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Chew on This

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One seldom hears about The Nuremberg Precedent in education except in history class discussions of the post-World War II trials of Nazis. Some Nazi leaders said they could not have known the consequences of their policies and orders and others said they were just following orders. Their judges said "that's not good enough."

The body count from No Child Left Behind grows daily and one wonders when the perpetrators will be called to account. In a decent nation, the larger society holds the government accountable. In a program like NCLB, the government holds the citizenry accountable.

Now comes Carl Chew, a 6th grade science teacher in Seattle who has decided to say "enough." That last sentence might at some point be altered to read "former 6th grade science teacher." On April 15, Mr. Chew refused to administer the WASL, the Washington Assessment of Student Learning, which serves to satisfy the NCLB testing requirements.

Administrators tried to dissuade Mr. Chew from his act of civil disobedience, then escorted him from the school. Three days later, Superintendent Maria Goodloe-Johnson sent Mr. Chew a letter that began, "This letter is to inform you that I have determined that there is probably cause to suspend you from April 21, 2008 through May 2, 2008 without pay for your refusal and insubordination to your principal's written direction to administer the WASL at Eckstein Middle School." What happens May 5 is not clear (May 3 is a Saturday).

In writing to explain his action, Mr. Chew expressed his love for teaching, for his students and for his fellow teachers, and expressed sorrow that his act had cause pain for some people, but added "I could no longer stand idly by as something as wrong as WASL is perpetrated on our children year after year."

This indictment was not a general statement or an impetuous one. It was followed by a list of 24 thoughtful reasons why WASL is bad for kids, parents, teachers, and schools and nine reasons why it is "just bad." One can only imagine that the perpetrators of WASL -- and its many look-alikes, like the Nazis at Nuremberg, knew what the consequences of their policies and actions would be. A few examples:

Bad for kids: "There is no middle ground -- children either pass or fail which leaves them confused, guilty, and frustrated". (This is one of the grand absurdities of NCLB--you're either proficient or left behind. Learning doesn't occur in such either/or dichotomies. It occurs in continua, and in all likelihood, multidimensional continua; Chew later observes that many students who were simply told that they had failed were, in fact, very close to the passing score and that many of these children cried on receiving the results).

Bad for teachers: "A majority of teachers loath the WASL, but feel unable to speak out freely against it due to their fears of negative consequences for doing so" (many, many examples show that these fears are real; they are they are reinforced in many cases by principals' contracts which mandate specific increases in test scores each year as a condition of employment).

Bad for parents: "Most parents are misled by official statements about what the purpose of the WASL is" (it is the academic equivalent of saying we're going to war in Iraq to rid the country of weapons of mass destruction).

Bad for schools: Washington State will spend $56 million in 2009 just to have the damn things graded by a private corporation.

I can only hope that people will one day look back on high-stakes testing the way they now look back at slavery -- in disgust and a with sense of horrified wonder: what were they thinking? To mix metaphors, you don't build a house with a wrecking ball.

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