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Anya Kamenetz's 'The Test' Points the Way to the Future

02/25/2015 02:07 pm ET | Updated Apr 27, 2015

Anya Kamenetz's The Test will stand on its own as an excellent work of scholarship. It will not be research findings, philanthropists, the USDOE, or even teachers who will determine the role of testing in the next generation of public schools. It will be the students and the parents of the children who have endured fourteen years of test-driven schooling who will decide whether high stakes testing survives. I suspect that Kamenetz is one of the first, as well as one of the most articulate, of the voices of these new generations.

Kamenetz's book comes from the conversation she's had again and again with parents. She and they have "seen how high-stakes standardized tests are stunting children's spirits, adding stress to family life, demoralizing teachers, undermining schools, paralyzing the education debate, and gutting our country's future competitiveness." Like so many Gen X and Gen Y parents, Kamenetz sees how "the test obsession is making public schools... into unhappy places."

One of the best aspects of The Test is Kamenetz's vivid metaphors and her concise summaries of educators' views. She writes, "Pervasive assessment is a nightmare version of school for most students. It's like burning thirsty plants in a garden under a magnifying glass, in the hope they will grow faster under scrutiny." She summarizes the indictment of bubble-in accountability by a proponent of portfolio assessment of students, "Standardized testing leads to standardized teaching."

Even better, The Test puts faces on the children who are damaged by testing. Because she so close to the reality on the ground that top-down reformers inadvertently created, Kamenentz is a mom who can explain what education jargon means in the real world. For instance, the words "targeted interventions" means that "whatever subject the kids hate most ... take over all of school." She concludes, "instead of customizing learning to each student," the term really means that "standardization dictates one best way. In the end it seems pretty much everyone gets left out."

The next great thing about The Test is that it is honest about the dilemmas faced by parents, and the temptations they face in regard to testing. In the section, "The Testing Arms Race," she notes that the parents with the most resources may not approve of the bubble-in competition but they "are afraid to stop playing the testing game for fear their children will be left behind." Kamenetz asks parents what is really being tested, and then answers, "It's our values as parents -- the kinds of kids we want to raise and the kind of society we want to have."

The first part of The Test covers 10 arguments against testing, starting with "We're testing the wrong things," and ending with "the next generation of tests will make things even worse." I'd say the second most destructive of the reasons is number four:"They are making teachers hate teaching." The most awful is number three: "They are making students hate school and turning parents into preppers."

The second half of Kamenetz's great work starts with the "Opt Out" movement, the grassroots parent revolt. She recalls the disgusting practices that drive families to opt out, to refuse the tests. Some under-the-gun schools have resorted to "petty intimidation" of eight-year-olds, even forcing a nine-year-old opt-outer to watch test takers rewarded with ice cream and candy, and requiring student opt-outers to sit and stare without books or diversions for hours while classmates take tests.

Kamenetz then presents alternative approaches to high-stakes testing. She explores four different types of assessments that could replace standardized testing. In doing so, she reminds readers that "... education's purpose in the twenty-first century is to prepare students to excel at the very tasks that computers can't master..."

We already have three alternative approaches to testing that would not require test, sort, and punish:

Team Robot tests conventional subjects (math, reading, writing) in unconventional ways (invisible, integrated, electronic).

Team Monkey tests unconventional qualities (mindset, grit) in conventional ways (multiple-choice surveys).

Team Butterfly, which Kamenetz would use as the basis for a new system, integrates learning with assessment and covers twenty-first-century skills without quantifying the outcomes in a way that's familiar or easily comparable ...

A fourth, Team Unicorn, which is still emerging, relies heavily on video games. She offers an intriguing distinction between Team Unicorn and Team Robot: "the former understands the limitations of what they are doing." So, sign me up for the more adventurous approach (which should be inherently incompatible to having stakes attached.)

I agree with Kamenetz that the elimination of high-stakes testing would create a big opening for school improvement, but I don't believe "it will never happen without a vision of how we get there. The push for change has to come from families who are not only fed up but also can see the alternatives clearly."

Perhaps we can't persuade corporate reformers to reject high-stakes testing without laying out a better assessment agenda, but the fundamental issue is the need to stop the damage being done to children. Kamenetz does a great service by spelling out practical alternatives, but does anyone doubt that our 21st century democracy is capable of producing more humane and creative alternatives to bubble-in accountability? And, if corporate reformers were really listening, it wouldn't be hard to replace the annual testing of every student, and the negative consequences inherent in that approach, with a combination of the results produced by low-stakes Team Robot tests.

Kamenetz explains that "test-based accountability is a motor built on mistrust and anxiety that creates more mistrust and anxiety in its wake." It is born of mistrust of teachers and students. But, she explains how this breakdown of hope and confidence is a legacy of the volatility and flimsy work arrangements of the contemporary economy, which prompts the uncertainty that undermines trusting relationships. "There are real economic and social causes for the ratcheting up of anxiety and mistrust. Economic inequality in America is at levels not seen since the 1920s."

And, that brings us full circle. With the rise of the Millennials, who best know the harsh truth about high-stakes testing, and the "creepy" implications of data-driven stigmatization and tracking of children, the days of test-driven reform should be numbered. The effort to turn schooling into a sped-up version of the Model T assembly line was always doomed as a policy for creating happy and healthy citizens of the 21st century. It has always been a matter of time before a dynamic alternative worthy of our democracy emerged from our communities. The society which produces scholarship as profound as The Test is bound to embrace the exciting alternative that is chronicles.