Silence Ain't Golden: Spread the Word
by Susan Ohanian
As a longtime 7th grade schoolteacher familiar with an atmosphere of ongoing crisis and impending doom, I'm not often overcome by apocalyptic imagination. However, the arrival of two cops from Gwinnett County, Georgia, on my doorstep in rural Vermont did get my attention. They threatened extradition for a felony, five years in jail, and a $50,000 fine. According to the cops, my link to a felony is that I live five miles from the post office from which the high-stakes Gwinnett County test was mailed to the Georgia media.
Politicians, corporate CEOs and institutional bureaucrats speak blithely about the necessity of high stakes that can deny a fourth grader from being advanced to fifth grade, the high stakes which deny students a high school diploma, the high stakes which dump 522 from their high school program in Birmingham, Alabama. What they are less likely to acknowledge are the high stakes that impel them to keep these tests secret at any cost. The best-kept secret of all are the high stakes which drive these tests.
Gwinnett County, which enrolls 110,300 students in its public schools, is the showcase of Governor Roy Barnes' plan for raising school standards. It is the first district in Georgia to institute high-stakes tests. Even so, the Georgia media has shown no interest in commenting on the loony test questions used to decide whether kids pass or fail a grade. Maybe they think fourth graders should know the socio/political/economic effects of the publication of Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin or whether one is more likely to find information about pretzels in a newspaper or an encyclopedia. Anyone who thinks that latter answer is obvious, should try finding "pretzels" in an encyclopedia.
Anyone who thinks Gwinnett County is unique must have been taking a long snooze. Kids in Los Angeles are asked about lemon mousse; in New York City they are quizzed on the distinctions between 100% pure maple syrup and maple-style syrup.
Silence is our enemy. Speak up. Send me your goofy test items.
Maybe the police haven't appeared on the doorsteps of many people yet, but nationwide, teachers who talk about the tests take great risks. Fortunately for Oregon teacher Bill Bigelow, the Portland superintendent refused the then-state superintendent's demand to fire Bigelow for writing an article "Social Studies Tests From Hell."
North Carolina middle school teacher Teresa Glenn was suspended for five days for paraphrasing one oddball test item on a listserv set up by the state as a place for teachers to discuss educational concerns.
Veteran Chicago teacher and journalist George Schmidt was fired from a distinguished career of 29 years and is being sued for $1.3 million for publishing six of 22 Chicago pilot tests in Substance, an investigative and analytical newspaper about Chicago schools. Independent experts have declared these tests unprofessional, simplistic, and error-ridden, but Schmidt, not the testmakers, is on the firing line.
This does not mean we should shut up. It means more of us must speak out. It means we must speak louder. What would happen if everybody started talking about what they know?
Silence is our enemy.
Here's more evidence of why the tests are kept so secret. Last spring, a family-law attorney whose daughter was one of 8,000 Minnesota high school students who failed the math section of the state test asked to see her test. He was told this was impossible. Finally, after months of delay and only through the intervention of the governor's office, a testing specialist reviewed the test and discovered scoring errors. In late July, more than five months after students took the tests, Education Commissioner Christine Jax revealed that more than 40% of the tests were incorrectly scored, that students had actually passed. Two-thirds of the test in Milwaukee were mis-scored. These errors kept hundreds of students from graduating and forced hundreds of others into summer school. National Computer Systems apologized and offered to stage a make-up graduation ceremony for all those who missed the real one.
Massachusetts middle school teacher Jim Bougas was suspended for two weeks for refusing to give the state's high-stakes test required by corporate-led education reform. Bougas says, "If the MCAS continues, I have no job because they've taken it away from me as long as I have to spend my time teaching to the test." At seventeen hours, the MCAS is longer than the Massachusetts Bar exam.
Let us consider Bougas' statement, consider what the Standardistos have done to our careers. Is silence worth the cost to us? Is silence worth the cost to the children in our care?
Silence is our enemy.
Presently, speaking out has its hazards.
Danvers, Massachusetts, tenth grader Curt Doble was arrested after he refused to take the MCAS. Police came to his house, handcuffed him, and locked him up in jail overnight. A judge later dismissed the charges as being without warrant, but Curt's single, working mother is left with $3,100 in legal bills.
In Birmingham, Alabama, Steve Orel, an adult ed instructor, was fired for questioning why 522 students were pushed out of city schools threatened by state take over because of low test scores shortly before the Stanford 9 tests were to be administered. Testing experts note that the easiest way for a school to raise its averages is to make sure the lowest scoring students don't take the test. Kids who are kicked out of school aren't there to take the test.
Can we possibly remain silent in the face of this?
People are fighting back.
Parents and teachers from around the country have formed the Committee to Recognize the Courage of George Schmidt:
We need your help in this. If we can raise a big chunk of money
- it will help a deserving teacher;
- we can use it to garner media attention.
Teacher, can you spare a dime? Or two?
Silence is our enemy.
Employing an anagrammatical parody of MCAS, students in a Massachusetts-based activist group SCAM, Student Coalition for Alternatives to the MCAS, are highly visible in their attempts to educate the public about the test, which spokesman Will Greene terms "a poor implementation of a mediocre idea."
On June 4, in Hudson, Massachusetts, home of Governor Cellucci who was on the high school graduation stage, class valedictorian Annelise Schantz decried the state's high-stakes testing policy, attacking "meddling politicians and bored yuppies" who employ numbers and standards to stamp out independent thought among students.
In California, rumors circulate that the SAT9 test is too hard in Grade 2 and gets worse through the grades. The Los Angeles Times published a question, with expert commentators explaining how inappropriate it is. A teacher frustrated by threats of losing his job if he reveals what he knows about the inconsistencies and outrages of the SAT9, posted research findings a test resistance website. His work indicates wildly inappropriate reading levels. He also points out that students taking the Graduate Record Exam or the Law School Admissions Test are given more time per item than does a six-year-old taking the SAT9.