it’s almost unfair. People who have more money can pay for tutors.
  • Kids without resources don’t get the same chances. And not everyone can do well on a timed test like the ACT.

Therefore, in light of all of this, the MCA test–which, again, doesn’t determine if students will graduate or where they will go to college, seems redundant and ridiculous.

  • The MCA test is not even statistically correct, because so many students don’t take it seriously.
  • I don’t want to be compared to other kids.
  • It’s upsetting to have a number determine who you are.
  • The tests are not about being smarter or getting smarter.
  • There is so much pressure and competition at our school, and in general. 
  • One time, my stepsister (who goes to a different high school) and I were both up doing homework until 2 or 3. Then, I went to bed, but when I got up in the morning, she was still up, doing homework. She never went to bed.

The purpose of all of this seems lost on the students, who seem to feel as though they are on a roller coaster and cannot get off:

  • I know someone who has a 3.95 GPA at our school. I think she’s ranked 49th in our class.
  • At the end of the quarter, I’m so stressed and anxious. I just shut down.
  • I have mental breakdowns at least once a month.
  • My parents ask me, “Why are you so stressed out?” But then, I also have to keep up with my room and my laundry, and that makes me more upset and stressed out.
  • Yes, you just have to know your limits, and when to take a break. 

    Are we there yet?

The general feeling the students expressed is one of feeling unsupported by the adult culture they are dependent on, aside from their families, which they each seemed to feel close to:

  • We are stressed out, overwhelmed. If we miss school, the school is so strict about it. We have to have a doctor’s note, or we are told we’re truant. 
  • No one understands. People tell us to balance our lives better, but how?

Ironically, the MCA test seems like the one test they are allowed to make up. 

  • If we miss a Chemistry test or something, we can’t make it up. But if someone misses the MCA test, they will come looking for you, and say, “Come on, come take the test.” So, we can’t make up the things that really matter.

Wait. Aren’t the MCA tests supposed to tell everyone who the good or bad teachers are? Turns out the students have some pretty clear ideas on what they consider good teaching and learning:

  • There are some teachers who understand, but we have big classes, of 30 or 40 kids, and that’s hard for teachers. They don’t get to know us. All they know are our grades or test scores, or whether or not we turned in our homework.
  • We respect teachers when there is trust and communication, and when a class seems interactive. 
  • We like the teachers who remember what it was like to be in school. 
  • We like it when we’re more than a test score, and more than a list of things that need to get done.
  • Some teachers will notice what’s going on with students, and offer individual help. This is better than when teachers have black and white rules, or show favoritism.
  • Having enough resources, or relationships, is hard. Sometimes, we don’t have enough desks.
  • We have seven classes, all with homework piled on. A lot of students don’t know their learning styles; some don’t do well with lectures.

Somehow, despite the Testocracy’s best efforts, these students have learned to think critically about their lives and the world around them:

  • There is a clear boundary between the haves and have-nots, but opportunities should be there for everyone.
  • We know bright kids without high GPAs; a high GPA doesn’t exactly equal intelligence. But we are told a high GPA equals a good future.
  • High school is getting increasingly hard. More difficult. We get the message that we’re not going anywhere unless we have all A’s. 
  • We are told to shoot for the stars, but it feels like we shouldn’t expect to get there.
  • Life is a three-step thing: High school–College–Job.
  • College costs vast amounts of money, but we don’t have time to reflect on what we want to do with our lives.
  • But, I think about it a lot. And I think, we’re only 17.
  • We have good memories, too. We’ve grown up together. We’re lucky to have the opportunities we do have. Southwest is still a good school.
  • It’s not the end of the world if it doesn’t all work out.

Yet, it is clear these kids don’t feel free to be kids. They are guilt-ridden, because enough never seems like enough.

  • I feel guilty for having fun.
  • It’s always in the back of my head…what do I have to do?
  • When I’m out with friends, I think about all I should be doing.
  • School completely shapes your life. 100%. 
  • School seems pointless. Friendship, being a good person should be more important. I mean, in 20 years, will this stuff matter?

Sure, kids, complain away. But what do you really want, then?

  • Having a job and playing sports has taught me a lot of things, like life skills and people skills. I work with senior citizens, and I’ve learned how to talk with them. That’s really important, too.
  • I’ve learned more outside of school.
  • What about a class on how to do taxes or about what a mortgage is? I want to know how to pay my bills. 
  • I would like real-life scenarios in my classes, like how to do a job interview. Sometimes groups come in, after school, to talk about this stuff, but the students are so tired.

These students have gotten another message loud and clear: they are being sorted and ranked all the time.

  • We took the Explore and Plan tests (part of a three test package, along with the ACT). It was ok, but it doesn’t go into depth, and people always try to manipulate it. 
  • They always show us charts about which jobs make the most money. People tried to get those jobs, like “Business Analyst,” as their future career.
  • But, we can’t think of job possibilities. Being asked to be creative is a foreign concept. If someone’s interested in world history, it’s like, “What job goes with that?” 
  • We have been geared to not be creative. There is no room, no time, to explore what you’re interested in.
  • I have taken 3 years of hard IB classes, and just last week, I asked my teacher: What is IB? I don’t know. I’m just doing it because it looks good.
  • I feel like we’ve been conditioned to be like this. 
  • I’ve learned, “How can I bullshit my way through this?”

Finally, I asked if they ever studied things like how to get a handle on climate change. They said, bluntly, “We don’t have time to solve problems.”

The MCA test is really a blip of nothingness to these students, and being allowed to skip it, they said, felt like a little taste of freedom in an otherwise very controlled life.

2 thoughts on “School to Students: Shoot for the stars, but don’t expect to get there

  1. Janet Hagen

    High school has become so difficult! I was a witness to the stress my children went though. They both wanted to be involved in after school activities but teachers never gave them any slack with homework. If they were in a play and needed to practice or perform, it didn’t matter to the teachers, they were never given any extra time for assignments. I really wonder if I would have made it through high school if I had to go through what they went through. Much of what they learn is so disconnected to real life.
    At the University off Minnesota there are so many students who have anxiety, they could fill a dorm with them. What is it all for?

  2. Doug Olson

    Are we buying into the Asian model of “pound it into them”? This academic grind in secondary education is depressing and unacceptable for numerous reasons. Where is the research showing that loading up homework daily in every subject moves the student forward intellectually? I am only aware of research that indicates that it is counterproductive.

    This article is particularly valuable because it provides the students’ perspective. Made clear is the intense academic pressures felt by high school students that are not understood by most of us who never experienced academic stress until college.

    The inflexibility of schedules, continuous loading of homework, and absence of course syllabi that specify all student submission requirements can make high school more burdensome for students than what they are likely experience in college. Let’s remember, in college, students have much more control over their work schedules. In making their course selections, students can often select from multiple sections of a particular course, choosing the schedule option that works best. Courses usually don’t meet more than a couple times a week. Also, because detailed course schedules are provided in each course syllabus, students know the due dates for all homework assignments from the start of the term.

    What do we want for students completing secondary education? I would contend that we should want them to be prepared and eager to pursue their intellectual and vocational potential – to have curiosity, critical thinking skills, communication skills, and a basic foundation in the humanities, arts, and sciences. None of these require homework in constant volume. On the contrary, if you want to inexorably drain a student of their academic enthusiasm, just continually overload them with homework. We don’t need to have students writing novels before they can write a good sentence, let alone a good paragraph.

    I want teachers who continually work to refine course plans so that learning objectives can be met in the most efficient and enjoyable manner. I would love to see some flexibility in homework due dates so that students’ extracurricular activities can be enjoyed guilt-free. Furthermore, I would like to see some collaboration among teachers in pacing larger projects so that time crunches among courses don’t all occur at once. Students do need to develop good study habits and approach their studies in a sustainable manner. But they shouldn’t sacrifice the extracurricular activities that bring joy in order to find more time for homework – that is a pathetic proposition.

    We should de-emphasize the importance of IB and AP classes. These selections should be something that occurs naturally based on the student’s interest level. Learning is a marathon; pacing is very important to sustaining effort and enjoyment. Students do not need to have a perfect GPA and high ACT scores in high school in order to reach their intellectual potential. It is not so important where a student starts in higher education – community colleges are looking more sensible all the time. This sort of beginning does not put a ceiling on what a student can achieve. My neighbor, who just completed medical school, attended community college for a couple of years.

    Most importantly, I would recommend that school administrators and education policy makers back off. Let’s let teachers teach. Give them learning objectives and let them do what they know how to do. By prescribing in too much detail, the outline and format of instruction, while pushing redundant standardized tests that provide no value to students and teachers, administrators are going to make teaching a very undesirable profession. Nancie Atwell, recent winner of the Varkey Foundation’s first Global Teacher Prize, had said precisely that.


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