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    "Just Give Them What They Want": Flooded By the Memories of Tests Gone By

    November 7, 2006

    Several times over the past three months different people have asked me the same question, "Are the "state tests" hurting kids, really?"

    I guess I do have lots of anecdotal stories to share about children being injured by the tests. But to read even one I feel you need to know me a bit better. Because nothing is easy in our current educational dialog and for me most everything is embedded in real world contexts as a teacher now working in an Under-performing school in a 'hood in California. And I come to this with a very complicated set of glasses I look through when I think about school and tests.

    Sometimes this year I was asked about state testing and new assessments in my program in a very pointed way, by a person at school seeking my "adherence" and/or allegiance to this new driving force in instruction. I call some of these inquisitive folks "test-a-holics," by the way, making my point in return. And I do wish we had something in education like AA, our own Test-a-holics Anonymous. Obviously from their armchair taking a week or two weeks in the mornings to do a state test is "no big deal, Sarah." Also it is no big deal if every three to six simple phonics stories, two days of instructional time is required ten times in the year to "administer" the Theme tests in the basal Directed Instruction program. What's 25 hours of prime reading instructional time worth when you can then sit and look at tests results together to see whether they got "pig, wig and jig" multiple choice questions answered and a full picture of the students relationship to something now called "Literary Analysis?" With questions like, "What did Zig Bug put in the hut?"

    It takes awhile to respond to that question of "hurting kids" because it takes explaining that the entire day is now restructured completely to practice for a very poor multiple choice instrument with students now taking in effect practice tests all the days. . . but if you mean do kids get "hurt," I'd have to say. . . well. . . define "hurt."

    They are fundamentally being denied the right to programs that work, denied social justice pieces (can't even say that to kids who are denied social justice now--no Martin Luther King books out this year), to fair and equitable education like never before and their public education system is devolving into a big testing commercial commodity. So yes, every day I see a kind of harm. . . yes I can describe it. And I can state the perception of many adults within the system that look at me and say, "Sarah, it's really not that big a deal, now is it?"

    So many thoughts flood in for me on the subject of "state testing" that is required as a "basis" for comparing schools and judging the job they do.

    No testing measure yet used was ever able to address the differences in money, language, community goals, types of educational backgrounds in parents so these essential pieces in interpreting results got squeezed into the tests. All we have at present by way of understanding contexts is really down to a mark on a form for ethnicity and some free lunch figures from the school data and a few poorly collected socio-economic figures along with a gender indication. It's not much to go with in articulating and knowing the community you work within, doesn't tell you crime rate, literacy centers rates of use or involvement within by families, doesn't talk about access to libraries, if the kids are on-line, nothing on books in the home, who is in foster or other kinds of temporary homes, no data on whether or not the children live with 2 siblings or 12, nothing by way of finding out how many times a child has moved, whether or not they sleep in their own room. In short the test looks at some things a group of people developed who probably never worked with children (like you work with everyday) and this was normed across having all kids take the thing. It's almost as silly as that ten question depression test you get in a magazine and if you answer yes to seven of the questions it's time to go get your Zoloft.

    Except of course in my world the prescription being handed out like candy right now like anti- depressants is for Reading Mastery or Corrective Reading or some other tremendously canned scripted workbook of drills. Because these programs are the flavor of the day. And Open Court is one of the biggest. It's for everyone.

    And yet no one. This is really a program where one big Direct Instructional day fits no child in particular and all are driven to "Just figure out what they want and give it to them." A kind of strange thing to say to your six year old nephew who when given a fluency test that aims right now for a goal of ten words, reads 191 in a minute. Yeah. He's going to get a lot from the next 20-word booklet story and three-sight word goal. He's reading a Peter Pan by Dave Barry (the new one) and a story with twenty three- and four-letter words. Guess which one is at school condoned by the state?

    I actually had to tell my brother-in-law it's time to give him the "BIG PICTURE " speech. Which is basically, "Give them what they want, learn at home." And if that's not hurting children and giving me some of the greatest professional pain in my life I don't know what is.

    Narrowing to write to testing is difficult as I said, I'm so flooded with thoughts… so I want to go all the way back into my childhood, into the start of my work as a child within a public school in West Virginia in the 60's, or as my other very conservative brother-in-law writes, "The 60's are dead, Sarah." Then I need to look again at testing when I was in the early 1980's seeking to be a teacher, into first years of teaching and to last year when a student really did throw up on the state test and another took it the day after her Dad died and yet another took it a few days after the long and terrible death of her Grandmom. I have some thoughts about having my hands tied behind my back in service to this job in public education. I have a waterfall of thoughts about this testing. It would take more than a bucket to hold these thoughts.

    In West Virginia in 1969 I took my first state test, in my classroom, this was taken in the Spring and portrayed as "very important." I missed somehow the why and how of that but the way my father, a professor with two PHD's, looked over the score report it brought me a reality check about why one went to school. The school I went to and the teachers we had were from a long lost era, each retiring after my class had them, and my experiences in school were rigid, controlled, uncreative, regurgitative, punitive many days, competitive and (think West Virginia a state that bans books and paddles today) the classes were Darwin-esque in terms of the social atmosphere. These were the times we were recovering from the loss of a President to assassination, riots, LSD, Vietnam body counts, Great Society, black pride and anger, Walter Cronkite and a TV tray to watch and eat our new TV dinners (or fast food) as our nation essentially learned what happens when you don't address social issues for far too long. Or when you take on problems far from home with an eye towards small strategic wars. It was a time of losing King, losing Bobby, hearing Chavez from the fields, standing up and saying Let It BE. We kids wore smiley face buttons, made troll candles and lived in a time of creative awareness and making, Joni Mitchell tunes times. I know I did. So in the school up on the hill in Woodburn things were as locked down in the adults' reaction to this as you could get (remember for every action there is a counter action and you will understand one of the first lessons school taught me) and we were marching not for freedom but in a really straight line, and flag saluting a great deal, wonderful exercises in how a public institution can strip you of the most basic rights sometimes. I never used the school restroom until 11th grade and then only the one time. And I'm really not kidding. I was beat up all the time. I don't even remember why. Thrown down stairwells, knocked down by a bully, generally shown that an uppity kid who moved in from across town had better realize what a few class bullies already knew: this school was theirs when the teacher turned a back. Some lessons from this rigid elementary that was run by those with very tight and controlled ideas of what we need to do with kids are coming back to me as I watch this move back into the cycle of instructional methodology of my youth…of my elementary. A place where a state test changed the way a teacher thought about you.

    Being pretty young most of the problems I had with the interface with public school became, in my mind, my issue, taken as a personal problem or deficit and/or a personal failure. I had no idea that structured differently, with instructors addressing teaching in a different way, with talking about what was really going on behind teachers backs aloud and as a group confronting this truth, with literacy, awareness, talking social kindness and truths …students can work and interact in more, dare I say it, "humane ways." I had no concept that the social Darwin that was grabbing me by the neck at Woodburn was really completely chosen by the system I was in by the adults I looked to for guidance and safety. I had no idea.

    I thought it was just me.

    And isn't it unbelievable that I'm sitting here in 2006 watching people getting DIBELS score reports or their state test results or their battery of assessments with the disease diagnosis thinking, "How can we help our poor looking-bad-on-this-measure-in-kindergarten kid," or "What are we doing wrong" or from a parent, "How is this a representation of this child I love, but the school is now pointing out is a flawed being?" and I'm watching 1968 all over again and watching the increase in poor social interaction, tension, frustration, anger, denial, hidden curriculum, unspoken truths, parent anger, misunderstanding, competition, resentment of "lower" children, teaching on to the next standard leaving children who have not mastered skills, watching the engine of social Darwinism just get stoked up again…it's "mind blowing" as we used to say way back then.

    It was school to me in 1968, I was there at the demand of my family and state and it was ugly much of the time. At least for me. I couldn't wait to be home where I walked to a lady who taught me art every day and saved my life. When the state results came back it was posted in the corner of my classroom. I remember that very well as my math score was the highest in the room. Prior to that "validation" my teacher who really did dislike me had made it pretty clear to me I wasn't very highly valued in her eyes, not worthy really of figuring out the bullying and stopping it…or as she said "you must be doing something to bring it on." You can evaluate this for yourself, I never spoke, never really got up, never moved, and did my assignments. That's all we all did. In silence and in rows.

    Mrs. Hamilton stated that her job was presenting the material not going out "and figuring out what your daughter is doing to bother Jimmy," to my mother too, so I feel relatively sure of my recollections. My life was not awful, don't misinterpret my meanings by sharing this tale of grade school. I had many, many adult and community friends. I knew she was wrong about my "part," took it as her lack of willingness to do her job. Felt kids were inarticulate and some things never got figured out. And that's the way it was. Anyway after the scores were posted I was treated way differently, she was kinder, she gave praise, and it was clear the score somehow reflected on her.

    What I remember the clearest was my father. He went over the report as if he had taken the test. He was almost ebullient. It reflected on him, it reflected on his beliefs about himself. I had a little first ray of approval from someone who never gave much approval. And so now testing "mattered" to me.

    Over the years as I took the exams I always tried to do well, but I lacked a very sophisticated understanding of how to do better. I worked hard in school, studied, memorized, took upper level work. Scored well, tested well. I delivered--for that approval. I was making art concurrently too, and seeking approval through that medium also. As I look and think of my relationship to what I do, and did was bound within that need for someone to think that whatever was tested or produced, written or spoken somehow was worthy of praise and somehow meant I was affirmed and loved.

    That's exactly at the apex of my relationship to the tests. Both then and now.

    As indicators of worthiness.

    Somehow that fell apart for me for awhile in college, about my third year. It might have been because I was making art full time and having instructors work to deconstruct my very soul, looking hard at images and reasons for production and creativity, it might be the lack of money I was experiencing as I took on funding my life, it might be because I decided that my education should reflect at least something that I wanted to know, it might be I decided to stop being a silent person and become a "voice" no matter how inarticulate. I don't know. . . but in that third year I found myself unconcerned for the first time completely with grades, tests, scores. I just plain began a life of reading. Reading everyone…...Steinbeck, Hemmingway, Thurber, Thoreau, Adams, Jefferson, Mailer, James, Joyce, Larkin, Fowles, Irving, Mann, B. Fuller, Crane, poets, Milton, Shakespeare, Whitman, Frost, Grass, Hawthorn. . . anything I could find. Somehow into this time came an art teacher, art education teacher, Bill Thomas at West Virginia University who had metaphor and "what creating is, is metaphorical construction" and he had learning in his pocket.

    He had time to talk to me. And he talked. I talked. And I learned. Becoming Human Through Art was the text he used, and he was giving me a course in permission to learn and somehow referenced "your life" as the test that would matter. And that has stuck with me ever since.

    A funny thing happened coinciding with this. I got to test my growing beliefs about this new little thought I had about self direction and student empowerment in education, actually got to take a look at "tests" and educational theory which I was now endeavoring to study.

    Along with working with young children, I had to take "Ed Psychology 1 for Teachers" as a part of my coursework to get an art teaching "certification" in my home state. The course was an easy one, taught by B. F. Skinner's daughter, Julie Vargas. You mostly got your book, had a grad assistant do some few basic initiation things in a session and you showed up at a lab and took a workbook in a can kind of test after reading the most simplistic book, (my interpretation) which she had written, I've ever seen in a college program. In this behaviorist model Ms. Vargas who naturally wrote the material which defined all kinds of ed psychology models by refusing totally really to acknowledge other kinds of theory--a beautiful behaviorist construct of her father's watered down for those of us at this teaching level to infantile meaning levels. You read the book and then it routed you through the computer-based test where you retook again and again and again until you got them all answered "correctly."

    So we were told an A was the only possible outcome in the course. Just take the test again and guess another answer. (I currently watch a program called Successmaker or CCC that took over our computer lab which is a giant workbook on-line that does exactly the same thing everyday for our students.) The fact they were promised an "A" back in my day, called an easy "A," meant most students said nothing about how poor this was as an intellectual pursuit and they did "whatever they wanted". Some even praised it for efficiency and for its bottom line. That was what to this day really sticks in my craw about the entire experience and is so referential to the present day assessment based times: you got what you were required to have by giving them what they wanted. School was redefined as a "give them what they want activity.

    To some extent this is "school" now. . . and as I stated, I was/am done with that notion. I'd gone over the edge. In my heart and mind I wanted to only live in experiences of more value, authenticity, more connection and more depth than passing around the loop again to get the token grade. It was a key moment in my understanding about "tests," and my relationship to them. They can indicate if you know constructs and materials, but they can be manifestations of control, lack of content, a desire to produce a result to create the "look of learning" rather than be a piece in a learning environment that helps to point out next steps and a person's personal relationship to the material. But let me tell a little bit more about how I did on that "test" long ago in teacher training…

    I took the test again and again in over 50 sessions always failing this one question.

    It stated, "I go to school to earn a degree."

    This was back in the time of binary computers; we produced cards by manipulating a program called Fortran. Or it might have been BASIC, fed the cards through a reader. So it was a limiting kind of workbook, just true or false. (Binary meant an answer structure of two possibilities but Vargas wanted to be cutting edge so we were just "true or false" in a COLLEGE level class) Well what would you answer? True or False?

    If you answered true, then take that test again because you just failed.

    In her behaviorist model one cannot "know" something one has not yet experienced. One can only respond to things within one's personal frame of experiences. So things in the "future" cannot exist in Pavlovian universe. I can't go to school for a degree. Now every other teacher that graduated from my college at West Virginia in those years changed their answer and got an "A" and passed the required course. EVERY single one.

    But I did not.

    I retook until I was asked to go to the dean or fail, something unheard of due to the retakes. The dean allowed me to switch to a Graduate level class in Ed Psychology as he said, "It was just the solution." There I learned all the theory laid out by a cognitive psychologist capable of holding many theoretical constructs at once including the fact that I could go to school for a degree and that is exactly what I got. Except for a test that darn near took it away for my failing to say I was there "to hang out," and frankly I wasn't.

    I was in a land grant university to become an educated person who got a couple of degrees because that's among the reasons we go.

    My father, following this story and bottom-lining it for me, sagely advised, "Give them what they want." Though he did hear me out. And he didn't disagree; his perception was science was shot to hell applied to humans in psychology or education. He followed this with a copy of the "Serenity Prayer", I've gotten over 40 copies so far in 23 years on the job, from those who thought I "needed" it.

    When I moved to LA twenty years ago and got a job in a day visit to LA Unified to work in South Central LA, in Watts, I was moved to two sites. I arrived at the second site coinciding with the giving of the state test. My first look at California testing. We didn't have to sign a "secrecy" agreement then, a paper we must sign saying nothing can ever drag from our mouths what we might see on the STATE'S GREATEST SECRET. My class then was a huge 38 student group of 4th graders seeming to struggle with the booklet and mostly trying and not knowing much at all. All I really knew in this third year of teaching was that the students were supposed to follow my reading the script for the test and I had to "turn it in on Friday." This was very different than West Virginia where administrators gave student exams in my youth usually in auditoriums where you held the it on your lap and PE teachers helped to monitor. Anyway one question early in the reading part of the test had my reading kids repeatedly hand raising (about 15 couldn't read so they bubbled randomly). It was a passage based on a place setting. It showed the salad fork, fork for main course, napkin ring, two spoons one for the first course and another for soup I think and a butter knife. They didn't know what "silver" meant in this context or silver pattern or how the place setting (a term they did not recognize) worked. I had to just look on because. . . it's the state test. . . no time for catch up social etiquette of the Cape. They bombed the test and I learned what "bias" in testing looks and feels like. If you think those days are "long gone" then this mouth which is sealed by my signing the test agreement which I am forced to do, cannot tell you the specific ways you are wrong. Poverty got in the way of an answer for my kids then, and poverty still is getting in the way 20 years later. And I think this "hurts" kids. And I think it's a lot more complex than a teacher can write in one sitting. But holding my Serenity Prayer I can think about what I can do. I know an AP then brought me another copy of it as I went in ranting about how the kids were being tested in an unfair way.

    Last year I was able to job share with my close friend to get through health issues plaguing me. She and I decided to test together so those TWO weeks in third grade we both came in and still had trouble getting it all done in time. Now the state test is signed out, locked up, monitored, put in storage immediately upon finishing and generally treated as if it were nuclear waste. Sometimes a friend or two in teaching makes that connection. For something that we are told is just there to give us an idea of how the "kids are doing," normed across state and nation, the national security on it might lead me to think that I'm a bit naïve if I buy into that jargon of how it's a nice little way to look at our kids. Of course given the punishments, newspaper scores , political rhetoric, the threat of transfers, takeovers, politics, removal of teacher directed instruction replaced with Directed Instruction that makes a lot of empty promises. I can see this is something that is nuclear in its position in our school. It's the centerpiece of all existence, the sun if you will.

    And exactly how does that feel to a child? Well in 23 years last year gave me some insight. The Principal put on a cheerleading outfit and got school wide POMPOMS and lead an assembly based on the testing called "YES, You CAN". I kept waiting for her to add, "Or we get another year of punishment," but she kept it pretty cheery. They DID NOT order the chewing gum for every room this year based on "brain research" because I stopped it with some writing. Things were ridiculous enough to contextualize for the kids.

    My friend and I had a student, brilliant, a walking encyclopedia, very integrated knowledge. He was/is a child that thinks and thinks deeply. On the second day of testing as he struggled with questions I found ambiguous if one was bright and able to see things more than one way, so he threw up all over the table, and testing table group peers. Now that's a new one. Not ill, just upset. He had a sick stomach the entire two weeks so his mom came to see "What are you doing in there." I told her my opinion on the cause…he was worried about doing well, about doing the best in the class (a class I might add that scored wonderfully) and she said that he was a perfectionist. We'd kind of figured that out. I loved it because she said in Spanish, "I know he's so bright, but I guess the test kind of proves it to the school." Well that's a great reason to cause an 8 year old to vomit all over his test. To prove he's brilliant to people unwilling to take my word for it. His only comment and I still hear this, "I'm glad it's over, I wish I hadn't eaten the Hot Cheetos." That same testing cycle was rough as I nurse-maided a child with real psychological problems through his testing by being positive and affirming while he was falling apart. And watched as child who just lost her Grand mom the day before be told, "We can't talk about this now, test starts right away. Maybe after we get the first section completed." And who was the person talking? It was me. And I'm just sick enough to vomit myself.

    So, yes, we teach them how to "give them what they want". And in my opinion the ratio of this to serenity has just crossed over a boundary for me that seems to herald a very serious loss of our knowing what we can do and doing it. I think America has gone crazy.

    · There is something patently insane about all the typewriters sleeping with all the beautiful plumbing in the beautiful office buildings — and all the people sleeping in the slums.

    · When I am working on a problem I never think about beauty. I only think about how to solve the problem. But when I have finished, if the solution is not beautiful, I know it is wrong.

    · You never change things by fighting the existing reality. To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete.
    Buckminster Fuller

    2006-12-03 11:31:28


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