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NCLB Outrages

Testing: One, Two, Three

Ohanian Comment: Anna Quindlen's piece is getting wide circulation. You'll see why. Anna Quindlen expresses rage at the process, and by the forced march that seems to have replaced creative thought, critical thinking and joyful learning for so many kids. And she doesn't know the half of it. I wish she could see the desperate mail I get from parents and grandparents, begging for help. I wish she had a notion of how the very profession of teaching is being systematically destroyed. I wish she could convince teachers to speak up--and to act up.

It's that time of year again, when the sweaters come off, the annuals come
out, and the students prepare. For the test, for the test scores, for the
test schedule for next year. The kids of America are drowning in
multiple-choice questions, No. 2 pencils and acronyms. Along with the ABCs,
there are the GQEs (Graduation Qualifying Exam), the SOLs (Standards of
Learning), the TAKS (Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills) and of course
the SAT. A group called the National Center for Fair & Open Testing
estimates that public schools give more than 100 million standardized tests
each year.

Full disclosure: in the interests of informed punditry I recently took a
practice SAT test, the first standardized test I have taken since 1969, and
by the end I thought the top of my head would blow off. Perhaps it was the
reading-comp section on Keats. Perhaps it was the fact that I believe
geometry is the Devil's work. Perhaps it was simply that doing any task for
nearly five hours challenges what Mother Theodosia used to call the ants in
my pants.

But more than anything I was enraged by the process, and by the forced march
that seems to have replaced creative thought, critical thinking and joyful
learning for so many kids. In "High Stakes," a look at the issue aired
recently by CNN's documentary unit, one teacher in Florida reported third
graders sobbing because they were so unhinged by the prospect of yet another
standardized test. "These kids are just tested out," the teacher said. Third

Our education system is broken; accountability and standards will fix it.
This is the mantra of government testing programs, from local certifications
to the federal No Child Left Behind program, which might as well be called
No Child Left Untested. That last grew out of something called the Texas
Miracle, in which the use of standardized tests in that state quickly led to
marked increases in student scores in a way that seemed too good to be true.
And it was. Whistle-blowers reported that teachers helped some kids to cheat
in elementary and middle schools, and that some ninth graders were being
repeatedly held back so their performance wouldn't depress scores for tests
administered in 10th grade. The CNN documentary reported that Austin High
School, for instance, had 1,160 ninth graders in 2000, yet fewer than 300
were enrolled in 10th grade the next year. Figuring that one out would make
an interesting SAT problem.

But even with testing free of that sort of fraud, the useful endpoint of all
this remains unclear. If test results were deconstructed to reveal that
phonics, say, was a weak point in a classroom, there might be curricular
value, but most of the time the tests are merely scored up or down for the
sake of the system-and the press conferences. Teachers are under so much
pressure to teach to the test that they are sometimes forced to move on
hastily and concentrate on the narrow and tedious, to skip over the
interesting side issues or questions that make for dynamic learning.

And what does this metastasizing testing, for every subject, at every
level, at every time of the year, do to kids? It has to mean that students
absorb the message that learning is a joyless succession of hoops through
which they must jump, rather than a way of understanding and mastering the
world. Every question has one right answer; the measure of a person is a
number. Being insightful, or creative, or, heaven forfend, counterintuitive
counts for nothing. This is: (a) benighted; (b) ridiculous; (c) sad; (d) all
of the above.

You know the answer.

Of course it is important to know that all students have learned to read,
that everyone can manage multiplication. But constant testing will no more
address the problems with our education system than constantly putting an
overweight person on the scale will cure obesity. Proponents trumpet the end
to social promotion. They are less outspoken about what comes next, about
what provisions are to be made for a student who is held back twice and then
drops out of school. The bureaucrats who have built their programs on test
results seem to have lost sight of any overarching point of education. Who
cares if the light comes on in their eyes if the numbers are good?

I wish more parents could find a way to protest this educational form of
child abuse. Some states are beginning to do so; Utah was willing to face
the loss of $76 million in federal education funds because officials there
decided not to follow federal testing standards. The Bush administration
insists that support for No Child Left Behind, which is largely a massive
testing program, is nevertheless widespread. Officials point to a national
survey that offered respondents this choice: which is the bigger problem,
children passing through U.S. schools without learning to read, or children
being forced to take too many tests? Of course any smart kid would see that
there's something wrong with that draconian choice, and that the inquiring
mind looks for answers somewhere in the middle. The real question for the
future is whether, after this barrage of mindless and endless assessment,
there will be any inquiring minds left.

— Anna Quindlen


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