Subscribe to SLJ
Nonfiction Matters
Inside Nonfiction Matters

Ending The Madness In Our Schools

We Can, We Must, End the Testing Madness

Friends, three of you contacted me this week with emails that could make your blood run cold, but they made mine run hot. I am a product of the 60s — when I see a wrong, no matter how defended by powerful forces, I believe we can and must fight it. Look, we have a black President, how unlikely is that? Surely we — however powerless we may feel as individual parents, librarians, teachers — can challenge an insane educational system.

Post one — Dana Wood sent me a link to her blog, in which she described what is going on her in school. Here is here summary: "My hometown Alexandria, MN high school library, Jefferson High School Media Center, dumped 80-85% of its non-fiction books in favor of a "cyber-cafe"… Although it was once a library, where hundreds of books took up much of the space, the JHS media center is now a place where students can get up-to-date information through use of computers and the Internet. Books can still be found in the media center, the principal said, but noted that most of them are fiction or books students read for pleasure, not for doing research."
I have nothing against weeding collections. And, as I saw in Normal, IL, good databases are a better choice for many libraries than bound encyclopedies and other pure reference volumes. But nonfiction is not merely "up-to-date information." Not at all — nonfiction is a process of thinking. Databases and reference resources offer processed thinking — they give the student in a handy, easy to use fashion, the result of the author’s study, without any author. And that leads me to a second post. 

Jane Healy wrote in a comment mentioning Kelly Gallagher’s compelling book Readicide — which I devoured. Kelly quotes the former president of the American Psychological Association on facts and knowledge. Nearly all of the "facts" Robert Sternberg learned when he first took psychology  have been challenged or overturned. So what students need is to learn how to become "expert citizens" able to use "creativity, common sense, wisdom, ethics, dedication" and similar traits in their pursuit of knowledge. No database can confer those skills. Rather, that is what an author can model and demonstrate in a book — just as, Gallagher insists, students need to read whole novels, not just bits of text in readers or anthologies. 

That leads to the third post — Deb in Florida notes exactly the same thing as Kelly describes in California: the real losers in test-mad schools are poor kids, kids whose parents cannot provide extra help, visits to museums, shelves filled with books. Now Marina — who teaches in a state university and sees those same kids who manage to struggle into college — says there has been one benefit from the test squeeze: her very weak students know that they are weak. To give NCLB credit: even in its high stakes rigidity it has cracked something — weak students know that they are behind. The problem is we do not offer them anything, just more evidence of being behind.  

Schools that treat nonfiction as bits of fresh data, not explorations of ideas; schools in which testing replaces learning; schools that disadvantage their disadvantaged students accomplish only one thing: we ensure that we continue to live in a divided society. We deny kids the opportunity to think, to examine, to question — and thus to understand their own conditions. Instead we cram them with facts, then turn them loose to fast food and endless entertainment (bread and circuses). We have one kind of schooling for those bred to think, and another for those bred to be distracted. 

This simply cannot be right, and we cannot accept it.


  1. Linda Zajac says:

    I have a friend who works in special ed. She described giving a test to one of her students. “He looked left, he looked right, he looked up, he looked down. He looked everywhere except at the test.” What’s the point? That’s very sad when you hear that weak students now know it. On the other end of the spectrum, I’ve read NCLB has led to cuts in gifted education. I’m surprised this administration has not addressed it yet, but they are probably overwhelmed sifting through the dump truck that emptied its contents on the White House lawn.

  2. Dana Woods says:

    Just for the record I am Mr. Dana Woods.

  3. Linda Zajac says:

    Ohhhh, I now understand why you put that comment there. It’s Mr. not Ms. Oops.

    Getting back on topic, I just now read your blog entry. It seems to me the problem was created when someone didn’t look at what was the right thing to do, the library simply went along with the masses. If a group of students spearheads an idea, that doesn’t mean their thinking is correct. This situation is in line with the recent study I read about, I believe it was in a CNN report (climate change?). Anyhow, it stated that studies have shown it’s easier to convince people when many other people are already convinced. Yes, but we all still need a mind of our own!

  4. Sorry, Mr. Woods. I will be posting about just this issue — seeing for oneself and not going along with the crowd, and how to encourage this behavior in students — next week.

  5. melanie hope greenberg says:

    I am the illustrator hand picked by Marian Wright Edelman for the Children’s Defense Fund’s popular “Everyone Belongs” poster (now out of print). I took seriously the “Leave No Child Behind” logo. Then the Bush Administration took over the logo and twisted it around calling it Leave No Child Behind. I visit elementary schools as a picture book author and illustrator and talk to the teachers. They feel this program has not helped at all. Kids are in fear mode all the time. I’ve noticed that joy is usually the glue to make a lesson stick. So I come to a school to bring joy, not shove a lesson down a child’s throat. We are testing these children to obey so when they leave school traumatized and not well educated they will step in line to become worker drones without opinions and conformist to the max. Appalling. Looking forward to hearing about individuals over the conformist- for the group mentality that pervades our society right now. I am also a child of the 60’s and have illustrated for the AFL-CIO, UNICEF, CDF and more and people have no idea what I talk about when I bring it up. Also, the newbie editors have no sense of history about their field and just dump or have selected alzheimer’s for many long time great authors I’ve worked with for some ghoul or vampire.

  6. Linda Zajac says:

    I haven’t heard one person say what a great piece of legislation that is. I spoke to a state rep about it once. She said it was enacted to get after badly performing mid-west schools and now other schools are getting trapped in it’s tentacles. The reason I approached her was that the high school in town was in jeopardy of losing funding because of the “participation ratio.” If you don’t have the ample percentages taking the test (guess some kids just bolt), then they put you on the warning list. How stupid. There was a whole group in town that got after the schools. I didn’t participate in that group because I have always felt it’s not the school, IT’S THE LEGISLATION. And yes, I totally agree that it is taking the joy out of teaching. Here in my town, they now give “off year tests” to make sure they stay on target. The poor kids.

  7. c.ortiz says:

    I am a high school librarian. I hear teachers saying they can no longer take the time to be creative with lessons because they have to rigidly follow a curriculum and, of course, teach to all the tests. I hear students saying there is no fun in school anymore. I was just thinking on my way into work this morning, a day when we have an altered schedule due to testing, “what happened to department chairs making sure the teachers are on target (not in lock step) with the curriculum and then trusting teachers to asses (via test, quiz, project, report, etc…) whether or not students were ready to proceed to the next level?