Parent Perspectives

An Unlikely Opponent

By Lisa Guisbond

Lisa Guisbond lives in Brookline with her husband and two sons, Max, a second grader, and Gabriel, just starting preschool at two. She has worked for 19 years as an editor and writer for a range of publications and is now focusing her energies on caring for her family and working to educate people about the negative consequences of high-stakes testing as co-chair of Brookline Coalition for Authentic Reform in Education (CARE), a chapter of a statewide organization working against high-stakes testing and for education reform.

Thanks to the MCAS, I have a new avocation. I spend many hours each week writing letters to the editor, organizing other parents and teachers, standing on busy street corners handing out leaflets, collecting petition signatures, and talking to people about an education policy I believe has gone seriously amuck.

I'm an unlikely candidate for this job. As a student, I was an excellent test-taker, compliant, good at following instructions. If my son had been born with a replica of my wiring, I might be spending my spare time in other ways. But I have a child with a learning disability, and last year, as I started investigating the MCAS, I became worried about what this policy will mean for his future. As I have continued to read and ask and listen, I have become increasingly uneasy, then fearful, and finally angry at how our political leaders have allowed this policy to be implemented.

My son has an awesome vocabulary and an imagination that soars. He is creative and funny, with an astonishing memory. He learned to speak by memorizing entire books and repeating relevant sections of text or dialogue from them. At three, however, he couldn't do something so simple as ask another child to play. In second grade, he is still struggling to learn to read, has a tenuous grasp of the simplest math concepts, and is just beginning to have the fine motor control to be able to write, although he is a prolific artist. Although for now his self-esteem seems pretty intact, he is acutely aware of the academic disparities between him and his classmates.

Nevertheless, I have great expectations for his future, assuming he is encouraged to develop his natural abilities and does not become mired in frustration and hopelessness. In a school system whose centerpiece is the MCAS, I fear his talents and skills will be given short shrift, and school will become the place where he is constantly reminded that he does not measure up to his peers. The literature on his disability warns of a heightened risk for depression and suicide during adolescence, a concern that seems all the more salient in a system that begins labeling children as "needing improvement" or "failing" as young as nine years old.

MCAS proponents put their faith in high-stakes testing to light a fire under students who presumably just haven't felt enough pressure to perform to high standards. When I look at my son and other childrensome learning disabled, some notthis attitude strikes me as painfully backward. I know a child whose anxiety in school is so pronounced that if he starts feeling too much pressure, he will sometimes begin shrieking. Some disabled children take anti-anxiety drugs to allow them to function in school, but teachers have to minimize their anxiety level in other ways just so they can process information. The last thing these kids need is a deliberate policy of exerting pressure in order to force them to learn.

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