Clear and Present Danger
Tom Mooney's comment that "it's absolutely pointless to be knee-jerk anti-testing" ("An Interview with Tom Mooney," Volume 20, No. 2) raises a host of questions — aside from wondering just who or what he means by "knee-jerk anti-testing." In fact, state and federally mandated high-stakes testing represents a clear and present danger to educational quality and equity.
The American Federation of Teachers (AFT) has promoted high-stakes testing for school accountability. Its claim was that without "accountability," the public will abandon public education, and that the use of standards and tests would lead to educational improvement. This was never a good analysis, though it appeared to address the justifiable anger directed by racial minorities and low-income communities against second-class educational opportunities.
In practice, "standards and testing" means standardized tests control curriculum and instruction while students, teachers, schools, learning, and unions are under attack. The testing regime has led to scripted curricula coupled with rote and drill instruction, which, in turn, requires — even creates — less skilled teachers.
Mooney expresses concerns over the validity of the tests used in making decisions about individual teachers. But support for judging schools based on their test scores makes it harder to oppose doing the same for students or teachers. (The AFT has correctly opposed high-stakes uses for students, although sadly, some state affiliates, as in Texas, have supported such misuses.) For example, educators who support so-called value-added testing but accept the use of standardized tests in those models should not be surprised when the tests are used to judge their professional competence.
Mooney is correct that much of educational importance can be measured. But much of value cannot be measured.
Assessing, providing feedback, and evaluating need not be based on standardized tests. Teachers can gather far richer information and use it to improve teaching and learning, as well as to inform parents and the public about schools. Standardized tests should be only a small part of a mix of assessments.
If high stakes are attached to any simple set of measures, harmful consequences will ensue. The less power a person or group has, the more those consequences will affect them. There are people who will distort and misuse even well-intentioned efforts to assess and evaluate — those who oppose public education, think schooling based on rote instruction and standardized testing is good enough for poor kids, or those who think schools alone can solve poverty and teachers should be blamed when that does not happen. That does not mean, "don't evaluate"; it does mean fighting to use evaluation in helpful rather than harmful ways.
It's good news that the AFT has taken steps to oppose some of the worst aspects of the federal No Child Left Behind law. But, for the sakes of both children and teachers, Tom Mooney and the AFT need to break more clearly with the use of high-stakes testing to shape and control education in the U.S.
I want to compliment Jana Dean on her article, "Teaching About Global Warming in Truck Country" (Vol. 20, no. 1). I haven't taught since 1998, but I hope to return to the classroom. When I was teaching 5th grade in the Milwaukee Public Schools, a teacher from another classroom came into mine and proudly announced that everyone in my class would receive a goody bag of grooming and personal hygiene products (from Proctor & Gamble, etc.). I interrupted, stating that it was just a trick to get us to buy more of their products, and we wouldn't take part. Well, you can imagine the immediate flak I got from the kids, who all came from low- and lower-middle income homes — and the damage I had done to my anti-commercialism cause for the remainder of that school year.
Since then, I've often thought about that situation, wondering how I would do things differently from the very beginning of the year. The late Neil Postman said that school should be an antidote to popular culture. If I do return to teaching, I think Ms. Dean's article will help me approach topics such as auto racing, gambling, or commercialism with more self-assurance, in ways that are convincing and without setting myself up as an enemy of my students' culture or that of their families.
As I recall, I hid the goods and never did hand them out. One positive thing that came of the incident was my increased self-esteem as I cautioned the principal that I would go to the union if he compelled me to distribute the stuff.