How Young Is Too Young When it Comes to Test Prep?

04/28/2011 01:02 pm ET | Updated Jun 28, 2011

The Great Depression prompted the absurd, but necessary, system of paying farmers not to produce crops. The Great Recession has created the equally ridiculous situation where schools are awash in billions of dollars of federal funds for "innovation," while essential services are cut to the bone.

Perhaps we need a second stimulus to pay education providers to stop experimenting on our kids. Maybe we need an economic recovery package that to pays educators and/or students to dig holes for burying their "innovations," so we can get back to the business of teaching and learning.

Valerie Strauss' aptly titled post, "School District Field-Tests 52 (Yes, 52) New Tests on Kids," describes the Charlotte-Mecklenberg district's testing of their standardized assessments on students. And now, kids will again have to take those 52 tests in May. This is a $1.9 million down payment on promises made for the Race to the Top. The district admits that the testing has teachers stressed and some classes have lost up to 30 hours of instruction. The experiment's worst problems were suffered in the kindergarten through second grade classes.

Dana Goldstein recently documented this maddening obsession in the "reformers" paradise of Colorado Springs. First-graders were tested in art class with a question about Picasso's "Weeping Woman." Six year-olds were asked to "write three colors Picasso used to show feeling or emotion."

Goldstein reports that students endure 25 days of high-stress testing a year, and that the district's teacher turnover rate, at 25 percent, is the highest in the state. Forcing teachers to choose between their professional integrity and their job undoubtably helps explain why the district lost 11 percent of its highest-ranked teachers.

Tennessee has chosen the worst of all worlds approach in order to fulfill its RttT obligations. In the short run, they will use value-added rankings to fire teachers, based on test scores of students who they have never taught!?!? In the longer term, the state will create new tests for the subjects that have not yet been subjected to the bubble-in system of accountability.

If I sound angry, here is the reason. When I began teaching in the early 1990s, I discovered that 10 to 15 percent of my freshmen refused to do any work. Many of my students who accepted "zeros" for a final grade were exceptionally bright. They complained about the teach-to-the-test regimes in elementary school that taught them to hate school. During the next decade, the educational malpractice of the Reagan era was forgotten, but then came No Child Left Behind.

NCLB dumped huge amounts of money on my old school, but we did not have the time or the authority to plan rational ways of investing the resources. So, my district borrowed tricks devised in Texas to massage their scores. When we failed to recreate "the Texas Miracle," stakes for students were attached to tests. Within six weeks, failure rates for tested subjects at my school ranged from 80 to 90 percent. We started the semester with of more than 900 students. Almost immediately, 210 students left school

The impact of this failed experiment started to hit me when I could not persuade my sophomores to take an ACT Plan Test. There were no stakes attached to this test, and taking it was a step toward guaranteed tuition grants by the state. Most kids gave up on the test within minutes, and I learned that in the previous two weeks my students had also endured Benchmark Tests, common assessments, and Matrix Tests. For some, the majority of their class time had been devoted to standardized testing.

For the first time in years, I could not get my failure rate below 25 percent. Then I learned that my failing sophomores failed an average of six classes that semester. By that time, our school's population had dropped to nearly 600. Another 100 students had failed four or more classes.

So, I would gladly support an old-fashioned subsidy to give the testing companies and the consultants the profits they seek, in return for not turning schools into test-prep factories. The price tag would be cheap in comparison to driving the joy of art and music out of childhood, replacing it with the "reductive half-truths" that "reformers" see as the right answers.