Thursday, March 11th, 2010

The image that flashed into my mind was: schools in orange jumpsuits.
Something has broken apart in our society — an unspoken agreement about sanity, a truce between play and order. The authoritarian strain, always present, of course, has been ratcheting up to ever more absurd levels for a decade now.
It’s as though, as the American political class has watched its real control over the course of events slowly ebb, a collusion of desperation has broken out among them: “The time of fun and waste is over,” as the 9/11 terrorists put it. As our problems get increasingly complex, the solutions we implement get more and more simplistic. Results don’t really matter, just the appearance of holding someone accountable.
In our foreign policy, this axis-of-evil insanity has been all too obvious. On the domestic side, in our relationship with ourselves, much of the up-tempo repressiveness — homeland security overreach, the USA PATRIOT Act — is driven by an alleged fear of terrorism. That is not true, however, of No Child Left Behind and the high-stakes, high-stress testing mania that is running amok in our schools. I have yet to encounter a teacher who has anything good to say about the phenomenon, which I now see as hysteria’s beachhead on the home front.
“Each bar-coded booklet must be guarded before the tests and accounted for afterward so the questions aren’t compromised. Schools have to provide a written statement to explain why even a single booklet is missing.”
This is my local paper, the Chicago Tribune, gleefully and uncritically updating me on ISAT testing time across the state of Illinois. This is how we’re wasting $45 million: scraping the brains of the state’s third- through eighth-graders in order to assess whether their schools will stay open, whether their teachers will keep their jobs. The stakes are so high that security measures dominate the process. How far away, I wonder, is Blackwater (I mean Xe) from getting the contract to curb cheating?
“Educators say they walk a careful line, asking students to take the tests seriously without making them anxious about grown-up problems, such as the threat of closing schools that repeatedly fail to meet expectations.
“‘You don’t want to scare the kid to death.’” So the assistant superintendent of a school district west of Chicago told the Trib reporter.
I read these words as the parent of a grown child, as one who remembers the struggle of putting a kid through the public schools. One of the worst things about the school system even before No Child Left Behind was how my daughter’s teachers were forced to teach to the often preposterous and learning-antithetical requirements of the standardized tests. And it has only gotten worse, with the force of top-down authority becoming ever tenser and more demanding.
While testing and evaluation are reasonable components of the education process, pretending that evaluation is a hard science, that you can reduce a child’s mental growth to a statistic, is not. Yet the authority of the standardized tests, such as the Illinois Standards Achievement Test that is now sending stress waves through the state’s school systems (some schools even allow gum-chewing during testing weeks to help kids stay relaxed, the Tribune reported) is seldom challenged by the mainstream media — any more than they challenged the authority that declared, and continues to declare, war.
As I say, high-stakes testing is all about holding someone accountable. Diane Ravitch, writing last week on HuffingtonPost about the recent firing of all 93 teachers, administrators and support staff at the “underperforming” high school in Central Falls, R.I., commented, quoting a blogger called Mrs. Mimi, that “we fire teachers because ‘we can’t fire poverty.’”
The “underperforming,” low-testing schools — the ones that get shut down, emptied out, metaphorically forced to don the orange jumpsuits — are always in low-income communities, where children struggle against enormous obstacles, at home and on the streets, that schools cannot control. Rather than take a holistic approach to the educational challenges of these communities, rather than mandating smaller class size, the equitable allocation of resources and other changes that would do immediate good, test-pushing pols seek to punish convenient scapegoats, start over and change nothing.
But my most serious complaint against the mania for standardized testing is the way it straitjackets education itself, converts classrooms, in the words of Bill Bigelow, writing a decade ago for the Rethinking Schools website, “into vast wading pools of information for students to memorize without critical reflection.”
Education that joyously encourages creativity and discovery is out of the question. The exaltation of the standardized test, however flawed, to the status to supreme authority, breaks the connection between teacher and student. Suddenly school is just another battleground — us vs. them — with Blackwater security guys guarding the right answers.