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A Cruel Approach to Standardized Testing That Captures the Essence of School "Reform"

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Po Bronson's and Ashley Merryman's New York Times Magazine article "Why Some Kids Handle Pressure while Others Fall Apart?" captures the essence of contemporary test-driven school reform. Their science (probably) is solid. Their education policy dictates, however, are based on no more than their personal preferences. Following the logic of Bill Gates and the "Billionaires Boys Club" who imposed bubble-in "reform," they argue that "some children actually do better under competitive, stressful circumstances." So, all of the nation's students and teachers must learn to deal with "all this test-taking [which] is churning out sleep-deprived, overworked, miserable children."

Bronson and Merryman argue that it is the COMT enzyme which helps determine whether people love or hate high stakes bubble-in tests. About a quarter of the population carry "Warrior-only genes" and they love the stress of academic competition. Another quarter are "Worriers," and they are "particularly ill suited" for high-stakes standardized testing. They also recognize why non-Warriors dread the nonstop testing of today's schools. "Taking a standardized test is a competition in which the only thing anyone cares about is the final score," they admit, "No one says, 'I didn't do that well, but it was still worth doing, because I learned so much math from all the months of studying.'"

Bronson and Merryman describe a 5th grader's ordeal, "He got headaches and stomachaches. He would ask not to go to school." His pretest anxiety "lasted a solid month before the test" and "'even after the test, he couldn't let it go.'"

Bronson and Merryman admit, "Never before has the pressure to perform on high-stakes tests been so intense or meant so much for a child's academic future. As more school districts strive for accountability, standardized tests have proliferated." But, like the data-driven "reformers" who imposed this mania on our schools, they know what the proper solution is, "it's more competition. It just needs to be the right kind."

I suspect that Bronson and Merryman, like the school accountability hawks, fancy themselves as "Warriors." Unlike us "Worriers," who mourn the loss of schools where students can be creative and exchange ideas, they confidently prescribe the "right kind" of "training, preparation and repetition [to] defuse the Worrier's curse." They acknowledge "that even third graders feel as if they are on trial. Students get the message that class work isn't what counts, and that the standardized exam is the truer measure. Sure, you did your homework and wrote a great history report -- but this test is going to find out how smart you really are."

Presumably, Bronson and Merryman recognize how cruel their educational philosophy sounds, and they provide a rationale for their agenda. "High-stakes academic testing isn't going away," they argue, "Nor should competition among students." So, they propose "a form of stress inoculation" so kids can acclimate themselves to "recurring stressors." The trick is transforming testing from a "threat state" to a "challenge site."

And here is where they exemplify the hubris of bubble-in "reformers." They, the Warriors, liked standardized testing when they were in school, so it must become national policy. Because testing is good for some kids, all students must endure it. No longer can parents and local schools be trusted to determine what sort of competition must be imposed on their children. In the past, public schools offered competitive spelling bees, science fairs, and chess teams. But Worrier moms are not going to produce the warriors we need for the 21st century global market. So, the bearers of "Warrior-only" genes must mandate nonstop testing, as they also teach us their test-prep strategies for minimizing the harm they have imposed on children.