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Finding Common Ground

A former K-5 public school principal turned author, presenter, and leadership coach, DeWitt provides insights and advice for education leaders. He can be found at www.petermdewitt.com. Read more from this blog.

Education Opinion

Calling Out the Testing Bullies

By Phil Bildner — May 29, 2013 5 min read
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Today’s guest blog is written by New York Times Best Selling children’s author and outstanding school presenter, Phil Bildner. Phil is a former N.Y.C. middle school teacher.

In a recent article, Joyce Murdoch Fieldke, compared high stakes testing to a form of child abuse. Fieldke wrote, “We are doing the exact opposite of everything that research and experience tells us is necessary for the healthy, well-balanced development of children.”

As a former teacher, talking to students about reading and writing and process and creativity is by far my favorite part of being an author. However, as this year’s round of school visits draws to a close, my heart is aching. It is aching because of the abuse taking place in public schools across the United States.

The proliferation of high stakes testing -- mandated standardized assessments with critical consequences for the student, teacher and school-- has led to the inevitable rise of the testing bullies. The testing bullies are the high stakes testing companies. They, along with policymakers and politicians, are harming our children to the point of abuse.

Over the last several years, we’ve made tremendous inroads confronting our bullying culture. But we’ve spent so much time focused on the bully sitting beside our child, waiting in the schoolyard or lurking online that we’ve missed the biggest bully of them all.

And their bullying is far more insidious.

We Are the Bystanders
Look at what the testing bullies are doing to our children? All year long, our kids are overwhelmed by test prep lessons, bubble sheet exercises and teach-to-the-test homework assignments (yes, test prep for homework).

Our kids are forced to sit for benchmarks and field tests - that’s when the testing bullies use our children as lab rats. And when it’s time for the tests -- many of which are inappropriate in length and contain suspect content -- our stressed out kids cry, get physically ill and shut down.

And what do we do?

We keep sending them back for more. Our children are crying for our help. They’re telling us there’s a bully in the classroom -- telling an adult, just like we told them they should -- but we keep sending them back.

Educators, who are charged with protecting our children, are being bullied, too. They know all too well that high stakes testing is the primary method of determining accountability. They’re feeling just as overwhelmed and stressed out...discouraged and emotionally drained. They’re fearful, too, for they’re being evaluated -- at least in part -- by their students’ performance on these high stakes tests. That’s right, the testing bullies have been placed in charge of job security.

But don’t expect to hear from the educators. In many areas, they are instructed - ordered - not to talk or write about high stakes testing, especially on social media. Some have even been threatened to have their licenses revoked. Yes, the testing bullies have demonized dissent and silenced our children’s strongest advocate.

Fortunately, some will not be silenced. In fact, more than some will not be silenced. This year, the push back gained traction.

The Saratoga Springs School Board and Averill Park Central School District Board of Education --both in upstate New York-- passed unanimous resolutions urging the state Education Department to rethink the use of high-stakes testing. Numerous online petitions with thousands of signatures were sent to government officials supporting an immediate moratorium on high stakes testing in the State of New York. And during the height of testing season, the Twitter-verse lit up as many sought to expose specific instances of the abusive practices of the testing bullies.

But the testing bullies pushed right back. For students who refused to take the tests, some were threatened with suspension from sports teams and told they would not be permitted to participate in extracurricular activities or honors’ programs. Some were warned they risked not being promoted.

For the parents of those who refused the tests, many were ostracized by their own communities, accused of not supporting the school. In one well-regarded New York City public school, when a parent informed the principal she would not send her child to extended day test prep, the principal told the parent the child was bringing down the school’s test score average and was “highly disappointed” in the decision. The child then incurred the wrath of the principal and his teacher until the parents removed the child from the school midyear.

In some cases, schools have even gone so far as to threaten to notify Child Protective Services. That was the case with a Long Island special needs child. When the parent informed the school she did not want her child to be subjected to the tests, she received a threatening response and was accused of “educational neglect.”

Civil Rights Issue
This May marks the 50th anniversary of the Birmingham children’s marches, when hundreds and hundreds of children and teens were arrested and jailed for protesting segregation in one of our nation’s most racially violent cities. Cynthia Levinson’s We’ve Got a Job is the accessible and gripping story of the young people being the change at that critical moment in our nation’s civil rights struggle.

We are all in the midst of another civil rights crisis. We are staring at a national catastrophe, and for the sake of our children, we need to ask ourselves, what we are doing about it? Our children are being abused. Do we really want to sit idly by and do nothing? Is that the behavior we wish to model?

Perhaps we’ve got a job, too, and perhaps it’s going to take massive displays of civil disobedience to bring about this change. But just imagine what a rich, real world learning experience that would be for our children. They would gain so much knowledge about civics and social studies and history... subjects we hardly have time to teach in schools anymore because they’ve been replaced by test prep.

If we succeed - when we succeed -- we should hold those who are responsible for all of this accountable and return education to the experts...the educators. Moments of wonder will return and replace one-size-fits-all-teach-to-the-test lessons. Educators will not feel stifled and will more likely return to project-based learning, book clubs, creativity, student driven discussions, read alouds, empathy and all those spontaneous teaching moments that bring life to the classroom and foster a love for learning.

Connect with Phil Bildner on Twitter.

The opinions expressed in Peter DeWitt’s Finding Common Ground are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.