Dawn Reader

Dawn Reader
from Open Door Coffee Co.; Hudson, OH; Oct. 26, 2016

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Standardized Tests: Opting Out?

The New York Times ran a story yesterday (Sunday) about the increasing number of parents--from all walks of life--who are refusing to let their sons and daughters sit for the standardized tests that have overwhelmed public education in recent years. (Link to the article.)

Here's a paragraph that hit home: What is happening is a revolution not simply against a methodology but in some sense against a class system that to a great extent has left progressive education--with its excited learners immersed for months in astronomy or medievalism or Picasso--the province of those able to send their children to some of the best private schools, or with the means to live in places with leading public schools.

What the Test Maniacs seem to ignore is this: Education is not principally about learning a set of specific facts (the sort of things that tests love to measure--because it's easy to do so) but about maintaining the intellectual curiosity all of us are born with and helping make all of us (cliche warning) "lifelong learners"--people who remain curious, remain critical (in the positive sense of that word), remain committed to learning until that clock of mortality in each of us ticks its last.

Dickens, by the way, wrote about this sort of lunacy in Hard Times (1854), creating the memorable (mindless) characters of Thomas Gradgrind and Mr. M'Chaokumchild, who mercilessly pounded facts into the heads of children. Dickens' attitudes appear clearly just in the names of those two idiots. (It's one of Dickens' shortest novels--check it out if you haven't--you can read it free online!) (Link to Hard Times)

In my view--and experience--the emphasis on standardized testing does nothing but subvert and even destroy the aim of a liberal education--of creating curious creatures. As I've written here before: If standardized tests are used not to diagnose students' needs but  to evaluate and rank teachers, administrators, school systems, then the tests will become the curriculum, and the kids--especially the bright and talented ones--become the victims of our madness. (Hell, I'd sneak my iPhone into class, too, if all we did was go over test-prep materials, day after day, month after bloody month.) And those subjects not on the tests (music, art, Shakespeare, whatever) slide to the side so that we can focus on the important things--i.e., the things on the test. Things we can measure. (Or think we can.)

And--as I've said here before--I am not opposed to common learnings, even common texts (would I object if every middle school kid had to read, oh, The Call of the Wild? Every high school kid, Hamlet?). But, if we test kids on the few common texts we select, and if we print the results in the paper, and if we rank teachers and administrators and schools on those scores, then ... surprise-surprise: They become the entire literature curriculum. The Call of the Wild + Hamlet.

And I'm also not opposed to diagnostic tests, ones that answer such questions as What are this kid's strengths? Weaknesses? What can we do to help? But those are manifestly not the sorts of tests that have flooded our schools with multiple-choice questions and anxiety.

At any rate, I'm encouraged by the parents' initiative here. It's a bit much to expect public school teachers and administrators to lead the charge against the formidable forces of testing (have you read "The Charge of the Light Brigade"?). School employees are vulnerable--not just because they're employees but because they have a hard time responding to this sort of logic: Sure, you're opposed to the tests because you're afraid of what they'll show about you!

But maybe if this nascent parent movement gains some traction--maybe if the Test Maniacs begin to feel a little fear--maybe if they actually start thinking about what they've wrought (as Victor Frankenstein eventually did)--maybe if we remember that it's our own children whom we're boring to death--maybe then the Light Brigade will actually prevail, and our schools will once again have a chance to become centers of learning and of excitement and novelty--instead of what they are now: something more akin to your local DMV.

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