This letter appeared in "Education Week" on October 18, 2000 (http://www.edweek.org/ew/ewstory.cfm?slug=07letter.h20):
Is Testing Mania a Form of Abuse?
To the Editor:
Alfie Kohn is right to attack the effort to standardize what children know, and how they come to know it, and the high-stakes tests that are attached to this process ("Standardized Testing and Its Victims," Commentary, Sept. 27, 2000).
Parents and educators in Michigan, for example, now face the uncomfortable choice of deciding how much they need to be bribed in exchange for allowing the state to abuse their kids. How much is integrity worth?
The bribe, attached to the high-stakes Michigan Educational Assessment Program, or MEAP, was made necessary by growing boycotts in the state by students and teachers who have turned their backs on the bogus exam. In one of the state's largest suburban high schools, only four students took the social studies exam, which still has no funding attached to it.
All of these standardized state exams are born in an era of rising inequality and authoritarianism. And they serve to deepen those problems.
The odd unity of Vice President Al Gore, Gov. George W. Bush of Texas, and the leaders of both major education unions in support of the standardization and testing is explained by their common stake in enforcing a system that needs to mask the fact that it requires poverty and racism as fuel. The tests clearly further the segregation of kids by class and race. They are not written to create critical thinkers, but people who will adapt well in a tough job market: cooperative employees.
Moreover, the tests steal educators' most precious commodity, time with kids. Replacing the mind of the teacher with the minds of the "standardistos," the exams shatter the progress of the curriculum, exhausting up to 30 percent of instructional time in our more frantic districts. Like most of our textbooks, the tests attempt to turn professional educators into missionaries for the privileged classes. In Michigan, for example, tests have had to be withdrawn repeatedly because of clearly racist questions.
These kinds of tests know nothing about the unique strengths of individual children or the particular knowledge that must be developed in urban communities—or in rural areas, for that matter. The Michigan tests are scored in an utterly unprofessional manner and, like all of the tests, the MEAP requires thousands of kids to fail. Fortunately, no university of any standing in Michigan considers the scores significant.
These tests, coupled with carrot-and-stick approaches to teaching to them, amount to nothing less than child abuse. Only bribes and massive, misleading ad campaigns can make them appealing. It is unfortunate that insecure administrators are refusing to tell the public that they have a right to object to the tests, and that kids have the right not to take them.
Good teachers can teach around almost anything. And they will do so with this current bout of testing mania. But over time, as these state tests become national exams and wages are linked to scores on them, financially threatened teachers will discover the truth to the old saw, "An injury to one precedes an injury to all."
Education professionals need to organize against this threat to their academic freedom to teach as they know best. Students and parents should ridicule the exams and the bureaucrats who profit from them. No child should be abused. Let the boycotts grow.
San Diego State University
College of Education
San Diego, Calif.
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