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John Thompson: Are High Stakes Tests Here to Stay?

Guest post by John Thompson.

"High-stakes academic testing isn't going away," argues Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman in their New York Times Magazine article "Why Some Kids Handle Pressure while Others Fall Apart?" They describe a 5th grader's ordeal with standardized testing, "He got headaches and stomachaches. He would ask not to go to school." His pre-test anxiety "lasted a solid month before the test" and "'even after the test, he couldn't let it go.'"

Their answer is "more competition. It just needs to be the right kind." Of course, such a response would obviously be condemned as cruel unless "high-stakes academic testing isn't going away," so we have to get used to it.

Bronson and Merryman admit 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." Their answer, however, is "training, preparation and repetition" to overcome such a "curse."

Bronson and Merryman argue that something called the COMT gene that divides us into the quarter of people with "Warrior-only genes," and the quarter who are "Worrier-only." However, they claim we can train a student to become a "Worrier-gene Warrior" and, presumably, that is the purpose of schooling in a global market.

Like Bill Gates and the "Billionaires Boys Club," they argue that "some children actually do better under competitive, stressful circumstances." Who could argue with that? But, why should those "Warriors" impose stressful competition on all children?

Bronson and Merryman describe a soccer player at a charter school, who injured his knee playing football, but who used his competitive energy to excel at standardized testing. Who would deny parents the right to choose charter schools that create "a competition in which the only thing anyone cares about is the final score?"

But, even in those schools, parents must sign a permission slip before their kids engage in the risks of football. Nobody seeks authorization by parents in public schools before imposing bubble-in accountability. Should parents not have to grant permission before a school imposes a system that produces so many harmful side effects?

Let's think about the pedagogy proposed by Bronson and Merryman. They admit that standardized testing can produce such anxiety that students must subsequently "acclimate to recurring stressors." Parents must sign off on other vaccines but not their kids' "stress inoculation." In an age of "reform," it is up to schools to decide how much to tax children without overwhelming them. They must "then allow for sufficient recovery."

Bronson and Merryman present a 21st century version of, "the Battle of Waterloo was won on the playing fields of Eton." If they, or school reformers, think our democracy has gone soft because we watch too much of PBS's "Downton Abbey," they can sign their own kids up for rugby. If their own kids' school wants a metric that keeps students from being "shielded from all challenge," that's up to them. Rather than distort children's classroom, I'd just require them to ride a bull for eight seconds. Even if Bronson and Merryman are correct, wouldn't it be more humane to replace high-stakes testing with a Ultimate Fighting Championship club. Perhaps I'm just a worrier, but I'd prefer my kids suffering a broken jaw or a ruined knee than having the joy driven out of learning

On the other hand, when Bronson and Merryman throw down this gauntlet, they bring out my inner warrior. I'm going to use their sole rationale for their brand of test prep the way a football coach uses an opponent's words to fire up his team. "High-Stakes Academic Testing Isn't Going Away!"

The response of "High-Stakes Academic Testing Isn't Going Away!," says all we need to know about "reformers'" disregard for educational values. Competition trumps the exchange of ideas. So, get over it. Parents, it might be your child who is "particularly ill suited" for high-stakes testing in 3rd grade. But, we'll teach her to get over it. Teachers, you might not like to impose so much anxiety on children. But, "High-Stakes Academic Testing Isn't Going Away!" so, get over it.

What do you think? Given the dangers which Bronson and Merryman acknowledge as side effects of high-stakes testing, shouldn't schools seek parents' permission before allowing it? And, is it true that "High-Stakes Academic Testing Isn't Going Away!" so we need to teach ways to get over it?

John Thompson was an award winning historian, with a doctorate from Rutgers, and a legislative lobbyist when crack and gangs hit his neighborhood, and he became an inner city teacher. He blogs for This Week in Education, the Huffington Post and other sites. After 18 years in the classroom, he is writing his book, Getting Schooled: Battles Inside and Outside the Urban Classroom.

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