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Diane Ravitch Headshot

Our Kids Today: The Greatest Generation?

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The members of the Providence Student Union are the most creative and best informed critics of high-stakes testing in the nation. They can run rings around the public officials in Rhode Island when they explain the damage done by high-stakes testing. They know that a large percentage of students will be denied a high school diploma because they could not pass a standardized test called NECAP.

I had the good fortune to meet some of the leaders of the PSU when I recently spoke at the University of Rhode Island in Kingston. The students drove from Providence, some 45 minutes away. When I spoke, I was introduced by Claudierre McKay, who had distinguished himself as a participant in the student Town Hall on Education Nation. When young McKay introduced me, he presaged everything I was about to say. The students are the consumers of the mandates, why not listen to them?

What I love about the PSU, aside from its determination and style, is that it has mastered the art of political theater. PSU held a zombie march in front of the Rhode Island Department of Education last year to express its contempt for the NECAP as a requirement for graduation.

When officials didn't listen, the PSU found 60 accomplished professionals to take the test, composed of released items from the actual NECAP exam. Sixty percent of the professionals, distinguished in law, government, architecture, and journalism, failed the high school graduation test.

Most if not all of the members of PSU will easily pass the NECAP; they are very smart young people. They are demonstrating on behalf of their peers -- those who are bound to fail because of circumstances beyond their control -- because they are new immigrants, because they have a disability that interferes with test-taking, those whose desperate poverty is disabling. PSU understands that a large percentage of students will not earn a high school diploma and their lives will be blighted. With a high school diploma, they have a chance to learn a trade, to be successful in a line of work that doesn't require algebra. Without one, their lives are ruined.

Does this bother the bureaucrats? Not at all.

But it bothers the students of the PSU.

Recently, they staged a talent show in front of the Rhode Island Department of Education. The point: Students have many talents, and test-taking is only one of them, probably not the most important. These young people will save American education from the dead, cold hands of the robots who now are in charge of the nation's schools. They have heart, they have creativity, they have wit, they are innovative, they are alive with spirit. They have the qualities that made America great.

They know this great secret: We are not Singapore; we are not Korea; we are not China. We are America. We should cultivate the wit and wisdom of Ben Franklin, the ingenuity of Thomas Alva Edison, the spirit of the Wright brothers. Were they good test-takers? Who knows? Who cares? I bet the guys at Enron and Madoff had great test scores.

Thanks, Providence Student Union, for reminding us of the greatness of your generation. We will do whatever we can to keep the machine from crushing your heart and spirit.