Fighting back against mandatory school testing: It’s my way or the highway, says No Child Left Behind—but is it really?

Aaryn is a parent in San Diego.  This piece is cross posted at Aaryn’s blog, Thematically Fickle.  An opt out letter that California parents can use is posted here.

by Aaryn Belfer

The red pillow takes the least space. The yellow pillow takes more space than the blue pillow. Which of the following is not true:

  • The red pillow takes more space than the blue pillow.
  • The yellow pillow takes more space than the red pillow.
  • The blue pillow takes more space than the red pillow.
  • The red pillow takes less space than the yellow pillow.
  • The blue pillow is the one I will bury my face in while I cry myself to sleep because my frustrated child told me today, “I’m a loser.”

That there is a real homework question (mostly) from my child’s third week in first grade. She’s in a language immersion program and isn’t reading fluently in any language just yet, so problems like these need to be dictated to her. This is typical of the state-mandated curriculum taught every day at her public school and of the battery of tests she’ll take during the next 11 years beginning this past October. Never let it be said I didn’t offer you readers birth control.

Folks, if you think the people leading us today are fucked up, wait until you see what our schools are going to churn out in the next decade and beyond.

Exactly one year ago, San Diego Unified School District Superintendent Bill Kowba spoke on an episode of KPBS’s These Days radio show about a “lost generation” of children.

“If you were a kindergartner enrolled about 2007,” Kowba said, “and you moved forward, you’re in about the third grade now or so. All we have done is reduce the opportunities for you as a student.”

With the end of 2011 comes a much-needed four-week break for my generational refugee. For one month, she’ll be free from the barrage of multiple-choice, fill-in-the bubble worksheets and the drone of standardized-testing-based curriculum that now comprise the meat of our public-education system. Designed to prep the little ones for the revolving door of tests, the classwork being pushed is also perfect for squashing the curiosity right out of them.

According to Diane Ravitch, an education historian, former supporter of No Child Left Behind and outspoken critic of high-stakes testing, “No high-performing nation tests its students every year or uses student test scores to evaluate teacher quality.” That tells us a lot about our nation’s direction. Behold, our testing:

California students are to take federally mandated tests (the NAEP in grades 4, 8 and 12); state-mandated tests (STAR, which includes the CST, CAPA and CAMA tests for grades 2 through 11, and the CAHSEE in grades 10 through 12); and district-mandated tests (math-, science- and literacy-benchmark exams administered three times each year to grades 1 through 8 and end-of-course exams in grades 6 through 12—there are no cool acronyms for these). More tests are coming, too, thanks to Obama’s Blueprint. Are your eyes going all psychedelic kaleidoscope on you right now? Just wait. I’m about to add some neon.

Counted among the “voluntary” tests are the AP, EAP and IB exams. There are the college entrance exams—ACT, PSAT, SATI and SATII (how voluntary are these?)—that can be taken more than once! There’s the CELDT for new English-language learners and the infamous-amongst-parents GATE test because it supposedly identifies the cream of the crop. Of course, none of this includes the old-fashioned test—like the math and spelling tests my daughter takes at the end of each week.

With tests like these—and an ever-shortening school year—who has room for meaningful, inspiring instruction in any subject, let alone math and literacy? Certainly not teachers, who are at once hamstrung by the standards and made out to be the scapegoats of all that’s wrong with public education. Why anyone would want to be a teacher right now is beyond me.

I’ve said before that being a parent means going through school all over again. Nobody tells you this, and had I known way back when, I might have made a different decision about my future, settling on a reliable dog-sitter and lots of world travel instead.

More likely, I would have pressed ahead with my naiveté, thinking—like I did in 2005—How bad can it be? Schools have got to be better by the time my child is 5. Isn’t that quaint? The thought is so adorable that I want to pat it on the head and send it to bed with a warm cup of milk. And even if I’d been able to imagine a worst-case educational scenario, it still would’ve been a termite’s dust tower compared with the Mt. Kilimanjaro shit-pile that it is.

So, here I am at base camp of the shit-pile, faced with the daunting task of navigating my route to the top. Testing looms, and it pisses me off.

I’m angry that my kid is being held hostage to tests by a system that threatens to take away her school’s funding if she and her schoolmates don’t perform well. I’m angry that my child’s class spent an hour, during the math benchmark test in October, transcribing their answers from the test sheet to the Scantron sheet. I’m angry that whatever changes are coming to this system will not be soon enough—or even the right ones—to change the experience the “lost generation” will have.

I’m not willing to be complicit in it. So, we are opting out of the mandated testing. What? You didn’t know you know you can do that?

To be continued…

(Also published Dec. 20, 2011 in San Diego CityBeat.)

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