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Commentary: Say 'No' to standardized testing

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Nov. 20, 2012 - In my study of Missouri fourth graders, I asked them why they believed they were going to school. Why do you think you're learning what you're learning in school? What's school for? This is a Big Idea question, and sometimes it took me two or three tries to pose it in a way that elicited a meaningful response. But now that I am analyzing all of these interviews, I see that children are receiving a certain set of messages loud and clear.

Here are the words of a keen child of middle-class immigrant parents; he attends a well-endowed, orderly, public school in the exurbs of St. Louis.

Inda: Why do you think you're going to school?

Student 1: To learn?

Inda: And what's the learning for?

Student 1: Well you can get in a good college so you can, like if you want, like, you can become a doctor if you wanna become a doctor, otherwise if you drop out of  high school you'll just become a custodian or a secretary.

Here's a girl who attends a small, nurturing Catholic school, the kind of place where the principal gets on the loudspeaker to sing silly songs in the morning or to praise a student who has done something especially kind for someone else.

Inda: Why are you learning what you're learning in school?

Student 2: I think we're learning this so, like, say, we want to be like a teacher or an accountant or a shoe salesman, when we grow up, we'll know everything we want and if we want to get into a good college, er, we can get like an education and we make sure that we get those jobs and just not end up like no job, you know. I think people go to school to, again get a scholarship and get an education. And most people go to school to make friends and some people go to school 'cause their  parents make them. I actually want to go to school because I want to learn and I want to do some things like that.

And finally, here's a straight-A, fully bilingual student, a girl, the pride and joy of her working class, Spanish-speaking, immigrant Chicano parents. She goes to public school.

Inda: Why are you learning what you're learning in school?

Student 3: To take the MAP test.

Inda: To take the MAP test? And go back to why you take the MAP test...

Student 3: To see how well the teachers teach.

Well, one thing we can say is that, as things stand, we are doing a very good job of conveying to kids that school is for jobs (which come in a range of bad to good) and testing. The dutiful immigrant child is such a "good" student that she has managed to internalize and ventriloquate precisely what it is policymakers have designed schools to be for, that is, for kids like her.

Now hold these voices in your head while you consider that there is no meaningful difference between Democrats and Republicans when it comes to what's going on in education reform.

Education policy occupies the dark side of bipartisanship. George W. Bush's brother, Jeb Bush, runs an organization called the Foundation for Excellence in Education. This group has invited John Podesta, veteran of both the Clinton and Obama White House, to speak at its meeting later this month. The funders of this initiative, which I pulled from the meeting's press release, make interesting bedfellows:

GE Foundation, Walton Family Foundation, Bloomberg Philanthropies, The Broad Foundation, The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, Charles and Helen Schwab Foundation, Robertson Foundation, The Kovner Foundation, Achiever: Amplify, Doris & Donald Fisher Fund, GlobalScholar, The Kern Family Foundation, Microsoft, The Paul E. Singer Foundation, Susan & Bill Oberndorf, Pearson, Target, Reformer: Challenge Foundation, The Charles & Lynn Schusterman Family Foundation, The Dick & Betsy DeVos Family Foundation, George Kaiser Family Foundation, K12, Intel, The Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation, McGraw-Hill Education, Scholastic, Scholar: Academica, Alvarez & Marsal, Apex Learning, Charter Schools USA, e2020, ETS, Morgridge Family Foundation, SAS, SMART Technologies, State Farm Insurance, VSCHOOLZ, William E. Simon Foundation.

While money and policy initiatives from sources like these pours -- floods -- into education practices that generate ever more worksheets, textbooks, testing materials, charter schools, and behaviorist instructional designs, we know that, according to Eleanor J. Bader's recent report in truthout.org, 3.7 million U.S. teachers in the 2009-10 school year spent $3.5 billion of their own money to meet basic living and learning needs of children in their classrooms. Bader writes, "Teachers' personal money is the most common source of funding for classroom projects. On average, teachers spent a total of $398 on school supplies in 2009-2010 and an additional $538 on educational materials."

Without a major political party to turn to, and teachers paying out-of-pocket for the stuff kids need, and power brokers meeting to discuss ways to remove every last shred of dignity from the classroom teacher in the name of accountability, and children themselves learning to heap scorn and disdain on people who wind up as "just" custodians and secretaries, or "end up like no job," what must we do?

Parents of public school kids (and their allies) ought to be fighting the testing machine with everything we've got. Reject the testing. It is bad for everyone. There is a grassroots movement underway, a formal resolution making its way around the country, district by district. (Go to http://timeoutfromtesting.org/nationalresolution/) Lobby your school board and get your district to adopt it.

Do not spare the people who profit from dumbing down curricula. Fed-up parents in New York City, who last spring protested the Pearson Education headquarters, have created a movement to connect with: changethestakes.org.

Remember this: Good teachers and good principals know how to make learning visible to outsiders. If they don't, lots of teacher educators are standing by who can help them learn how to do this.

High-stake standardized testing is not about meaningful accountability. All it does is turn kids and teachers into crunchable numbers, create incentive for cheating and lying, lower educational achievement and equity, and dismay those who hang on to the idea that free people in a free country require a decent education even if they do not have the resources to opt out of the public system. For sobering and inspiring news on the high-stakes testing front, go to: fairtest.org.

Inda Schaenen is a special contributor to the Beacon.

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