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Amy Pybus: Tested to the limit

The United States seems to be ... taking the decisions about American education out of the hands of American educators and instead placing that sacred trust in the welcoming arms of an industry run entirely without oversight and populated completely with for-profit companies chasing billions of dollars in business.

— Todd Farley

I can’t believe that I have to stand on my porch and look at a computer evaluation of the quality of my sons’ education on a bar graph. I’m not happy that the state has a record of their scores, or that they will use them to compare us to other schools. These charts will decide which schools get more money, and which don’t deserve it.

Children can’t be quantified. Knowledge can’t be measured by numbers. But standardized tests have reduced our entire educational system to an attempt at doing just that.

I want my school to teach whole children. I want my sons to go to art class and gym, not “wellness.” I want them to have recess. And I don’t want them to need counseling to deal with the pressure they’ve had since they were 8 years old to do well on tests. Many of my friends won’t even show the results to our children because we know it will upset them. We lost some teachers this year and simply increased class sizes instead of hiring more. At open house they told us that students have to keep their books in the classroom now, because they lost a couple and can’t replace them.

They’re down to the last of the books. Why don’t we see this as a crisis? But when we can’t even afford teachers anymore, I guess the books aren’t our biggest concern.

I want the state to stop handing our education budget over to unregulated for-profit testing companies. It’s difficult to find information about them because they keep it very quiet. But in 2002, Frontline estimated the value of the testing market anywhere between $400 million to $700 million. Can you imagine what it is a decade later? And what would our schools be like if we had budgets like that?

Not only does standardized testing decimate education budgets, it forces teachers to justify their jobs by somehow compelling their students to score high. The numbers on the bar graph don’t show a thing about what my kids have dealt with for the past three years, or how they’ve grown, or the relationships between them and their teachers.

I have a teacher friend who supports the tests because she said it tells her what she needs to work more on and teach more clearly. That’s fine, if the results were only given to her for her use, and not for the state to evaluate her performance.

There was a time not that long ago when if a student failed it was their fault, not the teacher’s. And not everyone in the school had to be proficient in every subject, because we knew that not everyone could be. And the teacher’s job didn’t depend on it, and they didn’t have to justify their every teaching decision to a computer that’s analyzing a scanned set of bubbles and spitting out lines on charts.

I don’t have space here to get into privacy issues, or the inherent racism and classism of standardized tests, or the fact that they don’t measure true growth. My dental hygienist told me about taking her state boards: “It was an 8-hour test. After lunch I came back and I literally couldn’t see.” The human brain is simply not designed to perform the function of sitting in a room for hours, answering hundreds of questions in a row.

According to PBS, American students are now the most-tested but least proficient in the world. The decline of the American education system is not in spite of the tests, it’s because of the tests.

I’m a huge believer in public schools. I think they are necessary for the development of a healthy society. But the stress that tests put on the whole system, financial, intellectual, and emotional — for students and teachers alike — is causing school to be an unhealthy place.

I’m not sure how to solve this problem, but it feels like we’re at a tipping point. When we can’t pay teachers or buy books hopefully the politicians will begin to notice. I know some advocates like Diane Ravitch, who once believed in standardized tests but now advocates against them, are gaining ground.

But in the meantime, I wish that my sons would stop paying the price for corporate greed.

Amy Pybus of Easthampton writes on family life issues in a column that appears on the second Thursday of the month. She can be reached at opinion@gazettenet.com and blogs at www.sittingonthebaby.com.

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