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Testing the Limits

Not only is standardized testing plaguing our schools, driving us to cheat, and making our children sick; it’s completely antithetical to Jewish values

Marjorie Ingall
May 10, 2011
(Tim Boyle/Getty Images)
(Tim Boyle/Getty Images)

“Jane looked green this morning,” my daughter Josie tells me. Apparently, Jane had just vomited in the school’s third-floor bathroom. She and Josie and their fellow fourth-graders are in the thick of the public school standardized testing season, and puke is the new black. Last week were the New York State English tests; this week are the math tests. And it’s not just the fourth-graders who are feeling queasy. The weekend before the third-grade tests last year, another friend of Josie’s canceled a play date; he’d been anxiety-puking with such regularity that he was afraid to leave the house. And this isn’t just a problem faced by tightly wound New Yorkers. Lily Eskelsen, vice president of the National Education Association, told Parenting magazine about a meeting with school support staff in Florida that focused as much on puke as on pay. “One school secretary said that because the state requires every test to be submitted, she had taken to giving the elementary school teachers Ziploc bags and rubber gloves so they could wipe the vomit from the sheets and send them off in plastic,” Eskelsen said.

What does testing-induced gut-hork have to do with Jewish parenting, you may ask? Well, I think putting kids through this kind of torture for exceedingly pointless reasons is antithetical to our values.

Here’s why. Standardized tests are no longer being used for the purposes for which they were designed. They aren’t being used to give an overall picture of a school, to trigger teacher development and training, or to help principals concretely support struggling classes. A single test can now determine the fate of a student and can trigger huge sanctions against a school or financial rewards for individual teachers and principals whose students do well. And all this can induce people to cheat—a most un-Jewish value.

Messing with the tests to improve kids’ scores artificially seems to be a very real problem. Last week, the Washington Post reported that nearly 4,000 schoolteachers and parents have signed a petition urging federal officials to investigate possible cheating on standardized tests during the reign of Michelle A. Rhee, the former D.C. schools chancellor. In March, a USA Today investigation found that from 2008 through 2010, there were unusually high rates of answer changes—penciled-in bubbles being erased and re-filled-in differently—at 103 D.C. schools. At one school, more than 80 percent of the classrooms had tests flagged by McGraw-Hill, the testmaker, for unusual answer-changing tendencies.

Let’s look at the Crosby S. Noyes Education Campus, which Rhee frequently pointed to as proof of the success of her sweeping reforms (which basically amounted to an ever-increasing emphasis on testing and huge rates of firing teachers and principals in large part because of their test scores). Rhee called Noyes one of the “shining stars” of D.C.’s educational system. In 2006, only 10 percent of the school’s students scored “proficient” or “advanced” in math; two years later, 58 percent were at that level. Awesome! The reading test gains were similar. Rhee made sure the staff was rewarded for their fabulosity: In 2008 and again in 2010, each teacher received an $8,000 bonus, and the principal received $10,000.

Yet according to USA Today, Noyes’ scoring irregularities were legion. On the 2009 reading test, for instance, seventh-graders in one classroom had almost 13 wrong-to-right erasures on their answer sheets; the average in D.C. was less than one. “The odds are better for winning the Powerball grand prize than having that many erasures by chance, according to statisticians,” the paper reported. A former D.C. principal told the paper that Rhee informed her and her colleagues that they were expected to increase scores by at least 10 percentage points every year.

As educational historian (and recent Daily Show guest) Diane Ravitch points out in her brilliant (and easy-to-read, non-jargon-y, and deeply depressing) book The Death and Life of the Great American School System, we should always be suspicious of humungous differences in data from year to year. Real, meaningful change doesn’t happen by leaps and bounds; it happens incrementally.

Ravitch’s perspective is fascinating, because she is someone who has truly had a turnaround—done teshuvah, in fact—on her earlier views on testing. Her book is a very public mea culpa. She’s a former United States assistant secretary of Education who was appointed by George H.W. Bush and was formerly aligned with conservative thinkers on accountability and school choice. “First she angered the Marxist historians, and later the fans of progressive education and the multiculturalists,” Jeffrey E. Mirel, a professor of education at the University of Michigan, told the New York Times last year. “But she’s always defended public schools and a robust traditional curriculum, because she believes they’ve been a ladder of social mobility.”

Indeed, that’s the role public schools have always served for American Jews. Ravitch tells a story in her book about how she didn’t get into a private school in her Texas hometown because, according to her parents, the headmistress didn’t like Jews. After that, her parents were big supporters of public education. Ravitch writes that she initially applauded No Child Left Behind and other testing-driven initiatives, but when she looked at the results and at the actual outcomes (high test scores don’t actually indicate knowledge and learning; the new accountability policies don’t involve helping teachers teach better and principals administer better) she changed her mind.

“Accountability, now a shibboleth that everyone applauds, had become mechanistic and even antithetical to good education,” Ravitch writes. “Testing, I realized with dismay, had become a central preoccupation in the schools and was not just a measure but an end in itself. I came to believe that accountability, as written into federal law, was not raising standards but dumbing down the schools as states and districts strived to meet unrealistic targets.”

Ravitch says she’s too essentially conservative to embrace an agenda driven by speculation and uncertain results. And it was that (very Jewish!) conservatism about values, traditions, and the need to protect communities that made her change her tune and publicly break with her former allies. But Ravitch’s conservativism is the kind that squares with both American and Jewish values, struggling, as it does, with the notion of the individual versus the community and the question of whether America truly is a meritocracy.

As Jews, we dig community. Al tifrosh min hatzibur, we’re told: Do not separate yourself from the community. Our prayers are written overwhelmingly in the first person plural. But standardized testing is the furthest thing from communitarian. Wealthy families buy tutoring. Upper-middle-class kids come into school with the huge advantage of being read to more often at home. Testing enforces existing divisions and even increases them. And being Jewish means you shouldn’t just worry about your kids; you should be concerned about everyone’s kids. That means working to improve all schools—yes, even if your kid goes to Jewish Day School—in meaningful ways, because that’s part of the responsibility of living in a democracy.

And no one’s kids should be barfing from anxiety at the age of 8.

Marjorie Ingall is a columnist for Tablet Magazine, and author of Mamaleh Knows Best: What Jewish Mothers Do to Raise Successful, Creative, Empathetic, Independent Children.

Marjorie Ingall is a former columnist for Tablet, the author of Mamaleh Knows Best, and a frequent contributor to the New York Times Book Review.

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