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, tinyurl.com/qcycfe 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.