Before accepting over-testing as inevitable, try debating the issue with parents and students

Our schools are in the midst of a mass panic not seen since the swine flu epidemic–standardized testing. We are swept up in a wave of “the tests are important,” “parents demand accountability,” and “they make us do it.” This uncritical groupthink will destroy public education unless we wake up, form alliances and tell the public the truth.

Democrats and Republicans alike caught a bad case of testing fever and voted overwhelmingly for No Child Left Behind, perhaps the greatest intrusion of the federal government into local education in history. NCLB will compel states to test their students every year from grades 2-12 in order to rank schools and shut many of them down. Our Proctor-in-Chief, George W. Bush, is extending the joys of standardized testing into Head Start.

Since many administrators and school board members have no idea how many standardized tests they need to administer, NCLB will undoubtedly add additional tests and draconian consequences to a school year already diminished by weeks of testing and test preparation.

Books to help educatoes and parents resist standardized testing

Without so much as a public debate on what we would want for our schools, testing mania has been allowed to spread like a plague on our educational process. If some testing is good, more is better. If the youngest students can’t yet hold a pencil or read, of course they can bubble-in answers to math problems for several hours at a time. Head Start should be a reading program. You got a problem with three-year-olds reading? Why then, you must suffer from “the bigotry of low expectations.” The end of recess does not affect obesity. Replacing art and music with scripted curricula won’t lead to increased school violence or discipline problems. Down is up, black is white.

Education Week’s annual report “Technology Counts,” states an alarming trend–schools are not spending enough money on using computers for the purposes of standardized testing! Apparently, the years I’ve spent helping schools use computers to enhance learning have been wasted. It never occurred to me that computers should be used to replace #2 pencils and scan sheets. Tech-based testing reminds me of the old Gaines Burger commercial that asked, “Is your dog getting enough cheese?”

The Education Week “research” is replete with charts and graphs designed to whip child-centered educators into line. EdWeek loves winners and losers nearly as much as the testing industry. Coincidentally, a giant publisher of standardized tests, textbooks and test preparation systems, funded their “study.”

In such a climate of confusion and hysteria, educators feel powerless. Parents trust that you will do the right thing. Misconceptions about high-stakes testing are amplified by an unwillingness to engage the community in conversation.

Getting Activeistock_000001759016xsmall-1
Inspired by Juanita Doyon’s terrific new book, Not With Our Kids You Don’t: Ten Strategies to Save Our Schools, and a desire to show my kids that you can make a difference, I decided to try my hand at activism.

I designed a flier answering some of the myths about standardized testing and telling parents that California state law allows them to exempt their child from the STAR tests. Two days before testing was to begin I stood in front of my daughter’s high school and passed out 150 fliers in about 10 minutes. I felt a bit creepy, but the kids told me that I was cool (a first).

I have since learned that 46 students opted out of the tests. That’s a one-third hit-rate. Not since the Pet Rock has a marketing effort been so successful with so little effort Think about it–a kid had to take a piece of paper from a stranger, bring it home, convince his parents to write a letter disobeying the wishes of the school and bring the letter back to school the next day. Perhaps the public isn’t as hungry for increased accountability as we have been led to believe?

One parent said she didn’t know her tax money was spent on standardized testing. Can you imagine the public being less engaged in a matter so important?

It is incumbent upon each of us to tell parents what we know and engage the community in serious discussions about schooling. We may find that we have many more allies than there are politicians telling us what’s best for kids.

Here is a collection of resources related to testing resistance


By Gary S. Stager, Ph.D.
Originally published in District Administration Magazine – July 2003

© 2003 Professional Media Group LLC

One could hardly disagree that recent generations have experienced increasingly mechanized school practices. Issues impacting school administrators such as data-driven decision-making and management theories, borrowed from industry, are obvious examples of this trend. Most educators accept ability grouping, standardized testing, A-F grading, zero tolerance and compartmentalized curricula without a second thought because they have never been exposed to an alternative.

Schooling is on cruise control even when common assumptions are not in the best interest of learners. The automation of schooling limits autonomy and allows services to be “delivered” on the cheap.

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When skillful teachers get to really know their students, they can use their creativity to design activities and materials that meet each student’s needs. In such contexts, curricula, pedagogical strategies, assessments and even the physical learning environment may be changed to realize the potential of each student.

School leaders can get away with homogeneity or mechanized instructional practices until kids fall through the cracks and parents complain. This partially explains the curious epidemic of learning disabilities as well as the proliferation of IB and AP courses, and gifted and talented programs. When children are treated like interchangeable widgets, parents will demand labels designating their children as unique and deserving of services.

Enrich What?
I’ve taught incarcerated teens diagnosed with a plethora of learning disabilities and 10-year-olds engaged in cancer research, engineering and music composition. These kids have more in common than one would think. They need productive contexts for learning in which teachers build upon their individual needs, talents, expertise and desires without sorting, labeling, name calling, fear or coercion. Students need to engage in meaningful work with the support, materials and time necessary to demonstrate understanding.

In the absence of learner-centered conditions, gifted and talented and special education services are required. Ironically, these interventions are endangered by the very forces that required their existence. Today, shortages of funding, leadership or imagination cause gifted and talented programs to be sacrificed for something called enrichment.

Enrichment is derived from Latin for “children of rich parents who complain.” In many cases, enrichment becomes its own course for children fortunate enough to gain entrance. Enrichment is too often a pull-out program where a very small number of kids leave their regular classroom to engage in the sorts of enriching activities that would benefit every child, while disrupting the child’s classroom. My informal research and experience suggests that enrichment is where lucky students experience project-based learning, read books they enjoy, play games and take field trips. Sometimes any child (who can afford it) may elect to be part of enrichment.

Field Trips
I am all for field trips-lots of them! That’s where many students see their first play, hear a cello, touch a squid, see a Van Gogh, meet a scientist, climb a fire truck, consider a career, or spend their own money in a gift shop. Field trips offer the opportunity to learn many lessons related to the curriculum and life outside of the classroom. Field trips provide poor children with the sorts of opportunities more affluent students take for granted.

At a time when funding priorities have made field trips a distant memory, they are a hallmark of enrichment. Not only does this aggravate educational inequity, but the field trips for enrichment students often have little educational value. Trips to the mall, Disney films, cartoon-based Broadway shows, or even the circus are not uncommon treats made available to enrichment students whose parents can afford them. Such field trips are an entitlement that sends the message to a handful of children that you are deserving of privileges your classmates won’t enjoy.

Curriculum connections could be made to ensure that field trips are educationally meaningful, but why bother? There isn’t time during the occasional enrichment session to explore the significance of the Titanic. But what the heck, we’ll bus them to look at Titanic artifacts anyway. Besides, enrichment and its field trips aren’t about enriching the curriculum. They are about telling one group of parents that their children are better than the rest.


Originally published in the August 2008 issue of District Administration Magazine