As the newly reconstituted Senate returns to its debate over the education bill, a series of unexpected brushfires have broken out across the country. They're a backlash against the Education President's hallmark plan to mandate yearly testing of all students in grades 3 through 8. "There are some in our society," said Bush, "who don't like the notion of accountability, who don't like to test." Increasingly, these people are called parents and teachers. And, no, they're not against accountability. As it happens, Mr. President, "accountability" and "testing" are not synonymous.
Throughout the nation, growing numbers of ordinary Americans are fighting back with protests, boycotts and other acts of civil disobedience against the headlong rush to embrace testing as the answer to the education crisis.
Introducing real reform into the public education system is so extraordinarily difficult that the political establishment invariably chooses to settle for the appearance of reform. Enter, stage right and stage left: high-stakes, standardized, shallow, discriminatory, meaningless and underfunded testing that simply continues to deny our children the tools necessary for critical thinking.
"I find it amazing," Sen. Paul Wellstone, D-Minn., who is spearheading the anti-testing forces in the Senate, told me, "that testing, which was supposed to be a way of assessing reform, is now being treated as actual reform." It's as if we all decided that a checkup was as good as a cure.
But parents and teachers, concerned that their schools are being turned into little more than test-prep factories, are beginning to rebel.
Beyond the widely reported uprising last month in Scarsdale, N.Y., where a parent-led protest resulted in 67 percent of eighth graders boycotting a standardized test, the anti-testing movement is taking root in thousands of homes and schools around the country.
In Cape Cod, Mass., social studies teacher James Bougas was suspended after refusing to give a state-mandated test. In Marin County, Calif., school board member Richard Raznikov urged parents to refuse to have their kids take part in state tests. And in Whitefish Bay, Wis., so many parents protested against high-stakes tests that the state has ceased using them as a graduation requirement.
What's so bad about testing? Well, let me count the ways.
First and foremost, it reduces teachers to drill sergeants, denies children the tools of critical thinking and effectively eliminates from the school schedule anything not likely to appear on a standardized test -- things like art, music, class discussions and, believe it or not, even playtime for the youngest test subjects. I mean, students.
And because it's more cost efficient, cash-strapped states inevitably end up relying on multiple-choice questions instead of essays, which are up to 100 times more expensive to score. So it's goodbye analytical essays, hello rote memorization and educated guessing. Welcome to the "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire" School of Educational Regurgitation.
Tom Vander Ark, who heads the Gates Foundation's major education initiatives, finds the current state of the testing debate both disturbing and ironic. "Ten years ago, when the testing movement began," he tells me, "we envisioned a rich educational environment with multiple indicators of performance. Instead, kids are engaged in a curriculum of trivial pursuits, with the goal of surviving the high drama of the test."
And even when states do spring for essay questions, the testing companies turn over the scoring of these writing samples to temps making less than $10 an hour. Aren't America's teachers better prepared to evaluate our kids than some part-time rent-a-readers?
Not surprisingly, problems with testing are bubbling up all across the nation. To vary a chestnut: Who is testing the testers? At least 20 states have reported major errors that have led to teachers and students being unjustly branded with the scarlet "F." In Minnesota, a mistake by a testing company gave 47,000 students lower scores than they deserved. As a result, some failed the standardized test required for graduation. In Arizona, a flawed answer key resulted in lower scores for 12,000 students. Similar mistakes were made in Michigan and Washington, where 204,000 essay tests had to be rescored because of a scoring error. Maybe all we need is national testing of national testers.
These outrageous mistakes are bound to only get worse as more and more emphasis is placed on testing without enough money being appropriated to pay for it. President Bush is allotting $320 million, while the National Association of State Boards of Education estimates that properly funding the testing mandate will cost as much as $7 billion.
Yet if that kind of money were made available, wouldn't it be better spent on actual education -- and programs like Head Start, which is currently being funded at only a 50 percent level?
Which brings us to the most despicable aspect of testing. We already have ample statistics about how poorly our kids are doing -- kids in the Bronx, for example, already take six standardized exams beginning in third grade. What's the point? To make their failure more official? To put it in Bushian terms, these kids have already been left behind; the tests will only help them appreciate the extent of their abandonment.
Indeed, two years ago a congressionally mandated report by the National Research Council found that high-stakes testing "has the unwanted result of punishing and undermining the academic achievement of students who already face unequal educational opportunities."
"We know that tests in and of themselves," said Sen. Ted Kennedy, D-Mass., "aren't reform." But he nevertheless called the test-centric bill "a historic opportunity."
It is, in fact, a triumph for the status quo. Indeed, it's worse than that. It is a bipartisan betrayal that reinforces the worst aspects of the status quo -- the standardization of education, the destruction of critical thinking, the categorizing of millions of our kids as failures.
So real reform will have to wait for another day. But George W. and Teddy will get their bill-signing photo op. Perhaps the president should use a No. 2 pencil.