This post was written by Don Batt, an English teacher in Colorado:


There is a monster waiting for your children in the spring. Its creators have fashioned it so that however children may prepare for it, they will be undone by its clever industry.
The children know it’s coming. They have encountered it every year since third grade, and every year it has taken parts of their souls. Not just in the spring. Everyday in class, the children are asked which answer is right although the smarter children realize that sometimes there are parts of several answers that could be right.

And they sit. And they write.

Not to express their understanding of the world. Or to even form their own opinions about ideas they have read. Instead, they must dance the steps that they have been told are important: first, build your writing with a certain number of words, sentences, paragraphs; second, make sure your writing contains the words in the question; third, begin each part with “first, second,” and “third.”

My wife sat with our ten-year-old grandson to write in their journals one summer afternoon, and he asked her, “What’s the prompt?”

I proctored a standardized test for “below average” freshmen one year. They read a writing prompt which asked them to “take a position. . .” One student asked me if he should sit or stand.

There are those who are so immersed in the sea of testing that they do not see the figurative nature of language and naively think that the monster they have created is helping children. Or maybe they just think they are helping the test publishers, who also happen to write the text books, “aligned to the standards,” that are sold to schools. Those test creators live in an ocean of adult assumptions about how children use language–about how children reason. They breathe in the water of their assumptions through the gills of their biases. But the children have no gills. They drown in the seas of preconceptions.

They are bound to a board, hooded, and then immersed in lessons that make them practice battling the monster. “How much do you know!” the interrogators scream. The children, gasping for air, try to tell them in the allotted time. “Not enough!” the interrogators cry. Back under the sea of assumptions to see if they can grow gills. “This is how you get to college!” the interrogators call. And on and on, year after year, the children are college-boarded into submission.

What do they learn? That school is torture. That learning is drudgery.

There are those who rebut these charges with platitudes of “accountability,” but, just as the fast food industry co-opted nutrition and convenience in the last century, the assessment industry is co-opting our children’s education now. As Albert Einstein [William Bruce Cameron*] said, “Not everything that can be counted counts, and not everything that counts can be counted.” Would that the measurement advocates would measure the unintended consequences of their decisions.

Our political leaders–surprise–have bent under the pressure of businessmen wearing the masks of “rigor” and “accountability.” They have sacrificed our children’s joy of learning on the altar of expediency.

Here’s what should happen: teachers in their own classrooms, using multiple performance assessments where children apply their knowledge in the context of a given task, determine what their students know and what they need to learn, based on standards developed by that school, district, or possibly, state. Teachers should take students where they are and help them progress at their own developmental rates. And good teachers are doing that every day. Not because of standardized tests, but in spite of them.

Students’ abilities can be evaluated in many, creative ways. The idea that every student take the same test at the same time is nothing more than the warmed-over factory model of education used in the 1950’s, now, laughingly called “education reform.” As Oscar Wilde has observed, “Conformity is the last refuge of the unimaginative.”

Don Batt

English teacher
Cherry Creek Schools
Aurora, Colorado