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Posted at 11:00 AM ET, 03/ 2/2011

March Madness: 'My name is Luke and I refuse to take your test'

By Valerie Strauss

This was written by Timothy D. Slekar, head of the Division of Education, Human Development and Social Sciences at Penn State Altoona, and a parent. This appeared on The Huffington Post.

By Timothy D. Slekar

"I'm inviting you to join a real conspiracy, call it an open conspiracy, with real consequences on millions of real lives. I know that sounds megalomaniacal, but be patient. If we pull this off, a great many will bless us, although the school industry few will curse us. This is about a project to destroy the standardized testing industry... This adventure is called 'The Bartleby Project.'" John Taylor Gatto. (Weapons of Mass Instruction, New Society Publishers 2008)

My 11-year-old son loves the show Myth Busters. From the first time he put two Legos together he was hooked on constructing intricate things (200 piece Bionicles at age 5). He creates Rube Goldberg contraptions and loves animals. He can manipulate through different technologies (Google Earth, iPad, iPod, Facebook, Sims, etc) and he doesn't need instructions because his curiosity enables him to navigate and learn new technologies. He also loves football. He watches the NFL channel around the clock and can give you just about any statistic related to the game or players. This is just a snapshot. A quick glimpse of my son outside the insidious institution we call public schooling today.

I am currently thinking hard about asking my son to participate in the Bartleby Project and to write "I prefer not to take your test" across the top of his state test in March. In Pennsylvania we don't celebrate March Madness. Instead we practice it. March is the month when Pennsylvania schools administer the Pennsylvania State System of Assessments (the PSSAs). The entire school year comes down this one week in March. This is when schools and students across the Keystone State are held accountable. This is the big time. This is what it's all about.

Is it fair to ask my son to carry out an act of civil disobedience? Should I place this social burden on his shoulders? What will the consequences be? Can he handle the pressure? Should he even have to handle the pressure?

Since late in August, my son has been subjected to a system of indoctrination that has essentially squashed his inner desire to learn -- the Ruinous Culture. Five entire months devoid of intellectually stimulating classroom experiences. He has been forced to complete worksheets in language arts and mathematics. He can alphabetize spelling words and find the main idea of a paragraph. He's had practice in sequencing. He can round numbers. He can add, subtract, multiply and divide with fractions and decimals. And he has mastered the scripted art of estimating (Who knew there were incorrect estimates?). He has had multiple PSSA practice tests and according to these tests my son is ready. He has been trained for five months to produce scores that will help his school achieve Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP). I'm sure his school is counting on him.

But what has been lost during these past five months? He sits in social studies and science classes that have been shortened to allow more time for reading and math instruction. He hasn't been given the opportunity to engage real children's literature. His reading teacher is clueless about his interests. Five months of drudgery. How much can he take before just the thought of going to school immobilizes him? There is real damage being done. Something has to happen before my son loses all curiosity.

As his father, I need to advocate for him. But I don't want to just go in and take him out of school. I want him to learn something. I want him to experience real opportunities to learn in school. I want him to learn about the courage needed to change social structures that are designed to ultimately guarantee mass failure. Maybe he will be the start of a movement. As Gatto said in 2008:

"No demonstrations, no mud-slinging, no adversarial politics... [just] peacefully refuse to take standardized tests."

This is the perfect opportunity for my son to learn about social justice. He has a chance to fully participate in the democratic life we are supposedly striving to instill in children. But why does he have to do it? Because, as Gatto said:

"Adults chained to institutions and corporations are unable to; because these tests pervert education, are disgracefully inaccurate, impose brutal stresses without reason, and actively encourage a class system which is poisoning the future of the nation."

Is he capable of sitting down at his desk during March Madness and simply writing, "My name is Luke and I refuse to take your test?" Will this be the start of something? I'm sure it will start something, however, I'm not sure what. Luke may be on the verge of becoming a hero. His classmates may cheer him and go home to tell their parents that they want to "be like Luke."

Or, it may begin the process of social blackballing. Would it be bad if either of these outcomes materialized? What should we do?


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By Valerie Strauss  | March 2, 2011; 11:00 AM ET
Categories:  Guest Bloggers, Standardized Tests  | Tags:  bartleby project, penn state, pennsylvania assessments, rube goldberg, standardized tests  
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One size fits all education doesn't exist. This father's child sounds bright, but bored. Many kids are, and were, but that's part of school. When classes are assembled not on intelligence or ability, but more or less at random, the fast kids get bored.

The kids in the middle often fly under the radar. I would expect that as his child grows older, and has more than 1-2 teachers in a year, hopefully he will make a connection with one or more of them, which might make school seem less like a chore that must be undertaken.

As for the non-participation plan, feel free, but be sure that you and your son can articulate why you don't want to participate. Having a bright, but bored, child whose scores would help the average sit out only weakens the overall appearance of the school. AYP may seem tedious, but it is how schools are judged. Your son might recieve more engaged instruction if schools were trusted to do right by students, AYP would'nt be needed. However, schools are not generally viewed that way in the current climate.

If you did away with standardized testing I hope you would lend your enthusiastic support to your schools and teachers without any data to show they are, in fact, teaching. Trust is the key.

That level of trust would be greatly appreciate by teachers, but sadly I doubt it would be shared by others.

Posted by: hatchlaw | March 2, 2011 11:36 AM | Report abuse

I think the point is for most kids, preferably all kids, to sit out the tests irrespective of an individual kid's abilities.

It's a good idea that I thought of at least a year ago, and I'm sure it was not original then. It's an obvious solution to stopping the deadening test prep and influence of the tests. It doesn't help any of the kids. It only helps the adults.

Posted by: efavorite | March 2, 2011 11:46 AM | Report abuse

This article reminds me of the OJ Trial. I found no side to root for because the players on both adversarial sides were completely reprehensible. The author correctly characterizes the standardized testing mania correctly. It is a heinous system promulgated by incompetent leadership and politically driven agendas. However, as a whining father he overplays his hand to reveal that his conflicted angst is manufactured for his own self-aggrandizement. It sounds like his son has indeed learned a lot of useful skills this year from his teachers. And, yes, some estimates ARE better than others. The schools harbor kids for 7 hours a day which leaves plenty many more hours for "Luke" to pursue his passions.

If he wants to do more than whine about the short shrift given to science and social studies, then run for a position on the school board. Who will be hurt if "Luke" doesn't take the test. First of all, Luke will be subjected to a ridiculous amount of needless anxiety fighting his father's battle. Secondly, by not taking the test, he may be required to be placed in remedial class - requiring MORE of the same. (In New York we have mandatory Academic Intervention for students who don't score above a certain cut point). Third, the teacher, perhaps another unwilling victim of this most heinous system, will be punished as well because s/he will be held culpable for your self-righteous acting out.

Be a role model of an adult who confronts a situation he finds unacceptable. Call and write letters to politicians, write letters to the editor, run for school board, attend school board meetings. Model for your child how one constructively protests in a democracy.

Posted by: buckbuck11 | March 2, 2011 11:46 AM | Report abuse

This would be a marvelous scheme if you could persuade the majority of the students in a school district to join in. Another solution, although I don't know how to arrange it, would be for "educators" and lawmakers who think the tests measure something to sit down and take them under the same conditions the students do--and have the scores released. There have been lots of boosk and articles detailing how shoddily these tests are scored and lots of articles criticizing their make up. But let's see a Senator or Bill Gates trying to decide whether "head" should be matched with "fore" or "strong" to make a new word. (This example got changed, but not until after the publisher assured the editor that "Headstrong is a fourth-grade vocabulary word and this test is for third-graders so none of them will know it.")

Posted by: sideswiththekids | March 2, 2011 12:09 PM | Report abuse

Unless we take drastic steps to make sure we go away and live elsewhere, we're all going to have to live in this society for the rest of our lives. The only real point of going to school, for me, was to learn how to do this. I always envied children in story-books who had a governess, but by going to school, I learned how to deal with the real world, and how to enjoy myself and entertain myself in private with my own reading and observations, and my own thoughts. And I only had books: think how much more fun I would have had, once I'd got through the school day, had the internet been available!

In other words, I advocate going along, paying lip service, on this, because I don't think it's terribly important in the long run, and the consequences -- the backlash from society as represented by school authorities -- might be disproportionately unpleasant. I'd keep Luke's powder dry for an issue that really threatens his basic principles.

Posted by: penkuhn | March 2, 2011 12:22 PM | Report abuse

Let's hope that teacher isn't evaluated using value added.

Posted by: musiclady | March 2, 2011 12:53 PM | Report abuse

I'm wondering if he is in reality applying as a writer for a television drama. Perhaps a short story in "I love me, I love me not."

It's just a test people. Goodness. You would think you were asking them to clean their room!!!

Posted by: jbeeler | March 2, 2011 1:11 PM | Report abuse

sideswith kids,

When James Gilmore was Governor of Virginia the SOL test scores were beginning to count for schools (and soon passing scores would be required to graduate). Gilmore said he would take the SOL tests and publish the results. Not surprisingly, the results were never published.
Because most of these tests are minimum competency tests and supposedly necessary to be a good citizen of the state, I believe that all public officials should be required to take and pass them before holding any office.

Posted by: williamhorkan | March 2, 2011 2:29 PM | Report abuse

The father telling the son what to do is counter to this movement entirely. It is about individual determination: this is an invitation *to students*, not to parents. At best the father should make the invitation available to his son and support his decision.

Standardized tests have gone from being one diagnostic tool among many to monitor a student's recollection of key facts in a given topic to the be all and end all of demonstration of mastery of section of topics deemed necessary by a team of Centrally Located Education Experts for that child to become a valuable member society. When I was a kid we learned a lot of cool stuff and then took these silly tests that didn't cover half of what we had discussed and learned. Little Johnny might have been looking out the window when we were discussing the Periodic Table, so he only got two out of three of the chemistry questions right in 4th grade. Oh, well. Now it's so important that every single student regurgitate every tiny factiod presented in aptly named SOLs that the teachers drill all of the students on minutia rather than discuss why things happened. Someone better revolt as the whole process has become revolting.

I have an issue with the choice of Bartleby as the hero figure for this campaign, however. Although Bartleby did cause a small, localized ruckus, he did nothing to change the overall state of humanity and died at the end in such a state as it was not immediately apparent whether he was continuing his vacant life or had passed from it. He may have regained individual self-determination though civil disobedience, but his humanity in the midst of the insanity about him did nothing to save him from a pauper's grave. Not a very lofty hero I would say!

Posted by: HawkEyedDove | March 2, 2011 4:42 PM | Report abuse

As a parent, I couldn't agree more. The "No Child Left Untested" atmosphere of our country is destroying the love of learning and the love of teaching.

As a teacher, I first cringe at the idea that a school could allow a "teach to the test approach" to overtake true learning for a major portion of the school year. good teaching should prepare students to take a test--research shows students who read more, those who love reading, score higher on standardized tests. yet I identify with the fear and need to teach kids how to pass these tests. i teach high school. For my students, their test scores is not just a grade that reflects on our school; it determines, in part, their futures. Their scores open (or close) doors to colleges and scholarships. I would be misguided to teach solely to the test, but I would be remiss to never familiarize my students with a test that effects their futures so drastically. There is no easy answer. No Child Left Behind had good intentions, but it is having unintended negative effects on schools and teaching like the over emphasis on standardized testing.

Posted by: Priceless | March 2, 2011 4:42 PM | Report abuse

It will take something drastic like this to get attention because they certainly don't listen to us. JUST SHUT UP AND TEACH....

Posted by: veteranteacher1 | March 2, 2011 7:13 PM | Report abuse

Unfortunately, it isn't "just a test."

Posted by: aed3 | March 2, 2011 8:55 PM | Report abuse

As a student, I found the standard tests, particularly the AP tests and SAT subject tests, superior to the tests created by my teachers. Compared to the average social studies project of gluing some garbage onto a poster board, while looking at the obviously parent produced masterpieces around the room, tests are a better way of assessing students' ability.

Well meaning fools like the author of this piece don't understand that it is useful to know whether children in the state can read, or do math, or understand science. They'd prefer to just take a teacher's word for it- "he's fine, pass him onto the 6th grade."

The teachers want the freedom to teach whatever they want. This just doesn't work in the extreme- there is a standard curriculum that must come first. (What will Luke study after March? If the school year was 11 months, would he have more time to do more enrichment activities?) There is surely room to go beyond, but we need to ensure the basics are covered.

What is obvious to me from this article is that the school is too slow for your soon. When I was in elementary school, they had the brilliant concept of the pre-test. (Which Valerie Strauss and the parade of well meaning fools she promotes have previously derided.) If you showed mastery (90%) of a topic- you didn't have to study it! You could move ahead and focus on what you didn't know. On the other hand, there was a post-test for each topic, and, if you didn't master it, you couldn't move on! That was the best use of tests I've ever seen. I managed to complete several grade levels worth of material in a year after having previously stifled in other classes where I wasted my time "helping" the other kids with their work. In areas where I wasn't as sharp, I got time to study the stuff until I was ready to move on.

Let's not blame the test here, let's blame the idiotic NCLB act that fails to account for longitudinal measures of progress, the teachers and curriculum experts that can't figure out how to get the basics done quickly, and the students that don't take school seriously enough to study and work hard.

I realize it's hard for many of you to accept that you have to learn how to multiply decimals, and that teachers have to teach it, and that your ability to do this can be measured by a test, but it's true for that and for many other topics. Accept that reality, accept that we need to measure students' ability in way that can be compared across classrooms, schools, and states, and accept that this means standardized tests are the best means of doing so.

Don't make your kid sit this one out. I tried similar acts of rebellion against mean and capricious teachers that resented my attitude, it never paid off. I now realize that the better way to deal with bad teachers, the ones that hated me, would have been to play their game, acknowledging that the made up grades they give you are actually important.

Posted by: staticvars | March 2, 2011 11:30 PM | Report abuse

What school did you go to, staticvars? A very unique public school or a private school? In most public schools, students are placed in kindergarten or first grade based on their birthdates, and unless they fall drastically behind, they move through school one year and through high school one required course at a time regardless of whether they already know the material or not.

I know of one teacher who, discovering she had a very quick sixth-grade class whose student got all their work done quickly and were asking her about the Spanish text she was studying during her free period, began to teach them some elementary Spanish. She was ordered to stop because the school would not permit one group of students to have any instruction not given to all. I also heard an elementary school teacher's aide sneer that she couldn't stand kids who read a lot: "They think they know so much."

Face it, the main role of schools in our society is to keep the kids off the streets for several hours a day. (In fact, during the Depression, the legal age for leaving school was increased specifically to keep teenagers from competing with adults for scarce jobs.)

Posted by: sideswiththekids | March 3, 2011 9:11 AM | Report abuse

@sideswiththekids I went to public school in Texas. Sadly we moved to Virginia where I had to spend a year nearly asleep at school... I was shocked that the Math Team at my school in Virginia didn't even have practices. In Texas, in 6th and 7th grade, we practiced for an hour per day before school, four days per week. (With the greatest teacher I ever had!) I managed to finish in the top 20 nationally in one competition. In Virginia, I did well in the regional and state MathCounts competitions, but can't help thinking I could have won if I'd had the right support. My parents just aren't math-y Dad's PhD is in Educational Administration, if that means anything.

So many seem to think of math as boring, but many of the competitions were "standardized", but required a huge amount of creative problem solving. Much more than is required to glue some junk onto poster board. Many physics problems likewise require some leaps to jump to the next level of thinking. These things can be tested, are tested, and it works great.

Don't let a few bad tests ruin the concept, make the tests better.

Posted by: staticvars | March 3, 2011 11:32 AM | Report abuse

Timothy D. Slekar has made a fundamental error in his headline. John Taylor Gatto actually recommends students write, "I would prefer not to take your test", thus the name "The Bartelby Project" based on "Bartelby the Scrivner" written by Herman Melville in 1853.

Preferring not to has a completely different tone to refusing. Gatto's final sentence in "Weapons of Mass Instruction", following this quote is, "An old man's prayers be with you."

Posted by: EJ1123 | March 3, 2011 12:54 PM | Report abuse

Another great article! I wonder what would happen if students did refuse to take the tests?

Posted by: jlp19 | March 3, 2011 1:22 PM | Report abuse

Great article Valerie - but why put your child on the line to conscientiously object? As his parent you have the RIGHT to opt him out of standardized testing. It is the loophole that helped get this garbage accepted in the first place. It is not well-disseminated, but it sounds like word is starting to spread. Last year I pulled both my kids from standardized testing (not from school - just the test). First my son, because of his teacher's punitive methods when kids didn't learn what she was supposed to teach. Then, when my daughter started experiencing extreme anxiety about taking the tests, I opted her out as well. Don't get me wrong - I LOVE taking tests. My son LOVES taking tests (he's very much as you described your son - with the exception of reading directions, he will read a software game manual cover to cover before playing). My daughter - up until that time LOVED taking tests. We're weird. Both my kids usually test very high on the scale. One reason for opting them out was to prevent the school from obtaining a better average based on my kids' typically excellent performance. If they weren't going to play nice with us - they weren't going to get the benefit of my kids' good scores.

So opt-out - by all means. Just stand up and do it yourself. Then you can have a conversation with your son (as I did with my kids) about why Mom objects to the tests and what their actual value is.

Posted by: ltaylor2 | March 4, 2011 1:14 PM | Report abuse

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