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.



13 Responses to The Scarlett Letter on my shirt will be an “O”

  • Tim Slekar says:
  • Are you a member of our Facebook group page dedicated to opting out/ending high stakes testing? Our website is !!! Email me if you have questions! We are planning and organizing for mass opt out!!!!
    Peggy Robertson

  • Anna says:

    I feel exactly the same about how they are teaching our children. Reading and math, reading and math…to nausea. By the time they get to college they won’t have any curiosity for learning anything left.

  • Gab says:

    So, I’m torn on this. I think there’s too much testing, too much time spent preparing for and taking tests. Federal, state, district, I wish someone knowledgeable would just figure out how to cut out the redundancy. I’m guessing that the SDUSD department of assessment needs to come up with new tests all the time to justify their existence.

    But. I am also pretty pissed off about the “achievement gap” at my school (white kids do better on the tests than black and latino kids). It’s F’d up and they’d better fix it. And I’m not sure they would know that there IS an achievement gap without testing. At some level, assessment should tell the school or district where it’s failing students so they can step it up.

    • Aaryn says:

      Oh, the achievement gap. Have you seen Tavis Smiley’s “Too Important to Fail”? He’s talking about it. It’s worth watching. And yes, tests can help to illuminate deficiencies. But why should students be subjected to test after test after test? I read an article a few months ago (I can’t remember where or I would link, but I’ll find supporting documentation in my upcoming research, I’m sure), that fifth graders in California take 16 standardized tests a year. IN ONE YEAR. That is ridiculous. And what bothers me most about the tests—or, rather, one of the things that really bothers me—is that they define the curriculum, both content and method of teaching. It’s infuriating. Finally, with regard to the benchmark, my teacher has been in close communication with me about where my daughter is right now (she’s behind, which is another series of blog posts) and we are working with her, the resource teacher, and the principal to get her caught up. All of this began a month ago, which is to say, I have my benchmark, as does the school. I don’t need my kid to sit for an hour transcribing her answers from one bubbled in sheet to another (the Scantron). I need her to be learning how to think creatively, individually, globally.

      Testing is fine if done right and in moderation. Testing done as a way of assessing teachers or as a means to a political end is deplorable because it leaves out the singular most important people in the equation: The kids, who our cynical system deems to be collateral damage. It’s totally screwed up.

  • kerryanne says:

    Uhm…were NOT tested till blood ran from our ears :)

  • kerryanne says:

    The one sticking point for me in our plans to return to the US in the next few years is the state of schools. We can handle just about anything else, but putting our kids in the school system scares the crap out of me. It is *nothing* like what it was when I was growing up. Not perfect, but we had art, gym, music, and were tested till our blood ran from our ears.

    Opt out. Be brave and do it. You might find others will follow your lead. Good luck- will be interested to see how it goes for you. Ruby is going to be brilliant no matter what because 1. she’s smart and 2. she has parents who care about her brain and stimulate it outside of the classroom…

    • Aaryn says:

      Hi KerryAnne,

      Please see my response to Jenn. And yes, I’m going to be opting Ruby out of the next benchmark…seeing as how she gets to take it two more times this school year.
      As for next year, the mandated testing can go fuck itself.
      (I’m a little mad right now.)

  • Elizabeth says:

    Opt out. Jenn, At our girls school (also in CA), the 1st graders fill in bubbles. I, of course, can’t speak for every 1st grade classroom.

    I resent the lack of creativity and lost learning time that comes with 2 weeks of standardized testing. I’m not entirely clear on what purpose they serve in a private school setting. I don’t believe that they adequately address where a child is in their learning process. To me, the results are meaningless and they’ve wasted my kids time. It’s hard for me to fake interest when they present the results to me, no matter whether they are good or bad.

    • Aaryn says:

      Hi Elizabeth,

      Please see my response to Jenn. And stay tuned for my post on Ruby’s first art class of the year. It’s special!!! All I will say as the teaser is that I’m glad it’s only taught once every 6 to 8 weeks.

  • You might find you are are able to start a movement–I think it would certainly be worth it for you to try.

    Are you sure she’s going to have to bubble in the answers on the benchmark? That is seriously inappropriate for a first-grader; usually the kids will just do the pencil/paper version and the teacher will transfer the answers. Check on that because benchmarks are not a terrible thing in and of themselves.

    • Aaryn says:

      Hi Jenn. Yes, she is bubbling answers. The principal showed me the benchmark test for first graders and it is not on scantron, but it is a fill-in-the bubble test. AND! I talked to her teacher this morning to find out when she would be administering this exam and she told me that they did the math yesterday. Her exact words were, “We powered through the math. It took an hour.” Nice, right? I, of course had to laugh, as she explained that it took that long because she went around to each child teaching them how to transcribe their answers to Scantron (don’t forget, too, that the math is all in English and she was having to read it all out loud to them in French so they could then complete the exam). Now, I really like our teacher but (excuse my French here) WHAT THE MOTHERFUCK KIND OF FUCKING SYSTEM IS THIS? Fuck the school board, fuck the state, fuck Bush’s NCLB and fuck Obama and his blueprint.

      I mean for Pete’s sake, why should a six-year-old (or seven- or eight- or nine- year old) have to be doing fill in the bubble tests then transferring the answers to Scantron? I do not see the value, and that’s probably because there is little value.

  • MAYBELLINE says:

    Good luck to you and other parents that join you. My kids were out of the system before the ridiculous testing was imposed. Yes, they had art, music, and PE. Each thinks so much differently than the other and yet they made it through the public system. The power is in the parents. Get involved and stay involved to may the school the best it should be.

    Good luck.

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