Fighting back against mandatory school testing: It’s my way or the highway, says No Child Left Behind—but is it really?

The red pillow takes the least space. The yellow pillow takes more space than the blue pillow. Which of the following is not true:

  • The red pillow takes more space than the blue pillow.
  • The yellow pillow takes more space than the red pillow.
  • The blue pillow takes more space than the red pillow.
  • The red pillow takes less space than the yellow pillow.
  • The blue pillow is the one I will bury my face in while I cry myself to sleep because my frustrated child told me today, “I’m a loser.”

That there is a real homework question (mostly) from my child’s third week in first grade. She’s in a language immersion program and isn’t reading fluently in any language just yet, so problems like these need to be dictated to her. This is typical of the state-mandated curriculum taught every day at her public school and of the battery of tests she’ll take during the next 11 years beginning this past October. Never let it be said I didn’t offer you readers birth control.

Folks, if you think the people leading us today are fucked up, wait until you see what our schools are going to churn out in the next decade and beyond.

Exactly one year ago, San Diego Unified School District Superintendent Bill Kowba spoke on an episode of KPBS’s These Days radio show about a “lost generation” of children.

“If you were a kindergartner enrolled about 2007,” Kowba said, “and you moved forward, you’re in about the third grade now or so. All we have done is reduce the opportunities for you as a student.”

With the end of 2011 comes a much-needed four-week break for my generational refugee. For one month, she’ll be free from the barrage of multiple-choice, fill-in-the bubble worksheets and the drone of standardized-testing-based curriculum that now comprise the meat of our public-education system. Designed to prep the little ones for the revolving door of tests, the classwork being pushed is also perfect for squashing the curiosity right out of them.

According to Diane Ravitch, an education historian, former supporter of No Child Left Behind and outspoken critic of high-stakes testing, “No high-performing nation tests its students every year or uses student test scores to evaluate teacher quality.” That tells us a lot about our nation’s direction. Behold, our testing:

California students are to take federally mandated tests (the NAEP in grades 4, 8 and 12); state-mandated tests (STAR, which includes the CST, CAPA and CAMA tests for grades 2 through 11, and the CAHSEE in grades 10 through 12); and district-mandated tests (math-, science- and literacy-benchmark exams administered three times each year to grades 1 through 8 and end-of-course exams in grades 6 through 12—there are no cool acronyms for these). More tests are coming, too, thanks to Obama’s Blueprint. Are your eyes going all psychedelic kaleidoscope on you right now? Just wait. I’m about to add some neon.

Counted among the “voluntary” tests are the AP, EAP and IB exams. There are the college entrance exams—ACT, PSAT, SATI and SATII (how voluntary are these?)—that can be taken more than once! There’s the CELDT for new English-language learners and the infamous-amongst-parents GATE test because it supposedly identifies the cream of the crop. Of course, none of this includes the old-fashioned test—like the math and spelling tests my daughter takes at the end of each week.

With tests like these—and an ever-shortening school year—who has room for meaningful, inspiring instruction in any subject, let alone math and literacy? Certainly not teachers, who are at once hamstrung by the standards and made out to be the scapegoats of all that’s wrong with public education. Why anyone would want to be a teacher right now is beyond me.

I’ve said before that being a parent means going through school all over again. Nobody tells you this, and had I known way back when, I might have made a different decision about my future, settling on a reliable dog-sitter and lots of world travel instead.

More likely, I would have pressed ahead with my naiveté, thinking—like I did in 2005—How bad can it be? Schools have got to be better by the time my child is 5. Isn’t that quaint? The thought is so adorable that I want to pat it on the head and send it to bed with a warm cup of milk. And even if I’d been able to imagine a worst-case educational scenario, it still would’ve been a termite’s dust tower compared with the Mt. Kilimanjaro shit-pile that it is.

So, here I am at base camp of the shit-pile, faced with the daunting task of navigating my route to the top. Testing looms, and it pisses me off.

I’m angry that my kid is being held hostage to tests by a system that threatens to take away her school’s funding if she and her schoolmates don’t perform well. I’m angry that my child’s class spent an hour, during the math benchmark test in October, transcribing their answers from the test sheet to the Scantron sheet. I’m angry that whatever changes are coming to this system will not be soon enough—or even the right ones—to change the experience the “lost generation” will have.

I’m not willing to be complicit in it. So, we are opting out of the mandated testing. What? You didn’t know you know you can do that?

To be continued…

(Published Dec. 20, 2011 in San Diego CityBeat.)



  1. the use of violence and threats to intimidate or coerce, esp. for political purposes
  2. the state of fear and submission produced by terrorism or terrorization
  3. a terroristic method of governing or of resisting a government

I am unspeakably sickened by today’s murder of Dr. George Tiller, a man who dedicated his life to womens’ health, despite myriad intimidation tactics and at least one previous attempt on his life by psychotic idealogues who piously claim to be “pro-life.” Because my feelings at the news of this loss are so surprisingly strong, my instinct is to say that I’m as devastated as if I had known Dr. Tiller. But that would be insulting to those who did know him and love him, because there is no way my grief could ever compare to theirs. I mourn alongside them, though. And I wish I’d known him. He sounds like the kind of human being I would have liked to have known.

The method and unjustness of Tiller’s death is horrifying. It’s stomach-turning and fist-pounding and knee-buckling all at the same time. That a self-righteous whack-job could walk into a church and gun a man down during his time of worship simply because a part of the man’s job is disagreeable, is an unfathomable tragedy. It’s a tragedy for his family and his patients. But it’s also a devastating tragedy for women everywhere in this country.

It is disturbing on a molecular level because it feels like the proverbial shot fired from the bow of a ship, an open declaration of war. Of course, this war has been on for a very long time as this is not an isolated incident: Violence at the hands of “pro-lifers” is uncomfortably commonplace. But this feels particularly frightening given U.S. Marshals are being deployed to protect workers of women’s health clinics and the patients who seek their services.

Imagine being a woman in Wichita who, tomorrow, needs to walk into a Planned Parenthood to get her birth control pills. Or a pap smear. Or counseling. Or, yes, an abortion. Imagine being the people who work in these much-needed clinics all over the United States, a country whose Constitution protects a woman’s right to choose. Women should not be afraid to make choices about what is best for their health. Doctors and nurses and administrators and counselors should not be afraid to do the work they’ve been trained to do. That it should be so is wholly un-American.

The man who murdered Dr. Tiller is a terrorist and those in the pro-life movement who support what he’s done are terrorist sympathizers. They are Evil-Doers. These vile people are different from those 19 men who flew planes into the twin towers only in the God they worship.