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The Straightjacket of Standardized Tests

Publication Date: 2003-02-25

Get out your handkerchiefs. But you'll also be cheering. This is from http://www.nea.org/neatoday/0303/cover.html and is an adaptation of an article that originally appeared in The Oregonian.

When I first met Sol Shapiro he was in his 80s, living alone in a retirement home. He was the first person my Portland high school history class interviewed for an oral history project about old South Portland, Oregon. My students were primarily African American. Sol was Jewish. They were young. He was old. Neither was really excited about the encounter.

We met in Sol's apartment. The interview began.

"My name is Sol Shapiro. I am very familiar with old South Portland." Silence. Quietly, almost imperceptibly, Sol began to weep. My students were stunned. They turned off the video camera. Soon Felicia ventured to place her hand on Sol's shoulder, "It's OK, Mr. Shapiro, we understand."

Sol cleared his throat, removed his glasses, and dabbed his tears. "Excuse me, please," he said. "I'm very sorry." He rose and left the room. My students looked at me with puzzled expressions. "What do we do now?"

We waited. After a few minutes, Sol returned. He started sharing artifacts from his life with us, a steady stream of photographs, letters, and religious pieces, each accompanied by a tale from his past. Students came to class the next day with a new outlook on old people.

Unfortunately, given the demands of current educational "reform," teachers who want to give their students this kind of indelible learning experience are finding it more and more difficult to do.

We feel pressured to prepare students to do well on high-stakes, standardized tests. These tests have become the measure of our students' learning. Clearly, the tests threaten to define the way we teach. In a world enriched with difference, the hidden curriculum of much of this "reform" is singularity, sameness, and compliance.

What could a multiple-choice test reveal about what my students learned in the South Portland project? Lives changed. Students were moved to social action. They sat in an orthodox synagogue with yarmulkes on their heads and learned about Judaism. They became passionate experts on urban renewal.

Oral history can be a powerful classroom tool. Out of necessity, students acquire valuable skills in pursuit of learning that matters. They formulate questions for interviews. They work collectively to solve problems that threaten to derail hours of work. Text needs to be written and written well. Discovery leads to questions, and research is needed to find answers to those questions. Research leads to surprise, surprise breeds excitement, excitement spills over into passion.

James never missed history class. Often, he had to sneak in and out of my room to hide from the dean because he rarely attended his other classes. He was our number one cameraman and interviewer. Jennifer uncovered a quote from a neighborhood meeting, long lost in dusty boxes, that moved her to angry tears. History came alive for her when she read the comment of a state official about the people who would be moved by urban renewal: "Frankly, we don't give a damn about the renters."

The result of our work was a 30-minute documentary about South Portland and the urban renewal that destroyed it. We were invited to show it at the Portland Art Museum auditorium. I got there early and stood outside to help direct my students and their families to a facility where none had ever been, in a part of town where few ever ventured.

About 250 people attended our premiere that night. The students deftly answered questions and talked extensively about their experience. Afterward, students, their families, and former residents of South Portland gathered at my home. Students commandeered my stereo, and their music boomed throughout the house. I went to turn it down, but stopped when I saw what was going on in my living room. Dancing hand in hand were two groups of people about as different as I could imagine and who, when I first approached them about getting together, resisted the idea. Young, old, African-American, Jewish were joined together in a celebration of each other and of the new understanding that our project helped them achieve. They embraced the differences that once kept them apart.

Find me the standardized test that can measure the meaning of that embrace.

Tom McKenna (tmckenna@pps.k12.or.us) is the Social Studies Coordinator for Portland Public Schools. This article is adapted from a story originally published in The Oregonian. Names have been changed

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