Monday, November 04, 2013

Low Hanging Fruit: On Apple Picking and the Opt-Out Movement

This weekend my family and I took our annual trip to an apple orchard in Indiana.  Last year’s drought lead to a lackluster venture, so we were not sure what to expect this year.  The first row of trees that we saw were the Golden Delicious, which appeared to be mostly picked-over, so I hoisted my son on my shoulders hoping that he could grab a few of the remaining apples toward the top of some trees.  When that method proved unsuccessful, we trekked deeper into the orchard and found plenty of apples--$40 worth in fact.  My kids had little problem picking from the trees with apples dangling off branches at eye-level…

In practice and principle, I usually have no problem with low-hanging fruit.  Yet, I do have a problem with high stakes testing opt-out movement.  The opt-out movement, which has taken the form of activist, teacher and parent protests--as well as a call to students--encourages students, families, and communities to not take part in high stakes testing that is, at this point, a ritual in all public schools.  While I vaguely remember the California Achievement Test I took as a student in Tennessee in the mid 80’s, administration and preparation for the ISAT ruled the teacher-ly lives of the faculties I worked with from 2004-2010.  There was a palpable loathing of testing by the teachers and administrators, but again, this was ritual – questioned, but not neglected.  The students’ range of emotions went from out-right apathy to antipathy.  That is to say, I get it; I am considering not sending my son, now a 3rd grader--the first grade where students must take the battery of tests (new for Common Core data points this year)--to school during the days of test administration.  

Yet, taking my son out of school for the tests, even if 6% of the parents across all states nationwide did the same, doesn’t fully address the problem.  Although Diane Ravitch thinks that such an action would be devastating for corporate reforms, high stakes testing is not the lynch-pin of corporate reform and should not be understood as such.  To put it another way, if our nation’s biggest issue--as reflected by schooling--is poverty, what does ending high-stakes testing actually do to move us toward solving this problem?  What of privatization and unionization, or the overall business-oriented discourse in education?   Does fixing the testing dilemma begin to approach any of these issues in a substantive manner?  Test reform is visible and easy (in the greater picture of these larger issues) - and thus, the “low-hanging fruit.” But, if the low-hanging fruit of testing was done away with after a prolonged fight, would there remain any political will to even begin discussions about our social systemic issues, or, as Auden Schendler suggests, would “nobody ever get the ladder?”  To go one step beyond: while, as noted above, I loathe high-stakes testing, but the administration of these tests: (a) allow us to name some of the problems; and, (b) are the devil we know.

Out of the testing movement, the language of “gaps” was born.  While this often makes headway for cultural deficit arguments, it also makes similar space for the counter-argument to be made.  It brings to the fore the disparate outcomes and growing chasms in public schooling.  It has birth an entire literature that digs deeply into the systemic problems we face. Presumably, this could be achieved in other ways.  However, these tests, which are but one means by which schooling has been disrupted by economic interest, are the devil that we now know.  In this era and style of governance, what new spaces will be mined, and exploited, in the absence of testing?  This is not an argument to laud high-stakes testing, yet it is not the holy grail of educational issues, but the overflow of other problems. 

Personally, I wonder if keeping my son home come testing time sends a dangerous message about challenges and participation within democratic processes.  My wife and I remain reticent about making such a choice, as we believe there is space for additional choices and approaches not yet evident. As we noted on our walk through the orchard, there were apples that were a little more challenging to reach – tucked into branches, obscured by leaves – neither low-hanging nor beyond our reach.       

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