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Principal apologizes for excessive testing, longs for good old days

The story of the Ohio principal who is apologizing for his school’s focus on testing made the rounds of education blogs last week, but I wanted to take another look at it. In particular, I want to point out that while most of the criticisms made by the principal, David Root of Rocky River Middle School, are valid, one throwaway point at the end of the Cleveland Plain Dealer column is not. Unfortunately, education reformers who advocate increased testing have used that point to justify their agenda, and Root would have been wise to consider how they might receive his apology.

Most of what Root told the columnist about the effects of testing in his school struck me as real, serious, and disturbing. Among many other offenses, he apologized for not suspending a student who assaulted another student during testing days; for not reporting absences because they would count against the school; for reducing art, music, and physical education in his school; and for “arranging for some students to be labeled ‘at risk’ in front of their peers and put in small groups so the school would have a better chance of passing tests.” It’s enough to send even the most moderate education observer running to join a Time Out From Testing protest.

But I was put off by the end of the column, when Root expresses nostalgia for the days before testing. “We don’t teach kids anymore,” he said in the column. “We teach test-taking skills. We all teach to the test. I long for the days when we used to teach kids.”

Testing might not be the answer — and certainly here in New York City, where independent analysis shows that increased testing hasn’t narrowed the achievement gap at all, it’s not — but neither is nostalgia. For all of its faults, No Child Left Behind requires states to examine the performance of all of their students, and for many states this attention is new and greatly needed. The good old days when schools just taught without high-stakes testing were characterized by a level of failure, particularly among minorities and poor children, that no one should accept. I’ve heard Chancellor Klein cite this history as proof that his reforms, which include frequent testing, both with and without stakes, are necessary. Why lend him and similar reformers support when the arguments against their style of testing program are so strong?

Be on the lookout tomorrow for a GothamSchools look at schools’ real good old days.

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