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First Rule in Evaluating Schools: Check the Vomit Index

Publication Date: 2003-02-11

Is there any hope for a system where education leaders define "fun" as finding innovative ways to give standardized tests?

A couple of decades ago, editors at Esquire magazine asked prominent Americans--leaders in politics, entertainment, literary callings, and so on--to take the SAT and allow their scores to be published.

Without exception, people queried replied along these lines: "Of course not! What do you think I am, nuts?"

People who would sooner volunteer to stand naked before a joint session of Congress and sing the national anthem acapella than expose their own academic proficiencies don't hesitate to put young children in the high-stakes testing spotlight. Clearly, the only way to stop this abuse of children that travels under the name of schooling is to insist that people who believe in high standards and high-stakes testing must take the tests and allow their scores to be published. Then, maybe, just maybe, these Standardistos will think twice about what they do in the name of increasing test scores.

Writing in the 2/11/03 New York Times ("New York Releases List of Schools With Steep Gains on Tests"), Abby Goodnough gives an account of what is, at first glance, good news: New York State education officials released a list of 712 schools that have posted steep gains on standardized math and reading tests since 1999. Goddnough writes, "The officials declared the results proof that all schools, even those with the poorest students, could meet high standards."


We can hope that some schools will manage to hang on to the idea of the schoolhouse as a place of nurturing, exploration, and joy in discovery rather than test prep.

Yes, we can hope, though Emily Dickinson's "thing with feathers that perches in the soul" is looking more like a plucked chicken these days. As a longtime teacher in one of the upstate districts with three elementary schools on the "steep gains" list, I'd just ask, What is the vomit index?

How much art, music, gym, teacher read-alouds, students choosing their own books were children forced to give up in the name of preparing for the tests? What's happened to recess?

Being the good reporter she is, Goodnough gives a clue in the last paragraph:

Andrea Harris, the principal of P.S. 26, said that grouping students by ability for daily, 90-minute lessons in reading and math had helped raise scores. Upper-grade students also take weekly tests and the results are posted so students can see how many more correct answers they need to reach the next level. "We try to make them as real to standardized tests as possible, yet fun," she said. "It's important for them to know exactly what they need to move to the next level."

When a principal's definition of "fun" is giving students standardized tests every week--and posting the results for all to see--what would count as abuse?

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