The Scarlett Letter on my shirt will be an “O”
I am neck deep in a very serious decision-making process about whether I am going to opt my child out of the many, many standardized tests that are headed in her direction. And I don’t mean just for this year; I mean opt out for the foreseeable future.
She is set to take her first test next week—a district mandated benchmark exam complete with multiple choice bubbles!—and as of now, since I’m still in information gathering mode, she will be sitting for it. But lo, this rabbit hole is fraught with switchbacks and multi-forked roads, and what I’ve discovered so far leads me—I should say, leads us—toward the very scary, very unpopular, very not-supported, very dangerous option of opting out. I’m scared to do it, for many reasons. But I’m more scared of what will happen if I make my kid take all of these ridiculous, meaningless (yes, meaningless) tests that I do not believe in.
It would be really great if I were able to get a group of parents at my daughter’s school to boycott a certain test as an act of civil disobedience (there’s power in numbers). Well, look. If I’m going to dream, I might as well dream big: I want many groups of parents, teachers and administrators all across my city to boycott all of the tests for one year. I want us as a group to push back against NCLB and Obama’s Blueprint and our state’s “mandates” and our district’s requirements and say a collective no, we do not believe such testing (and accompanying curriculum) to be in the best interest of the children.
No, you will not teach our children math and reading, math and reading, math and reading, at the expense of art and science and social studies and music and physical education. No, you will not teach them how best to memorize or perfect the process of elimination, forsaking creative problem solving and critical thinking and curiosity. No, you will not mine our children for data to which you can then point and twist so it fits your argument for dismantling the public school system for which I pay. No, you will not suffocate, strangle, bludgeon and clobber the love of learning out of them with your teaching to a battery of largely meaningless standardized tests. No, they will not be your collateral damage. No, we will not be held hostage by threats to withhold funding for each child who skips the tests to go to a museum, instead. Just: NO.
Anyway. That is my dream and nobody can take it away from me.
In the meantime, my research led me to the following compelling excerpt from a longer and equally !!! must-read piece written by Alfie Kohn, a leading progressive thinker who opposes the rabid movement to privatize (yes, charters, I’m talking about you) our public school system. He is outspoken on the topics of homework for young kids and the incessant testing forced on our children. Time magazine described Kohn as “perhaps the country’s most outspoken critic of education’s fixation on grades [and] test scores.”
Before drinking the Kool-Aid being pushed by the ever-more-powerful and rabid “reformers,” spend some time reading Alfie Kohn.
I try to imagine myself as a privatizer. How would I proceed? If my objective were to dismantle public schools, I would begin by trying to discredit them. I would probably refer to them as “government” schools, hoping to tap into a vein of libertarian resentment. I would never miss an opportunity to sneer at researchers and teacher educators as out-of-touch “educationists.” Recognizing that it’s politically unwise to attack teachers, I would do so obliquely, bashing the unions to which most of them belong. Most important, if I had the power, I would ratchet up the number and difficulty of standardized tests that students had to take, in order that I could then point to the predictably pitiful results. I would then defy my opponents to defend the schools that had produced students who did so poorly.
How closely does my thought experiment match reality? One way to ascertain the actual motivation behind the widespread use of testing is to watch what happens in the real world when a lot of students manage to do well on a given test. Are schools credited and teachers congratulated? Hardly. The response, from New Jersey to New Mexico, is instead to make the test harder, with the result that many more students subsequently fail. [Addendum 2009: “Math scores are up on Long Island and statewide – enough so that state educational leaders could soon start raising the bar….Meryl Tisch of Manhattan, the new Chancellor of the state’s Board of Regents, said…’What today’s scores tell me is not that we should be celebrating but that New York State needs to raise its standards” (Newsday, June 1, 2009.]
Consider this item from the Boston Globe:
As the first senior class required to pass the MCAS exam prepares for graduation, state education officials are considering raising the passing grade for the exam. State Education Commissioner David Driscoll and Board of Education chairman James Peyser said the passing grade needs to be raised to keep the test challenging, given that a high proportion of students are passing it on the first try. . . . Peyser said as students continue to meet the standard, the state is challenged to make the exam meaningful.(9)
You have to admire the sheer Orwellian chutzpah represented by that last word. By definition, a test is “meaningful” only if large numbers of students (and, by implication, schools) fare poorly on it. What at first seems purely perverse – a mindless acceptance of the premise that harder is always better – reveals itself instead as a strategic move in the service of a very specific objective. Peyser, you see, served for eight years as executive director of the conservative Pioneer Institute, a Boston-based think tank devoted to “the application of free market principles to state and local policy” (in the words of its website). The man charged with overseeing public education in Massachusetts is critical of the very idea of public education. And how does he choose to pursue his privatizing agenda? By raising the bar until alarming failure(10) is assured.