I definitely didn’t notice when I first participated in anti-standardized testing activism. It wasn’t until I got back into the classroom, teaching in a low-income community of color, that I wondered if the opting out message would resonate.

In the most beleaguered public schools, the anti-test message didn’t seem to gain any traction. A new survey from Teachers College seems to partly confirm that the typical anti-test activist is white, female, and relatively affluent.  

There’s a great deal of work to do. I’ll have to review the report more carefully. But a quick view of some of the survey data reveals that the vast majority of respondents are from Florida and New York.

Interesting. Maybe not the most diverse sample, or is this pretty typical?

Another question I have, ultimately, is who gets to make the claim that they are an opt out activist? Pinning down any social movement is difficult. You’re privileging folks who have robust social media presence and consistent internet connections in order to respond to the surveys. Or those that don’t have tough, hourly jobs that give them time to complete random surveys. Opt out groups were also given the surveys and sent them out to respondents themselves, which is also seems like a self-reporting bias, maybe? No?

Whatever the limitations, the report does confirm, somewhat, what I’ve suspected for some time now.

Education that values metrics over meaning is toxic.

I’m being cute with “metrics over meaning.” What am I getting at here?

Success as a student and a teacher is reduced annually to numbers. Each school year, as new metrics are invented and policies are aligned to value numbers, the power and control of quantitative values increases. Teachers will then, and with administrative approval, prioritize the kinds of methods to increase numerical scores at the expense of what isn’t measured, or perhaps what doesn’t count for evaluation purposes.

As NPR has written, this dramatic shift in culture is most evident in the early grades, where obvious play has been replaced by more seat-based and drill activities. Prior to a few years ago, I never taught Kindergarten. My first inclination was to think about dramatic play and other sensory activities. I asked early childhood educators what a Kindergarten classroom should have. Since I had nothing, I built, for instance, my own sand and water tables. I built easels and invested in costumes and other play materials.

It takes a significant amount of advocacy and risk to implement play-based activities in early childhood classrooms. Most administrators, especially building level principals, don’t seem to understand the level of “rigor” possible in hands-on, student-driven activities. I hate use of the word “rigor,” but I can play that game. And I can demonstrate the level of potential “rigor” in play-based curricula.

The kinds of teaching, however, prioritized by current teacher evaluation obviously values what produces greater quantitative growth than anything else. It values direct instruction, but not even meaningful direct instruction, which is possible. Evaluation, even in Kindergarten, values teachers lobbing meaningless questions at students just to say they were covered. Administrative review values a checklist of “things” that must be ticked off in a certain time frame, regardless if they’re relevant or not.

Beyond method, a test driven culture in early childhood creates a tremendous amount of anxiety. It narrows all conversations to numerical data. And it, as painfully as this might sound, encourages teachers to “cheat.” I can name dozens of ways that teachers cheat their data, some more obvious than others. This is a terrible foundation on which to build a school, and I don’t necessarily blame teachers for it.

Not all teachers cheat. Most probably don’t. I certainly don’t, but teachers that don’t are punished significantly for their honesty. Their growth is not as huge. They underscore flaws in the system. Those teachers are blamed by the higher grades for not sending them students that “know anything.”

All of this promotes a toxic culture of self-preservation, a CYA mentality that serves the adults more than the children.

 

 

This year’s testing season is drawing to a close. Folks on all sides will once again count their spoils and lick their wounds, prepping for minor flare-ups when test results are finally released, and for future battles to come.

I have this feeling that while parents, teachers, and other activists squabble over testing, the system is already hard at work designing the next phase of this war. Anti-test activists might discover that, when testing and stakes are reduced sufficiently to their satisfaction, a new paradigm will emerge.

Anti-test activists, of which I counted myself one years ago, diminish the importance of testing to everyday teaching practice, but at the same time spend enormous amounts of time, energy, and words arguing against it. Does that not put testing squarely in the center of everyone’s consciousness when it should instead be relegated to the periphery?

When activists spend so much time arguing against testing, and common core, there is less time and energy for the creation of an alternative vision of teaching and learning. Maybe one day the testing wars will be over. Then what?

Parents and community members are given tremendous power in these debates because, quite simply, a parent cannot be fired for insubordination when refusing to allow their child to participate in testing. If these parents succeed in their fight, will they be able to envision an alternative educational vision? Will they step aside and allow teachers to take charge of this new mission?

I’ve seen some examples of this alternative vision emerge from some bloggers and commentators online, but I don’t see enough examples. I don’t see enough examples of actual teaching that can compete with a test-based narrative. I don’t see enough examples of these activists actually knowing their practice well enough so that we can trust them with developing something new.

Think of a list of prominent activists in this movement. How many pictures of their classrooms have we seen? Do they post syllabi or handouts? Video clips of their teaching? Student work samples? Do they post anecdotes of their experiences with students? I can only think of a handful.

Think of the boards of these activist groups. How many are still teaching? Do they comment on a future vision, or do they constantly rail against the past? All of these bloggers and commentators out there, do we have a collection of their teaching, of examples of their teaching, so that we know with some degree of confidence that they know what they are doing in the classroom?

I used to believe that it was not the activist teacher’s role to create this alternative, because it’s already been out there. Instead, it is incumbent on the reformer to remove the oppressive chains and give the teacher the freedom to practice as their profession commands. But now I’m starting to believe that the activists are only responding to old paradigms as the ground shifts underneath us. We will be late to the new battles that will emerge, and we must start laying new foundations now before we find ourselves behind once again.

I look at stories like this, and I wonder if this is the natural evolution of the test opt-out movement?

I take it that anti-test activist groups tout themselves as very pro-public schools, painting them as venerable democratic institutions that endeavor to promote wholesome, American values and with the potential to restore justice.

But can you have it both ways?

That is, empower parents to the degree that, specifically regarding standardized testing, they know what is best for THEIR children and that THEIR decisions are sacrosanct, but then at the same time relinquish parental authority when it comes to other potential decisions, like the above linked story about the acceptance of a transgendered child.

Testing activists like to pump up parents, saying they’re the key to this movement, that you can’t fire a parent, and that parents have the ultimate say in how their child is educated. After all this time, giving parents this power, how do you then say that they cannot resist or “opt-out” of other aspects of the curriculum?