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When Everything Is a 'Race'

Dear Diane,

My daughter and I were swimming in my pond one sunny summer day, and I said, "This is the best pond in the world." My daughter responded (sharply): "Why must it be the best? Can't it just be a wonderful pond?"

I was actually slightly miffed, but she had a point. We are (or I am?) so accustomed to assuming that praise has to include a comparative term that it rolls out without thinking. It's not a wholly silly notion, but we've taken it to such extremes that I find my daughter's chiding words even wiser today than I did that summer day.

Whatever the cause of this bad habit, both child-rearing and schooling have swallowed it whole. Everything is a "race," a "competition;" everyone and everything is rank ordered. We forget that no matter how "we" improve there are always exactly the same number of kids in the front of the line as at the end of the line—and every place in between. Ditto for individuals, schools, and nations! The "who" can change, but everyone cannot be in the top half. If the bottom moves up, who takes their place?

When parents come for a family conference, they sometimes don't want to know how their child is doing, but instead the "compared to?" A friend said recently, "Not me, I just wanted to know if he was reading on 'grade level.'" But grade level is a technical euphemism for rank order—it means the median (plus or minus) score.

Pretend conversation. Father: "How's he reading?" Me: "He's reading far more books than most kids his age—maybe at any age—although he skips a bit because he likes reading books that sometimes are 'too hard for him.' And he gets bored by long descriptions and rarely looks up unknown words in the dictionary. His literal comprehension of some details is therefore sometimes not so great. But I'm thrilled with his fascination with words, language, stories, books. Reading will not be one of his problems in life!" Father, looking a bit put out: "But does he read as well or better than others" in his class, school, nation, the planet?

In response—although I hasten to say there is NO EVIDENCE that parents have pushed this testing craze—the Big Boys have invented test scores which crunch together all the varying qualities of reading that can be broken down into multiple-choice answers so that they can come up with a single composite number that can then be ranked on a single scale from lowest to highest. That's what standardized testing is good for. I can now say: "Well, Father, your son is a 5.3 reader." He reads like the average child in the third month of 5th grade, sort of, maybe, but .... Or, on some "new" tests, he reads like a group of experts think a 5th grader should read.

Thus, one can have "good" readers, who never choose to read, and "poorer" readers, who voraciously eat up every book they can possibly get some meaning from, and eagerly ask others to read to them. You can have dutiful readers or true "book lovers" whose scores are exactly the same, although my concerns for them are utterly different.

Any system that insists on numerical ranking will have the same problem. But some, at least, (like a driver's test) only report pass/fail and are largely based on human observations made during a real performance.

I've witnessed the increasing madness our testing mania has caused K-12 education. The scores (in New York City) have high stakes as early as ages 3 and 4, again at age 9 (4th grade), and in 7th grade. The first determines whether you get into a "gifted" program or class. The second, whether you'll have a shot at the "better" middle schools. Your 7th grade scores determine access to high schools and your class placement in 9th grade. (Fifth and 8th grade scores come in too late to matter.) All are the basis for being held over. And—the latest wrinkle—teachers can be fired based on students' scores from one year to the next.

The New York Times tells us that "a shift in attitudes" has colleges trying to do the same. The No Child Left Behind Act has sent colleges scrambling to come up with a system to rank order their work, e.g. comparing freshman scores with senior scores. "If officials and experts in higher education can reach a broad consensus about how to measure learning," says the story, "it will become routine" and an objective way to rank colleges.

To the test-makers and text producers, this means delight as there will be test-prepping from age 3 to age 21. How we define an educated person will be aligned from infancy to adulthood by test designers as we all are labeled for life by our place in an orderly line.

I remember a college course I taught where we had a lively argument about ability grouping in K-12 schools: Most were for it, a few against. The following week I proposed that they line up on the basis of their SAT scores so that I could reorganize the class into ability groups. A small revolution followed. It enriched our discussion.

My daughter's off-hand critique has had an effect. I ask myself now: What would life be like if we found it harder to sum things up in acronyms, labels, numbers: e.g. SPED kids, G&T kids, "at-risk" or "disadvantaged" children, or, in NYC, as 1s, 2s, 3s, and 4s!

Unsurprisingly, the new "common core" standards for 5-year-olds will reinforce this ranking in ways additionally harmful to ... you guessed it: low-income and African-American students. One of the new kindergarten "core" goals is that all children speak and write in "standard English grammar" by the end of the year!

Deborah

P.S. To friends and allies: FairTest is honoring Diane Ravitch on June 5th at Julia Richman (JREC) in Manhattan. Go to fairtest.org to learn more! Join us.

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