John Young: A school rebellion against a culture of testing bubbles over
June 6, 2013
We all know when a popular revolt succeeds. Someone gets overthrown. At what point, however, does a historic, full-scale rebellion take wing? Always hard to tell.
The revolt we discuss here involves bad policy and public schools. A climactic victory has yet to come. But let me fancy this notion:
What now simmers across the countryside took wing a few years ago when a certain overstressed Texas third-grader of whom I know threw up on her state test.
She wasn't the first; nor will she be the last.
Let's assume for narrative's sake that this third-graders' angry parents took note, however, and made sure their state representative knew, too.
Of such matters are movements made.
Policy makers finally are coming to understand the unnecessary pressure, the costliness, the nonexistent diagnostics, the false comparisons, the lost time, the expense, the whole of the nation's pathological lap dance with standardized testing.
In recent weeks and months these things have happened:
• The Texas Legislature voted overwhelmingly to dramatically scale back a battery of high school end-of-course tests. Lawmakers also voted to exempt high-achieving students from certain state exams.
• In Seattle, a heroic teacher boycott of the Measure of Academic Progress — MAP — standardized exam influenced the district to drop it.
• Arizona, Nevada and Alabama lawmakers voted to do away with clunkily arbitrary high school exit tests and re-examine their function.
For Texas lawmakers to do what they did in this session is akin to communists taking sledge hammers to the Berlin wall. Texas is, of course, the "cradle of accountability," from whose ideological loins sprang the unenforceable "one-size-fits-y'all" No Child Left Behind policy.
Oh, and by the way, 35 states including Texas have sought exemptions from NCLB requirements.
It is in the Lone Star State that former Education Commissioner Robert Scott said the overemphasis on testing had become a "perversion" of a system originally meant to give policymakers a quick read on basic skills statewide.
The result, said State Rep. Mark Strama in the Texas Tribune, is a "culture of testing rather than learning."
A rudimentary system that began in 1979 with basic-skills tests for third-, fifth- and ninth-graders became a bovine stampede.
One of the most exciting things that Texas lawmakers did this session was vote to limit the number of benchmark tests — those given by school districts to see if lessons are linking up with state test criteria. One Texas grade-school teacher told me that adding these nuisances into the mix, she sacrificed 16 instructional days a year to testing ordered from above.
Credit parents with turning this tide. The grassroots Texans Advocating for Meaningful School Assessment — TAMSA — now offers a counterpoint to the big-money, pro-testing Texas Association of Business.
"We thought it was just Texas parents" alarmed and disgusted, TAMSA's Susan Kellner, a Houston parent and school board member told NBC News. But "across the country a similar sentiment is starting to bubble up."
Funny that she should say "bubble," because that's what it's been all about — the quest to make the whole of education fit into those little testing bubbles, a whole booklet of bubbles spoiled when said overstressed third-grader lost her lunch.
Know that the Texas Education Agency was alert to this prospect. Per procedure, her despoiled exam was bagged and shipped to the state capital like your standard crime implement.
I trust it is still in state custody.
Someday, like pieces of the Berlin wall, that little girl's book of unfilled bubbles will be a souvenir of an oppressive and counterproductive educational past.
Longtime Texas newspaperman John Young lives in Colorado. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.
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