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Published in Print: April 5, 2000, as CON-Test


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Writer, lecturer, hectorer, and instigator Alfie Kohn is speaking before more than 100 students, teachers, and guests at Harvard University's graduate school of education. Known for his quixotic crusades against competition in schools,

Author and gadfly Alfie Kohn barnstorms the country to sound the alarm.

Kohn is a pious populist cut from the same cloth as Ralph Nader. And in recent months, he's been as omnipresent as Nader after the 1989 wreck of the Exxon Valdez. A new book (his seventh), Op-Ed pieces in major newspapers, and coast-to-coast lectures have given Kohn a visible pulpit from which to rain down fire and brimstone.

The gospel according to Alfie begins and ends with the notion that what's being billed today as school reform will actually ruin schools. In his entertaining talk—its recipe one part research abstracts, two parts anecdote, and a pinch of sarcasm—Kohn ticks off what he sees as the fatal flaws of the standards and accountability movement that's swept the country over the past decade. It puts control of the classroom in the hands of know-nothing politicians and business executives, he argues, and it makes damnable standardized tests the ultimate arbiter—and engine—of learning. Worst of all, perhaps, it kills creative, progressive teaching, sending classrooms back to the Stone Age of basal readers, back-to-basics instruction, and "drill and kill."

REFUSENIK: Massachusetts social studies teacher Bill Schecter balked at giving the state's test to students.
—Sarah Evans

"We are facing what I think can be called, without fear of hyperbole, an educational emergency in this country," says Kohn, a former teacher. "The irony is that the emergency has been created in large part—or at least exacerbated—in the name of raising standards."

For months now, Kohn, 42, has been barnstorming the country with this message. The seeds for a counterrevolution have already been planted, he tells the Harvard audience in his appearance here this past fall. Last year, some students at a top-performing Chicago high school deliberately flunked a state exam as a protest against what they called "testing frenzy." About the same time, teenagers at a California high school boycotted state tests they claim are racist. And last summer, parents in Wisconsin persuaded the legislature to weaken a proposed state graduation exam.

Ultimately, Kohn says, what will topple the standards movement is a mass protest by teachers. They are the ones most keenly aware of its damaging effects on learning. Of course, refusing to give a state-mandated test would be risky for teachers, perhaps even unlawful. But a few in Massachusetts have already gambled that the gain will be worth the risk, and more may follow their lead. "What I dream of now," Kohn tells the audience, "is where in classrooms and schools across the country, teachers begin to organize themselves and say, 'We're going out on a limb here.' "

If Kohn and his allies manage to derail the drive for stricter academic standards and greater accountability for educational results, there's sure to be one hell of a crash.

Ultimately, Kohn says, what will topple the standards movement is a mass protest by teachers.

Entering the new century, no other school remedy can match the standards movement's size, speed, and momentum. Political leaders, foundations, business executives, school officials, and newspaper editorial boards have all lined up behind the idea. Today, what was once some fuzzy rhetoric tossed around by governors at the 1989 education summit in Charlottesville, Va., is virtually the law of the land: Every state save Iowa has defined what children should know in core academic subjects, and many have devised tests to measure student and school performance. Some have begun to reward success and punish failure based on the scores. The approach is not just popular. In states like Texas and North Carolina, researchers are testifying to the effectiveness of standards, claiming they are improving instruction and pointing schools and teachers in a common direction.

Kohn's home state plunged headfirst into the standards movement in 1993. That year, the Massachusetts legislature approved a stem-to-stern remodeling of the state's education system. Key to the package was the decision to establish standards—goals outlining what students should know and be able to do at various grade levels—and then hold schools accountable for meeting them. A statewide exam—the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System, or MCAS—was to be devised to measure school and student progress on the standards. And by 2003, high school seniors would have to pass the test to graduate.

At the time, the law was hailed as a breakthrough compromise between partisan interests. Standards were favored by many conservatives, but lawmakers also committed new money for poor districts—something liberals had long desired. More than seven years later, the measure still enjoys wide support. The governor, legislators, and business leaders regularly proclaim its virtues, and parents generally seem content. In a survey last fall by a pro-MCAS advocacy group, more than two-thirds of those polled said the exit exam for graduation would improve the quality of schools.

None of the progressives opposes holding kids to high standards, but most argue that it's the job of school faculties to establish those goals, not the state.

But the standards and the test have their enemies. In 1998, an ad hoc group of parents and educators banded together as the Coalition for Authentic Reform in Education. A loose confederation scattered across the state, CARE has nipped at the heels of the standards juggernaut, issuing policy papers, holding forums, and stirring up media coverage. Its members are a diverse lot: suburban parents and inner-city teachers, granola-crunching liberals and right-leaning libertarians. Many of its leaders are big names in contemporary progressive education, including Theodore R. Sizer, the founder of the Coalition of Essential Schools and the author of the Horace trilogy of books about teaching; Linda Nathan, a teacher and administrator known nationally for her work as a co-director of Boston's Fenway Middle College High School in the 1980s and '90s; Deborah Meier, one of the founders of the Central Park East schools that helped spark New York City's alternative-schools movement; and, of course, the liberal gadfly Kohn."

The progressives' indictment of Massachusetts' reform program is voluminous. Chief among the counts is that the standards are too long and chock-a-block with trivia and facts, requiring students and teachers to gallop through the school year without pausing for deep inquiry. Another complaint is that the standards are too prescriptive, giving the state curriculum control that properly rests with individual schools. None of the progressives opposes holding students to high standards, but most argue that it's the job of school faculties to establish those goals, not the state. Meier, Sizer, and Nathan have all created schools based on that idea, and each has a record of sending disadvantaged youngsters on to college success.

What inflames the critics most, however, is the MCAS. The business of teaching and learning, they say, is too messy to be judged by a single measure—particularly something as crude as a standardized test. A student's creativity, ingenuity, effort, and other intangibles don't show up in standardized scores, even in the best of tests. And the MCAS, they argue, is hardly the best. CARE has conducted extensive critiques of two years' versions of the test, both of which concluded that it is too long, poorly written, and fraught with questions that encourage rote memorization, not critical thinking.

"Deciding whether a high school senior should graduate solely on the basis of their MCAS scores is a horrific injustice," Sizer contends. "The test is not fair, it's distorted, and we should do better. And we can do better."

It's not surprising that progressives are taking to the barricades. "A lot of them tend toward political activism much more than most teachers do," says Monty Neill, the executive director of FairTest, a testing watchdog group based here. "And often, they've been involved in fighting for the very existence of their school. So they're used to doing this kind of stuff, whereas most teachers are not."

Progressives complain that the standards are too long and chock-a-block with trivia.

While the standards movement has attracted criticism from across the philosophical spectrum, progressives are perhaps its most natural enemies. The notion that all teachers should adhere to a single, mandated curriculum is diametrically opposed to the Deweyan ideal of child-centered classrooms where teachers build the curriculum around students' own interests. "There is a real contradiction between progressive education and teaching a core of knowledge beyond what's common-sensical: things like numeracy, literacy, and citizenship," says Kathleen Kesson, the director of the John Dewey Project and head of teacher education at Goddard College in Vermont. "In my opinion, a robust democracy would be better served if schools taught a lot of different knowledge and skills."

Still, when the standards movement first blossomed in the early 1990s, many progressives viewed it with cautious optimism. Some thought the nation's new focus on improving schools would translate into more education spending and a wholesale examination of teaching practices. "It was lovely to have a whole lot of people saying schools ought to be substantially better," Meier says. "And a lot of them were saying there was too much rote, too much talking from teachers, too little thinking from kids."

What inflames progressives most, however, is the MCAS.

New money flowed in some states, but the standards that followed were generally a great disappointment to progressive educators. With good intentions, many states assembled massive teams of educators to write the standards, with the result that the documents grew to immense sizes to accommodate every team member's pet interest. In other states, conservatives in power—and there were many after the 1994 Republican revolution—geared the standards to promote back-to-basics instruction. Many standards writers also leaned heavily on the ideas of E.D. Hirsch Jr., the University of Virginia scholar seen as the archenemy by many in the progressive camp. Hirsch's belief that schools should teach a common, highly specific core of knowledge, first aired in his 1987 best seller Cultural Literacy, prompted many states to load up their standards with lists of facts to be learned—from Plato to NATO, as Kohn puts it.

Faced with standards and tests they don't like, some progressive teachers have thumbed their noses, shut the classroom door, and taught as they've always taught. But in states that punish schools or students for poor test performance, that's not always possible. In those states, many educators see the movement as a direct threat to the schools and programs they have lovingly built. Standards, they argue, beget standardization and will over time squash anything unconventional.

While the standards movement has attracted a coterie of critics nationally, progressives are perhaps its most natural enemies.

Such sentiments are heard often in New York City, where a group of alternative high schools is fighting the state's move to hinge graduation on its demanding regents' exams. The schools now graduate students based on portfolios of their work, but so far, the state has refused to grant them waivers from the regents' requirement. "People who care about public education and are passionate about what we're doing feel as though they are completely abandoned," says Ann Cook, a co-director of the Urban Academy Laboratory School in New York and a leader of the alternative-schools group. "You're seeing wholesale abandonment of these schools here. These are schools that took years to build. But it takes just 10 minutes to destroy them. We are destroying schools that work."

For Deborah Meier, the closing of any of the New York schools would be like a death in the family. She and five other teachers launched the city's alternative-schools movement in 1974 when they founded Central Park East Elementary in Harlem and made it a showcase for the ideas of Jean Piaget and John Dewey. Disadvantaged children, Central Park proved, can thrive in small schools with offerings as rich as those of elite private schools. Meier later spun off two other schools within Central Park East and trademarked a brand of education that's been copied in dozens of sister schools. For her efforts, Meier in 1987 won a MacArthur Foundation "genius" grant. The first public school educator to receive the honor, she became the toast of the country, a teacher who earned celebrity status for her good work, not for some trumped-up Hollywood version of her life story.

Meier is now aiming to replicate the success of Central Park East at Mission Hill, a K-8 school she founded three years ago in an impoverished Boston neighborhood. The teacher and reformer is in the twilight of her career; at 68, her curly brown hair is going gray, and when padding around the school in Teva sandals, she sometimes walks with a limp. But she's clearly not lost her enthusiasm for children, teaching, or a good fight. After nearly 40 years in education, she's concluded that the best way to defend public education is to build schools that work. And these schools, she asserts, are at risk in the standards movement.

Faced with standards and tests they don't like, some progressive teachers have thumbed their noses.

Like Central Park East, Mission Hill goes for depth, not breadth. But in a departure from her old school, Meier is experimenting with a whole-school curriculum in which every grade pursues an interdisciplinary study of the same topic. Last fall, all classes at the school examined "the struggle for freedom and justice," looking specifically at the American Revolution and the Civil War. During the winter, they dug into ancient Egypt, and this spring, they're tackling a science study.

Mission Hill School puts the same high premium on the teacher-student relationship as Central Park East. The building itself, an old parochial school, seems like a greenhouse for kindness, with classrooms that feature soaring ceilings and tall windows through which sunlight streams. Informality is the watchword among the staff: Teachers go by their first names and stay with students through two academic years to get to know them better. Parents help run the school and join the staff for casual suppers. Small as Mission Hill is—there are only about 150 students—it's broken down even further into two "houses." On any given day, students and teachers hold class in the school's only hallway, a long corridor that Meier considers the school's "public mall" and communal-learning space.

Such a culture will wither away in the tough-love, pressure-cooker environment of the standards movement.

Such a culture will wither away in the tough-love, pressure-cooker environment of the standards movement, Meier maintains. "You can't go to a school and announce to children that their teachers are too stupid to set standards," she says. "The natural authority of adults is undermined. It produces unnatural respect for officialdom, but no respect for the authorities that surround the kids: the grown-ups. And I think kids need to be surrounded by grown-ups who are exercising judgment in a way that is a model of standards. You can put them up on a wall somewhere, but they don't represent the real lives of the people you can imagine someday becoming."

So far, Meier and her faculty have made few concessions to the MCAS. "We're not covering 4,000 years of human history between kindergarten and 5th grade," she says. "And we're not having a little smattering of this science and that science and the other science.

"I have to say to parents now—and this is uncomfortable to say—'Your kids are going to be taking tests for which I do not intend to prepare them.' There's no alternative but to say that. Otherwise, we might as well close this kind of school."

Some observers in Massachusetts, having drunk a bit too deeply of the area's rich Revolutionary War history, compare the opponents of the MCAS to the rag-tag colonists who took on the Redcoats. "Much like the revolutionaries of old," local columnist Paul Dunphy wrote last fall, "men and women are gathering in the halls of Harvard and the public spaces of Cambridge and Boston and west into the Berkshires to organize against this paper-and-pencil test."

The dissenters don't resist such comparisons—there's even talk of a "Revere in Reverse" march on the state capitol—but so far, they haven't orchestrated anything so dramatic as the Boston Tea Party. Rather, they've issued policy statements, penned letters to state officials, hosted public forums, and lobbied legislators—the usual hum-drum of modern-day protests. In a move designed to provide the legislature with a constructive alternative to the MCAS, the CARE group issued a plan in November that called for, among other things, locally designed graduation tests and school-quality review teams.

The hope is that people in communities across the state will stand together and declare, "Enough."

Recently, however, some MCAS opponents have been building toward a more grand gesture, an act of civil disobedience that owes as much to Rosa Parks and 1955 as it does Paul Revere and 1776. This month, if the more radical of the protesters get their wish, thousands of students will boycott the test. It's not something CARE officially endorses—the group is split on the value and morals of such radical action—so there's no statewide group organizing such a walkout. Rather, the hope is that students, parents, and maybe even teachers in communities across the state will stand together and declare, "Enough." Empty seats in classrooms on testing days will force officials to revamp or even reject the test. Or so the theory goes.

The idea of boycotting the MCAS has percolated for a couple of years, in part because of the example set by Bill Schecter, a social studies teacher at one of the state's most progressive public schools, Lincoln-Sudbury Regional High in the Boston suburbs. For decades, Lincoln-Sudbury has shunned typical school regimentation and its trappings, including bells and hall passes. Instruction frequently takes place outside the classroom, one-on-one in faculty offices.

On curriculum matters, Schecter and his colleagues in the school's social studies department have been particularly avant-garde, creating a host of college-like electives—courses on post-World War II America, Asian cultures, art history, and African studies—while offering only a single Advanced Placement class, U.S. history. "We don't like tying courses to other people's exams," Schecter explains.

In the standards that Massachusetts adopted, Schecter sees the undoing of much that he's worked for since coming to Lincoln-Sudbury in 1973. Covering everything in the social studies standards would mean that his department would have to junk its electives and run students through survey courses at breakneck speed.

"We have pioneered a lot of ideas that are now seen as innovations in education," Schecter says. "With the new standards, we were facing the possibility that the last 40 years of work, our entire history and tradition, would be thrown in the toilet. It was a grim proposition."

Schecter's protest started as a letter-writing campaign targeted at the state board of education, legislators, and newspapers. Frustrated by the meager response, he decided to do something to inject debate about the MCAS into dinner-table conversations. In the spring of 1998, in an e-mail to his school's staff and an op-ed in the Boston Globe, he announced that he would not show up for work on the day of the test. Instead, he camped out at two libraries, reading history books and answering questions about the MCAS from interested parents who dropped by.

Schecter acted alone, but within a year, his social studies colleagues at Lincoln-Sudbury had united in a public protest of the MCAS. None of them boycotted the test, but they organized fellow dissenters at 18 other schools and founded the Coalition for Better History Standards.

Other progressive teachers have since joined the protest, albeit in less direct ways. Among these is Linda Nathan, who helped make Boston's Fenway school a national model. In the words of one of its founders, Fenway was conceived as an "organized abandonment" of many traditional aspects of education, including paper-and-pencil testing, 50-minute class periods, and staff hierarchies.

Nathan, now the headmaster of the newly created Boston Arts Academy, opposes the MCAS and has long worried that the standards movement will force traditional practices on teachers. Last year, she proposed that the academy refuse to administer the test, but the school's leaders balked at the move as too controversial for a fledgling school. Then, Nathan hit upon another idea: Jehovah's Witnesses often withdraw their children from state-mandated sex-education classes. Why couldn't she use the same tactic? "It suddenly occurred to me that as teachers and professional educators, we could do nothing. But that as parents, we could really do a lot."

‘My guess is that testing improves education the same way that bombing promotes democracy.’

Steve Cohen,
Cambridge boycotter

Nathan's husband, Steve Cohen, an education professor at Tufts University, shares her aversion to the MCAS—"My guess is that testing improves education the same way that bombing promotes democracy," he says and together they decided to withhold their 9-year-old son, Ben, from the test. With four like-minded parents at Cambridgeport Elementary School, they set up alternative classes for testing days, with Cohen teaching all the children at home about government, civil disobedience, and the Montgomery bus boycotts in the 1950s. Television and newspaper reports seized on the kids' protest—9- and 10-year-olds boycott!—and Ben spoke articulately to the media about his concerns with standardized testing. But the boycott was clearly his mother's idea. "She just said, 'You ain't taking this test,'" he recalls. "'I don't care what anybody says. You're not taking it.'"."

After Alfie Kohn's talk at Harvard, a couple dozen select invitees adjourn to the university's faculty club for an elegant dinner at long tables covered with white linen. As the dinner is served, and in accordance with an education school tradition, each guest is asked to comment on Kohn's talk. Deborah Meier is there, as are many other Kohn fans, and most of the comments bathe him in praise. Indeed, the only person who challenges his speech is S. Paul Reville, a Harvard lecturer and one of the architects of the state's 1993 reform law. In blunt terms, Reville tells the gathering that Kohn has got it all wrong.

"He was entertaining, but he was also very misleading," Reville explains later. "I just felt that a number of aspects of the talk were intellectually dishonest. There were all kinds of stereotypes, misstatements—deliberate misstatements—and a great deal of naiveté about the politics from which standards-based changes emerged. And there was no constructive exploration of an alternative, except for a very soft kind of 'let 1,000 flowers bloom.'"

Reville admits that some of the Massachusetts standards—particularly in the social sciences—are too detailed and could narrow pedagogy. "We were overly inclusive in the process of writing the standards and who we asked to participate and the end result. They've simply gotten too big," he says. But he rejects the contention that standards will drive creativity, innovation, and progressive practice from the classroom.

"You can meet goals from a number of pedagogical approaches," Reville says. "You see good teachers doing this in a variety of school settings in a variety of places. It does not imply drill and kill."

Opposition against Massachusetts' standards movement is gelling into what could be a politically powerful coalition.

Kim Marshall, the principal of Mather Elementary School in Boston, agrees. The MCAS is a far better test than critics suggest, he argues; it's untimed, and it has a goodly number of open-ended questions asking students to explain the thought behind their answers. The standards are strong, too, he says, particularly those for writing, which eschew formulaic essays and require students to develop their own voices. The social studies standards are too vast, he agrees, but he believes state officials are committed to trimming them.

Despite an enrollment that includes some of the poorest students in the state, Mather Elementary has done well on the state exam, with large numbers of youngsters posting high scores. Marshall credits the improvement to the hard work of his faculty, which teased out the knowledge and skills demanded by the test and then established what should be taught at each grade level. Teachers may have had to throw out individual units on subjects not covered by the test, he says, but the school's curriculum still features a progressive, hands-on mathematics program, heavy doses of creative writing, and rich opportunities for in-depth study.

"I don't get how this is going to kill progressive teaching," Marshall says. "I have a lot of admiration for Debbie Meier; she's an American hero. But I don't find her persuasive on this issue."

"What I think the Debbie Meiers and Ted Sizers ought to do," he adds, "is to show people how to teach progressively and still do well on the MCAS."

Though Marshall and other standards backers may dismiss the arguments of Kohn, they say the threat of a backlash is great. Opposition to Massachusetts' standards movement is gelling into what could be a politically powerful coalition, Reville says.

Some of the dissent has come from suburban parents worried that the focus on the test will lead local education officials to strip their schools' rich classroom programs to the bone. Civil rights advocates, meanwhile, worry that the test is biased against disadvantaged students and will lead black and Hispanic students to drop out of school. A University of Massachusetts study this past fall found that with the MCAS cutoff scores in place last year, 83 percent of Hispanic high schoolers would not have graduated. The figure was 80 percent for African-American students. "This is a crisis of monumental proportions," one black minister told The Boston Globe at the time. "At the end of the 20th century, this crisis scares me more than the rise of Jim Crow at the beginning of the century."

In recent weeks, after a fairly quiet winter, opponents of the test have begun to stir and plan protests for the spring administration. A group has sprung up called SCAM, or Student Coalition for Alternatives to the MCAS. SCAM leaders boast hundreds of members and have set about organizing would-be boycotters. Meanwhile, CARE's argument against using standardized tests as the sole measure of student achievement is getting wide play, both in the state and nationally. "If all of our efforts to raise standards get reduced to one test, we've gotten it wrong," U.S. Secretary of Education Richard W. Riley said in a February speech. "If we force our best teachers to teach only to the test, we will lose their creativity and even lose some of them from the classroom."

If a boycott does unfold this spring, will large numbers of teachers join in? Such an uprising is not unthinkable. In his lectures and new book, The Schools OurChildren Deserve, Kohn notes how teachers in Japan and England refused to administer standardized tests.

Indeed, the Massachusetts rebellion echoes the 1992 British protest, as teachers there fought off a testing program that they claimed was overprescriptive and damaging to learning. "What started . . . as an unfocused mishmash of voices," writes Jane Cole in her book, Changing English, "became a united boycott involving all teachers' unions, a large number of governing bodies, and mass parental support. The dispute has been called the biggest example of civil disobedience since the poll tax." (Cole refers to Margaret Thatcher's plan in the late 1980s to replace property taxes with a flat per-person levy, a measure that led to rioting and demonstrations across Britain.)

Is this the last chance for public education?

Still, such an insurrection seems unlikely here in the States. National polls conducted by the pro-standards American Federation of Teachers suggest that a majority of teachers think the standards agenda will improve education. And in Massachusetts, the state affiliate of the National Education Association doesn't look primed to lead a revolution. Its leaders have criticized the MCAS and are pushing legislation to eliminate the exam as a graduation requirement, but the union has generally backed the 1993 reform law.

Even the teachers who lodge passionate objections to the exam have good cause to avoid the fray. Obviously, job security is a concern, but there are other fears at work as well. Tamara Berman, an 8th grade teacher at Cambridgeport Elementary School, a bastion of progressivism, balked at administering the test last spring, concerned about the mounting pressure on her students. "They haven't even gone to high school, and yet they're already assuming they aren't going to graduate," she says. In the end, however, Berman gave the test out of loyalty to her principal. "Until my principal can say no and keep her job, I'll give the test."

Of the big-name progressives in Massachusetts, Kohn is the only one calling for a boycott. Sizer has been keeping a low profile in the opposition, partly because he doesn't want MCAS opponents to be marginalized as "fuzzy-headed idealists." But he also worries that a boycott could polarize the issue. "I don't think the efforts to persuade people that the system is misguided have run their course," he says.

Meier has been more public in her opposition, writing newspaper commentaries and speaking at CARE forums. In a collection of essays due out this month called Will StandardsSave Public Education?, she's penned the lead piece that frames the debate for seven other education writers. But for the moment, she'll leave the civil disobedience to others. "The position I'm taking now is that I'm willing to give the tests to kids whose parents want me to," she says. "I'm not willing to give them to kids whose parents don't want me to. That may be a cop-out."."

Dinner is over at the Harvard faculty club, the plates have been cleared, and people are slipping out of the room, catching cabs for home. Paul Reville is still sparring with the few stragglers, even though it's more than four hours since Alfie Kohn began his speech.

A lot hangs in the balance in this debate. At one point, Reville offers an apocalyptic vision of the future of public education if the standards movement fails. For-profit school companies, voucher supporters, and others opposed to the idea of the common school are poised to seize control, he warns.

"What will ensue will be a Darwinian world of education in which what's known as public education becomes a reservoir for the country's worst-off. Public education will become what public housing is today," Reville says. "This is the last, best chance to save American education as we know it, and we've got to make it work."

Kohn, naturally, rejects this doomsday scenario. Raising the specter of conspiracy, he suggests that the standards movement may actually be part of a smear campaign orchestrated by profiteers and conservatives to make schools look bad. Public education, he believes, is in serious danger. That's why he wrote his book, it's why he's touring the country, and it's why he thinks teachers should stand and fight.

Teachers treat the standards movement like the weather, he remarks after the dinner: "They think it's inevitable; something they have to cope with. My goal is to turn their frustration into outrage and action. I have to convince them this is a reality that they don't have to cope with. I have to convince them that they can fight politically."

Vol. 19, Issue 30, Pages 30-37

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