Julia Steiny: Unplugged Elementary Kids and Online Tests Don’t Mix

by Julia Steiny

Recently I was at a luncheon where a Mom and Grandma minded their two-year-old by plugging him into a propped-up iPad and putting food at his right hand.  He remained inert unless the iPad fell flat or snacks ran out.  But twice in the roughly two-plus hours his animal self erupted out of the e-prison.  Unexpressed energy thrashed his body until he could get out of the high chair to run, screaming at the top of his lungs, with the two women giving chase.  Both times his restlessness was sated after tearing around uncontrollably for a while, when he willingly returned to his addictions.  Guests shrugged it off because, after all, this is the new normal.

Julia Steiny

Only 20 years ago, teachers, me and others bemoaned the posture of children watching TV — passive, glazed-eyed, slumped.  Now we’re maddened by the behavior and the nano-second attention span of plugged-in children.  Doctors, among others, beg parents to limit “screen time.”  Children should have 2 or 3 hours of rough-and-tumble play every day, but they don’t get that.  Electronic sitters and sedatives are too convenient for the adults.

Increasingly, teachers and doctors see physical, psychological and behavioral disorders.  Heavy technology use is associated with epidemic levels of childhood obesity and diabetes, as well as soaring rates of ADHD, autism, developmental, physical and speech delays, learning difficulties, sensory-processing and sleep disorders, anxiety and depression.

The terrific Susan Linn calls the commercial world of electronics “mitigated reality.”  But young children need to download the software of real reality by getting out in it, falling down and going boom, discovering insects, making friends, mud pies and forts, exploring the neighborhood.  Currently a minority of families, usually well-educated, keeps their kids unplugged and learning the way biology built their brains to learn.

Don’t get me wrong:  Skype with Grandma is fine.  Assisted technologies for special-needs children and anything that gets squirmy children through a coast-to-coast flight are just fine.  But.

Children need a childhood first, technology much later.

By grade 5 or 6, children have had an actual childhood and are starting to bump up against puberty.  The pre-adolescent brain gains significantly increased capacity for abstraction and needs complex challenges.  Computer skills, including internet research and coding, can draw students back into the world of learning, just as young adolescents are asserting themselves and detaching from childhood ways.  There’s no downside to putting off computers, except the inconvenience to adults.

But elementary public schools have no choice but to plug kids in.  Third-graders must be ready to be successful on online standardized tests.  So little ones, kindergartners, prepare for computer-based tests from the moment the schools can get them started.  If schools don’t, the kids’ poor results will feed the naming-and-shaming frenzy that characterizes the education-industry’s punitive use of otherwise interesting data.

Since the passage of NCLB in 2002, annual online testing has become the new norm.  Students in grades 3-8 — and one grade in high school — have been tested with computer-based assessments every year since.  Now the fast on-coming Common Core tests, PARCC and Smarter Balance, will not just be online, but administered more often, with interim and so-called “formative” assessments.  While education leaders give lip service to “alternative assessments,” they don’t mean portfolios, writing samples, paper-pencil tests, or any way of assessing kids that doesn’t collect data via computer and score it electronically.

High-tech data collection made online testing seem essential.

Scoring the old paper-pencil, bubble-in tests was expensive, even with scanners and other machinery helping the process.  Prior to the 1990s, the norm was to give one basic-skills test in elementary, middle and high school.  Buzz generated by the release of the scores died down quickly and indifference set in.  Ultimately, the data weren’t very useful.  And without the data, the public had no idea how underserved certain kids were.  So no one, including me, wants to return to the days of zero information about the quality of the schools.  We want data, but not necessarily via kids on computers.

Families committed to keeping their elementary-age kids unplugged are forced to home-school or pay for private schools.  Not even charters offer an out because they have the same public-reporting accountability requirements as every other public school.

So who’s thinking this through?  If we don’t like the unteachable behavior of plugged in kids, what are we doing plugging kindergartners into online testing?  We can’t wag our fingers at parents and homes for delivering distracted, impulsive kids, and then plug them in at school for “educational” purposes.  The situation is a mess.

Technology is convenient.  Kids are not.  If we don’t slow down to pay attention to their needs, we’re going to raise a whole lot of young adults whom we don’t like and who aren’t good for much.

Julia Steiny is a freelance columnist who also blogs about Restorative Practices and Restorative Justice.  After serving on the Providence School Board, she became the Providence Journal’s education columnist for 16 years, and has written for many other outlets.  As the founding director of the Youth Restoration Project, she’s been building demonstration projects in Rhode Island since 2008.  She analyses data and provides communications consulting on Information Works! and the RIDataHUB, through The Providence Plan.  For more detail, seejuliasteiny.com or contact her at juliasteiny@gmail.com or 24 Corliss Street #40022, Providence, RI 02904.

Julia Steiny
Julia Steiny is a freelance columnist writing about kids and schools through the lens of Restorative Practices and Restorative Justice. Currently she is Project Manager for a National Institute of Justice grant to study the effectiveness of restorative conferencing programs now being implemented in six Rhode Island Schools. Steiny is the founding director of the Youth Restoration Project, the design partner in the grant. After serving a term on the Providence School Board, for 16 years she wrote the Providence Journal's weekly education column. Since 1998, she has consulted with The Providence Plan on data analysis and communications, helping to develop Information Works! for the RI Department of Education and the RIDataHUB. For more, see juliasteiny.com or contact her at juliasteiny@youthrestorationproject.org. The Youth Restoration Project has a Facebook page with news and resources on the Restoration movement in the US and internationally.
Julia Steiny