“Whoohoo!” Curb your enthusiasm kids and under no circumstances should you ever start a sentence like that. In another sign that high-stakes-testing is out of control and hurting our children, students are now being told to follow rigid writing guidelines that have nothing to do with real learning and everything to do with how they will be measured on tests.
At last week’s Rally for Public Education, Dr. Tim Slekar, head of the education department at Penn State Altoona, told the story about his son, Luke, just learning to read and write. Luke was supposedly having trouble responding to writing prompts and therefore not doing well in school. For example, instructed to write about a favorite time with his family, he started his little essay by saying, “Whoohoo! Let me tell you about my great vacation …” and earned a big fat zero for the assignment. The teacher explained to Dr. Slekar that if this had been the PSSA (Pennsylvania’s high-stakes, standardized test), his son would have failed. She then had Luke tell his dad what was “wrong” with his essay. “Whoohoo is not a sentence,” Luke said glumly, “and writing prompts must always start by restating the prompt.”
As Dr. Slekar told the dismayed audience at the Rally, the teacher was under tremendous pressure to make sure her students scored well on the PSSAs. “Luke was actually experimenting with writing and trying to communicate to his readers a sense of excitement – ‘Whoo hoo!’ … but the PSSAs were forcing Luke to parrot sentences in a pre-ordained structure so that low-paid temp workers would be able to score it.” Dr. Slekar calls this a “disastrous system” of high-stakes testing, that forces teachers to comply with systems established by legislators, not educators, and that actually damages student learning.
If you missed the Rally, please take four minutes to watch Dr. Slekar’s extremely compelling comments. (And we now have links to video of the rest of that amazing event at “What a Rally!”) Consider how parents all over the country have been opting their children out of these high-stakes-tests (including a big group right here in Mt. Lebanon); how entire schools of teachers in Seattle are refusing to administer such tests; how students in places like Portland, Oregon are standing up and fighting back. This Opt Out movement is not against assessment, it is opposed to high-stakes-tests that are being used to label our children, their schools and their teachers as failures; it is opposed to the culture of testing and test-prep that has pushed meaningful, rich learning experiences out of our schools; it is opposed to the perverse consequences of high-stakes pressure such as cheating scandals and stress-related symptoms in our children.
Some people have asked me what concern for high-stakes-testing has to do with budget cuts, which is where this grassroots movement started. The answer is that the historic budget cuts we are suffering here in Pennsylvania could not happen without the logic provided by high-stakes-testing. These tests provide the “data” that seem to “prove” that public education is failing; they reinforce what many (falsely) already believe about cities, urban youth, and students of color in particular. You cannot massively slash programs that have broad support: but high-stakes-tests and this insidious national narrative of “failing public schools,” have thoroughly convinced many that we need to scrap public education altogether and start over. Too many have lost faith that public education is a public good. And when that happens, Governor Corbett here in Pennsylvania (like many others around the country) can legitimize the defunding of our schools.
Meanwhile, the state uses PSSA test scores to label individual schools as failures and justifies draining public taxpayer dollars through the EITC corporate-tax credit programs, sending our revenues to private schools, while claiming we do not have enough money to support public education. And the tests themselves cost our state – us taxpayers – millions and millions of dollars, which are going to enrich private testing corporations that are making immense profits. Finally, when school districts are hit with budget cuts, they are forced to slash everything that doesn’t count on a test: since only reading and math are measured, students lose art, music, history, library, languages, and even tutoring programs (which just demonstrates how perverse this system really is). And when pressed to the limits of existence by state budget cuts those districts decide they must close individual schools, they inevitably shut down the “failing” school full of “under-achieving” students defined by those test-scores.
If you are interested in learning more about your legal right to opt your children out of high-stakes-testing, please join us for a conversation at the Squirrel Hill Library at 3:30PM this coming Sunday, February 24, 2013. The Opt Out movement is coming to Yinzer Nation. Whoo hoo!