Near the end of this school year, I had the chance to watch sixth graders gathered on a slope observing rockets of all colors and sizes launch off a makeshift pad. Some participated in the countdown – 5, 4, 3, 2, 1…. a reminder of my own childhood experiences sitting on the cafeteria floor, an entire elementary school listening to the numbers moving backwards in now ancient countdowns for the Mercury launches. Back then, we squinted to see the tiny black and white television planted on a slightly raised stage. Here, each cheer from the watching crowd prompted classmates, part of a recovery crew, to chase across the well-worn soccer field, jumping high to retrieve falling rockets.
I thought as I watched them that they were all Rocket Kids under a June sky – enjoying a beautiful day outdoors, exhilarated with each rocket’s successful launch into the brilliant blue above. Some might think this a waste of time, kids outdoors chatting with each other and their teachers rather than inside filling out worksheets or listening to explanations of “rigorous” math problems. However, I like to think that just as I recalled the feeling of cool tile under my legs while watching Mr. Blake, my principal, tune in those Mercury launches decades ago, these kids will look back and remember watching their own rocket launches and hopefully a little science, too. At the least, some will remember a wonderful spring day at school with friends.
Across the nation and in classrooms in my district, I also knew on that beautiful June day other students were laboring over pages of required state tests as they attempted to demonstrate what they’ve learned to people who will never see the faces of these children taking tests. May and June, perhaps more so than other months, represent billions of dollars of state contracts for standardized test administration. For many children, the dollars spent on testing represent basic resources they could use in their classrooms, field trips to art museums and historical sites long cut from school budgets, or even opportunities such as the rocketry activity that make textbook science real to these middle schoolers. This isn’t a financial tradeoff that’s keeping a love of learning alive in our children I fear.
Every year as the scores roll in, we educators talk about children who know far more than shows in their test results. Watching the Rocket Kids, I wondered who among them is labeled test-proficient … or not.
Listening to their shouts and laughter, I wanted each of the children in the sunshine to be seen for their strengths, not as deficits in their school community. They deserve to be viewed as more than a number, counted as more than a pass or fail by computers sorting them into spread sheets, numerical characters lost in big data. It’s not that I’m against assessment. But, I am against the mass standardization of learning that’s sapping creativity and divergent thinking out of our nation’s future.
These kids wouldn’t have found much joy in making rockets that all looked the same nor would they have been as interested in tracking flight paths if they all flew about the same distance into the air. I’m sure they won’t pursue future careers in science because of the tests they’ve taken this spring. And, I wouldn’t want them to anyway. We need children to grow up and become inventors, designers, artists, builders, healers and even historians because it takes a world of diversity and interests to make communities, states, and our nation better for us all.
As the children labored to get rockets into the air, chased after blown up parts and parachutes gliding to earth, chanted the launch count backwards, I am certain I see an engineer out there alongside a poet, a programmer, a teacher, a carpenter.
I bet that my elementary principal saw great promise in the children under his care, too. He might even have thought of us as Rocket Kids.