"A child's learning is the function more of the characteristics of his classmates than those of the teacher." James Coleman, 1972

Tuesday, August 08, 2006

Victory in Massachusetts?

It's been five years since author and education activist Alfie Kohn was barred from speaking at an education conference in Massachusetts by the Department of Education because of his criticism of standardized testing. Last week, however, Superior Court Judge Hiller B. Zobel ruled the DOE violated Kohn's civil rights. Kohn was scheduled to speak on standardized testing at a conference funded by the department in 2001. The DOE threatened to withdraw its money if Kohn was permitted to speak.
Kohn's offense was that he is an outspoken opponent of high-stakes testing generally, and of the MCAS specifically. Public support for the exam was wobbly five years ago, which might explain why it was so important to keep him away from a microphone. Though uninvited from the conference, Kohn was paid his $5,000 fee -- paid, in effect, not to speak. The American Civil Liberties Union sued the department on behalf of Kohn and some of the conference organizers who had invited him.

The suit ``was never about my honorarium, it was about the First Amendment," Kohn said yesterday. ``The judge is now going to craft an injunction which specifies exactly what the Department of Education must do or can't do in the future, as a result of having been liable for trying to silence dissent."

Kohn made it clear that his opinion of tests such as the MCAS has not changed one bit in the past five years. He argues that such tests short-circuit real teaching and learning.

``It remains a test that measures what matters least about learning, and the damage it does because of its high-stake status is incalculable, both to the students who are forced out of school without a diploma because they don't think they can pass and how it displaces meaningful learning," he said.
The gubernatorial race in Massachusetts has brought the issue of high stakes testing to the forefront as Democratic candidates begin a long, overdue public discourse on the disasterous impact of an education policy that punishes poor children and the teachers who work with them for not measuring up on the test. At a forum sponsored by the Massachusetts Teachers Association, Christy Mihos, an independent called for doing away with the MCAS altogether.
Mihos, a former Republican, caused a stir by declaring that, if elected, ``we are going to do away with MCAS."

The high-stakes tests, implemented after the 1993 Education Reform Act, have merely proved, he said, that students in well-funded communities score better than their counterparts in less-affluent cities and towns. Ross, a community organizer, said she opposed it as a high school graduation requirement, and Patrick said he supports the tests but only as one tool to measure child development.
Reality has a funny way of creeping up. Ultimately, whether it is Iraq or NCLB, a failed policy is a failed policy and there is enough blame to go around on both sides of the aisle. For those lonely voices of reason stifled and marginalized by profiteers and ideologically-driven zealots, it is a hollow victory because the losses and damage to the nation will be felt for generations to come.

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