Law School Autism Mom: Scene Three-Aren’t We All Being Tested?

Testing is a controversial topic in the world of education today. The national shift to common core standards demanded a new assessment and most states have chosen either the electronic PARCC or SBAC to replace the paper and pencil tests of the past. These assessments are difficult as standards are far more rigorous, districts have not been given enough time to adjust and there is a learning curve for students when taking a test on a computer.

Parents around the country are choosing to “opt” their children out of these assessments. Some are parents of special needs children, claiming that the test is creating excessive anxiety in their child. Some are morally opposed to testing and are opting their students out to take a stand. Others are telling their children that the test doesn’t matter and they don’t have to take it seriously.

All of these choices fall within parental rights and everyone is entitled their own opinions about testing. But here is the thing: aren’t we all being tested? Isn’t testing a part of our culture? Doctors are required to take the MCAT to get into medical school and then take the USMLE to obtain a medical license. Lawyers have to take the LSAT to get into law school and must pass the Bar Exam to practice law in any given state. Teachers are required to pass several PRAXIS exams, and it is required that my own child is tested every 3 years to make sure that he is still autistic.

I recently took the LSAT exam, which is a requirement of all students planning to attend law school. The test consists of 4 multiple-choice sections (2 logical reasoning, 1 analytical reasoning and 1 reading comprehension) and one essay. You are given 35 minutes to complete each section. I knew that completing this exam was mandatory and as someone who was always a good student, I wasn’t worried about it. I arrogantly thought that completing a Sixth Year Degree in Education Leadership would translate into any academic setting –one look at the logic games section of the LSAT and I realized that I was wrong.

 I had an epiphany while studying for the LSAT. There are courses that cost thousands of dollars that can help you do well on the test but I felt strongly that this defeated the purpose. Don’t law schools want to know who I am organically? Don’t they want a true assessment of my strengths and areas in need of growth as a learner? Why would they want me to take a course that enabled me to ace an exam, as that only proves that I can be taught how to take a test, not that I have what it takes to be an attorney?

This question stunned me as I come from the world of education. My own career has relied heavily on student achievement and test scores. I spent a great deal of time preparing students for assessments. As a teacher and administrator, I administered formative assessments, summative assessments, benchmark assessments, state assessments. Each time the data came back, I poured myself into analysis and tried to make decisions that made sense for the students that I served. I enjoyed this process, I believed in this process and to this day I think that there needs to be consistent measurement of learning. But I never really considered that this type of testing and teaching to a test extended so deeply into the professional world. And I never really considered that a test like the LSAT, a test that could potentially decide a person’s career, would be one that you could purchase a course to learn how to take.

And yet, isn’t that what so much of school has become? Districts are working tirelessly to implement common-core, create professional learning communities, foster inquiry-based learning and yet at the end of the day you cannot get away from the fact that districts, schools, administrators and teachers are evaluated by student performance on state assessments. Advanced Placement classes in high school prepare students for the Advanced Placement assessments and scores on these assessments inform a student’s college track. Realtors include a town’s performance on assessments in the information they use to sell houses. As I get ready to enter law school, I recognize that much of my coursework is designed to help prepare me for the bar exam. It is a cycle of testing that we, as a nation are caught in.

The day that I took the LSAT exam, I entered the testing space and sat next to a girl who was silently crying. I had my required Ziploc bag of allotted items and I could see that she had forgotten hers. She didn’t even have a pencil. I put on my mom/teacher hat, handed her a couple of pencils (I had about 50 in my bag, because well, you never know), a granola bar and one of the two waters I had brought. After she thanked me, she said: “I think I might throw up” and ran out of the room. She never came back.

When she left, I thought about all of our students who feel anxious about testing and the amount of school days they spend testing (average is about 35). I thought of our special needs students, how difficult it is for many of them to navigate through these tests and how they must feel before school on testing days. How challenging it is for parents of special needs students to coax their children to go to school on testing days, knowing how frustrating and soul-crushing it can be for their child.

I considered my own anxiety levels; which were quite high before, during and after the LSAT exam. I wondered what would happen to the girl who left the LSAT. Would she try again? Would the angst of taking this test prevent her from pursuing law? If so, she probably wasn’t meant to be an attorney. Then the bell rang and it was time to take the test. The test itself is about 4 hours. I was fortunate, as afterwards, I could go home and take a nap to help regulate myself after the experience. Students around the country don’t have this luxury, as they are expected to test and return to a full school day.

I believe that those who feel there is no value in testing are missing what I did: that regardless of how we feel about it, testing follows us throughout our lives. We do need to be able to take tests-it is that simple. Until this changes at the very highest level, I don’t see it changing in schools. We can (and should) advocate to place less-weight on the results and evaluate the social and emotional impact it has on our students; ultimately, the tests may change but we will continue to test.

Taking the LSAT was a powerful experience for me as it forced me into the role of “test taker,” after years of being the “result seeker,” and I have a newfound empathy for our students, especially those with special needs. I received a good score and the truth is, I felt great about it. It gave me confidence when I sent in my law school applications. Many of our struggling students never receive a score that creates this sense of self-esteem and we need to make sure that our children internalize that they are so much more than a proficiency level.

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