Testing, Testing, 1, 2, 3…A Million: Melting Down the Idol of the “Almighty” Test Score

Good evening, readers,

I am mad. I am incensed. I am boiling. My chest squeezes whenever I think about this next topic. And this next topic inherently has nothing to do with people who have disabilities–which is why I am incensed. What’s the topic, you ask? Test scores, particularly those in public schools.

As an informal teacher (tutor, community “editor” for high school term papers, one stint of teaching freshman composition in grad school, and a couple stints as an elementary school-level reading coach), and a full-fledged teacher-to-be, I get angry with the idea of high-stakes testing on principle. As I wrote in a novel I recently finished, which starred an elementary school teacher, these bubble sheet tests graded on a machine teach the kids nothing except regurgitation, and teachers don’t get to teach anything meaningful because they must stick to the test. From the spring of third grade through high school, “This will be on the test” constantly came out of my teachers’ mouths. I felt intense pressure, especially in regards to the math exams, and actually failed two of those exams, necessitating remediation. Picture the anger, shame, and disbelief that goes with that, and you’ll have more of an inkling of where my opposition comes from.

And what happens when the school as a whole presents with low test scores? They are sanctioned, which is a fancy word for “punished,” and blacklisted as what Diane Ravitch calls a “school in need of improvement” (SINI). Under No Child Left Behind, these schools essentially have five years to clean up their acts, or they face “restructuring,” which could, and often does, mean giving up and handing the school over to state control.

So of course, if you are a teacher or principal, you try to do everything you can to prevent these consequences. You do everything in your power to make sure your students and school make adequate yearly progress (AYP) according to the definition in NCLB. (I’m beginning to see something the government has in common with Disability Land–lots and lots of acronyms. Anybody else feel unnerved and annoyed? Yeah, me, too). In theory, that’s the right thing to do. Protecting your school often means toeing the line, as tough and unfair as that is. But toeing the line also means doing some nasty stuff, including the exclusion, belittiling, ignoring, and disenfranchising of children with disabilities.

Yes, it’s true. According to Ravitch, children with disabilities are one group that is constantly considered a drain on test scores. In Chapter 8 of her book The Death and Life of the American School System, Ravitch explains that often, the fewer minority students–or students with disabilities–a school has, the better the test scores are or will become (Ravitch 2010 p. 154). Notice that disability is perceived as separate, different–therefore inherently unequal–from African-American, Hispanic, Jewish, Asian, Native American, or other minorities according to testing industry bigwigs. Ravitch also states, around page 156, that sometimes minority children, including English language learners, are placed in special education even though they don’t need it, so they won’t drive down the test scores of their minority “subgroup.” Translation? “It’s okay if they drive down the ‘crip’ scores–those kids can’t do anything anyway. But we can’t make kids of different races or religions look bad. After all, those things are natural and normal. Disability is not.”

Need an antacid yet? Honey, it gets worse. According to Ravitch, sometimes, children with disabilities who are eligible to take state tests with accommodations are given more accommodations than they actually need. Why? So they will be more likely to reach that elusive goal of “proficiency” as defined by NCLB. Translation? “Let’s give them everything we can so they’ll pass and make the school look good, and so if they fail, we can blame them and their ‘deficiencies.’ Plus, it’s great PR.”

Right. And I’m a slice of Swiss cheese.

Do you see what’s happening here? Children with disabilities are either being told they’re incapable–again–or they’re treated as commodities–what Kathie Snow bluntly calls “cash cows.” And as for the modification construct, it looks good on paper, but what it really serves to do is make the child with a disability look weaker and more dependent. As in, “Look how much they need, poor things,” so that eventually, teachers, administrators, and others can start saying, “Are disabled kids really worth it?” And the answer will always be no. So the cycle of giving these children sub-standard educations, then shuffling them into menial jobs and “placements” in sheltered programs continues. And when they fail, we blame them for being “drains on society”–when, way back when those adults with disabilities were kids, WE STARTED IT! We set them up to fail!

“But Chick,” you say, “suppose a child really is incapable of taking a standard state test?”

So, then, you modify the test, as much as is reasonable (defined by the child’s needs, not your definition of “reasonable.”) Or you give a different test that does not condescend to that child, and shows the extent of their strengths and capabilities in the best way possible. If it takes time? Well, you’d want the same thing done for your own kid, I’ll bet. If it costs money? Come on–you funnel enough money into these gosh-awful segregated programs and classrooms. Why not funnel it somewhere it could do some good? And why not help children with disabilities, and their families, realize the truth that they too, can accomplish something? They too, can be “proficient” or even “advanced?”

Think it through, guys–especially those parents whose children don’t have disabilities. Would you want your kid treated like this? Seen as the one kid who ought to just stay home, or go in a separate room and do babyish activities, on test day? Or worse, seen as a cash cow (which is what they will become, if we continue to give in to the vicious cycle I have described?)

Then get in the schools. Get on the phone and into your email accounts, and propose a new way to your school: real partnerships. If kids really do need to take these high-stakes tests (which in itself is debatable), let’s work to make them truly fair, available, and positive for every child involved.


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