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The ABCs of Oppression 

Although overshadowed by world events, perhaps thereby proving a point about their importance in the greater scheme of things, North Carolina's state ABC goals were released recently. These showed everyone quantitatively how well CMS schools are doing.

We would all very much like for education to be so easily quantifiable ­ a couple of bubble-in tests here, a mathematical equation there ­ so anyone could figure out what's wrong and where we need help. The unfortunate thing about the ABCs isn't so much the information they provide as much as the information that is left out of the analysis.

I agree that on the surface this kind of testing sounds like a terrific idea. You want to know about little Johnny's math skills? Simply give him this bubble-in scan sheet and set him to work. In no time at all, you'll know where little Johnny stands in comparison to all the other little ones out there taking that test.

Or do you? It may be that little Johnny is no good at taking tests. After all, those tests are dreadfully long and boring. And you have to sit still in a hard chair with no noise or talking at all. And what is the pay-off for little Johnny? What does he receive in return for his lengthy incarceration in the testing room? A two or three-digit number that quantifies his mathematical ability. Hell, that's just what he wished for when he blew out his birthday candles last week.

As if. Kids could give a crap about those stupid tests. They have no meaning to them beyond teacher and parent-imposed rewards and punishments. Why should they want to do their best on them in the first place?

Or what if little Johnny is in fact quite the mathematical scholar. Instead of figuring out a math problem in a traditional way, he comes up with an answer that isn't one of the four mandated choices. Suppose little Johnny creates his own little bubble circle for his answer, which is non-traditional but very creative. Does he get any credit on the test for being a creative thinker, for stepping outside the paradigm? Ha. The people who give today's standardized tests would fail little Johnny quicker than they could bubble in answer C for all of the test questions.

And the math and science standardized tests are perhaps less problematic than the language-oriented tests. English and verbal standardized tests evaluate students on their use of Standard Written English, a language many of them do not even speak at home. Essay tests that require certain rigid formats actually stifle creativity by encouraging students to write five-paragraph essays. And, folks out in the business world, when was the last time you had to write a five-paragraph essay responding to a particular prompt? That's what I thought.

News flash: our school system isn't into educating creative thinkers. We talk a lot about "creative thinking" but, frankly, not too much effort goes into actually producing such thought. And virtually no credit is generally given when it is actually produced.

There are a huge variety of reasons for this. With the state ABC program, the state, the school district, and principals all put pressure on teachers to teach kids how to pass the test. And teachers know that kids writing in their own answers on multiple choice exams aren't going to "meet standards." In addition, with limited time, money and resources and little encouragement to do so, teachers do not emphasize creative thinking. After all, encouraging creative thinking means working with kids individually as well as lots of reading of papers and writing comments to students.

State programs like the ABCs actually serve a very insidious purpose in society. Whereas they're promoted as a way to equalize educational opportunities by ensuring that all students are reaching certain standards, in reality standardized testing serves to solidify the status quo. Let's face it, the kids who do well on standardized tests are the ones who were probably already going to succeed in life. The students who truly need intervention, kids who need to be turned on to learning and education, are shut out by incomprehensible, irrelevant testing that serves no purpose but to keep them in low-level classes where they weren't learning much prior to taking the test the first time.

Furthermore, standardized tests encourage children to "think inside the box." It trains them to respond to the questions in a standard, non-creative way. Kids who internalize this behavior will never question their society, their culture nor their government, which is exactly the way the people who hold power would like it to stay. And, come on, we're all big kids. Let's come out and say it: the people who hold power are still the wealthy white men who've always held power in this country. And don't write in complaining about the previous sentence ­ it's true and you know it. So, contrary to the stated purpose of state-run education, the purpose of the educational system is to continue the oppression, subjugation and ignorance that have allowed the powerful to maintain control for as long as they have.

I'm not arguing that accountability and assessment are completely wrong. Of course, standards are important and even necessary. But evaluations of our children could at least be related to their unique and varied individual abilities. Portfolios of student work detailing growth are one option. It's true that this option would be more difficult and expensive. But if the primary reason we give standardized bubble tests or easy-to-grade standard essay tests with pre-formatted rubrics is because it's cheap and easy, then our priorities are really out of whack.

So I guess you can be irate or elated with the ABC results. Whether your child scored through the roof or bombed the EOGs and/or EOCs, you and I both know that those little numbers scribbled across a sheet of paper tell you next to nothing about that young person. Where you see a brilliant artist, a softball player, a voracious reader, a dreamer, a dancer, the school district sees a string of numbers.

Now we know our ABCs.

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