Education Funding Opinion

The President’s Radical Comments on Testing

By Deborah Meier — March 31, 2011 3 min read
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Dear Diane,

If George Orwell were still alive, what would he make of the following quote from President Obama? (Thanks to Valerie Strauss for pointing to a piece written by Anthony Cody for his Education Week Teacher blog, Living in Dialogue.)

Malia and Sasha, my two daughters, they just recently took a standardized test [at the private Sidwell Friends School in Washington]. But it wasn't a high-stakes test. It wasn't a test where they had to panic. I mean, they didn't even really know that they were going to take it ahead of time. They didn't study for it, they just went ahead and took it. ... It was a tool. ... Too often, what we've been doing is using these tests to punish students or to, in some cases, punish schools. And so what we've said is, let's find a test that everybody agrees makes sense; let's apply it in a less pressure-packed atmosphere; let's figure out whether we have to do it every year, or whether we can do it maybe every several years; and let's make sure that that's not the only way we're judging whether a school is doing well. Because there are other criteria: What's the attendance rate? How are young people performing in terms of basic competency on projects? There are other ways of us measuring whether students are doing well or not."

And, as Cody writes, “Then he said something really radical.”

So...one thing I never want to see happen is schools that are just teaching to the test. Because then you're not learning about the world; you're not learning about different cultures, you're not learning about science. ... All you're learning about is ... the little tricks that you need to do in order to take a test."

This is not an old speech; it’s new! So new, in fact, that maybe U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan hasn’t been told about it yet? In reality, the government is paying people to invent more bubble tests for the untested subjects (art, science, physical education), and we’re giving these not just annually, but four, five, six, 10 times a year to see if teachers are keeping up the needed pace, not to mention to determine how some of those teacher will get paid!

A new teacher in California wrote me recently about her school-based professional development. Her last session was on “reflection.” Like her, I thought: Hurrah! But “reflecting,” it turns out now, means carefully going over test answers, not closely observing children and their work. It includes looking at students’ strengths, as well as weaknesses—on tests. The teacher arrived at the session with worries about how to help students who don’t bounce back after defeats, who can’t tolerate making mistakes, who prefer to be labeled bad rather than stupid, who go blank under pressure, etc. There was no time to “reflect” on these matters, she discovered. First things first—and last: Tests.

I hear my own language used over and over, with meanings I never dreamed of. Ted Sizer argued for “performance assessments.” We proved he was right—it was both doable and profoundly educative. But “performance” now means paper-and-pencil test performance. Human “achievement” now means achieving high test scores.

Kids now often sit in small groups facing each other, rather than in chairs fixed to the floor and facing front, in the name of another new god—collaboration. But, silence is treasured, eyes forward and on the teacher is the rule.

The oldest language we have (art) is virtually taboo, as is the art of story-telling. In fact, language is highly restricted in the most advanced “innovative” models—especially for those children who, we’re told, “come to school without sufficient language.”

“No excuses” is the motto in many schools that also proclaim to be teaching the American creed. Schools designed to explain why, for example, democracy is worth dying for tell kids (and teachers) that they have no right to present their side of the case (i.e. excuses).

Everyone must do their share, says New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo. Including the rich? In the old days, corporate income taxes accounted for about one-third of the revenues in the federal budget; today, according to the Tax Policy Center, they provide less than one-sixth of federal tax revenues. One percent of the population possesses the lion’s share of our national wealth and mustn’t be asked to make it fairer because then they might pack up for foreign shores, to nations with or without democracy.

While the least advantaged give their lives to protect us “from foreign dictators,” that 1 percent make their money in collaboration with such dictators. But, as a nation built on equal opportunity, we proudly hold all children to the same standards at the same age, as though there were no benefit for those who start with enormous and growing advantages.

In Animal Farm, George Orwell imagined a nation at perpetual war, with a perpetual enemy, fought by “others” in the name of preserving democracy and freedom. Meanwhile at home some pigs were more equal than others, and all were monitored closely in case of deviation.

So it is that our schools begin the monitoring as early as possible, with children spending more and more hours in institutional settings designed to pass on our highest public ideals and most sacred public practices. Yet such public “ideals” are increasingly designed and implemented by wealthy private parties and their appointed “intellectuals.”

The Quaker fathers and mothers who founded Sidwell Friends would have blushed. Visiting a Friends school in North Carolina recently reminded me of this. I wish Obama had been blushing when he spoke so eloquently (above) about what’s wrong with our schools.

Not so different from Sidwell or Durham’s Friends school is a public school that was founded not long after Central Park East in East Harlem: the Ann Arbor Open School in Michigan.

I joined over the weekend with local public school teachers who wondered, aloud, when will we be allowed to develop schools good enough for Malia and Sasha?

What’s the answer, President Obama?


The opinions expressed in Bridging Differences 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.