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Last updated: July 18, 2001



[Reprinted from the February 2001 issue of Substance. Subscriptions to Substance are available for $16 per year from Substance, 5132 W. Berteau, Chicago, IL 60641]

By Susan Ohanian

[Editor's Note: The following article origianlly appeared in the January 2001 issue of Phi Delta Kappan magazine and is reprinted here with permission. Copyright 2001 Phi Delta Kappan, all rights reserved.]

As a longtime seventh-grade teacher who is intimately familiar with an atmosphere of ongoing crisis and impending doom, I’m not often overcome by apocalyptic imaginings. But the arrival of two officers of the law from Gwinnett County, Georgia, on our doorstep in rural Vermont did get my attention. The cops threatened my extradition for a felony, punishable by five years in jail and a $50,000 fine. I’ve seen cantaloupes smaller than the badge packed by the cop who told me my link to the felony is that I live five miles from the post office from which a high-stakes Gwinnett County test, written by CTB/McGraw-Hill, was mailed to the Georgia media. Go figure.

Gwinnett County, Georgia, isn’t desperate to raise average test scores, which are pretty darned good already. This affluent suburban Atlanta district, which enrolls 110,300 students in its public schools, is the showcase of Gov. Roy Barnes’ plan for raising school standards statewide. It is the first district in Georgia to institute high-stakes tests. Even so, the Georgia media have shown no interest in commenting on the loony test questions used to decide whether students pass or fail a grade. Maybe journalists think it appropriate for fourth-graders to be interrogated about the socio/political/economic effects of the publication of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” or whether one is more likely to find information about the history of pretzels in a newspaper or an encyclopedia.

Anyone who thinks the answer to the pretzel question is obvious should try looking up "pretzels" in an encyclopedia, something the test item writers obviously failed to do. Anyone who thinks Gwinnett County is unique must have been taking a long snooze.

Fourth-graders in New York City are interrogated about the purity of maple syrup; high-schoolers are asked to respond to an essay by Roger Ascham (you know, the 16th-century fellow who gained fame for his essay on archery). Students in Los Angeles are asked about lemon mousse. The SAT 9 (Stanford Achievement Test) gives third-graders a rigorous proofreading test, along with some nutty vocabulary items.

Quick, does one visit the Statue of Liberty or the statue of liberty? Is a raindrop hitting one’s head more like a dart hitting a target or a storm hitting a region? More important, does anyone think the answers should determine whether a student passes or fails third grade?

The SAT 9 sixth-grade social studies inquisition defies description. It seems to be playing one-upmanship with E. D. Hirsch’s “What Your Sixth-Grader Needs to Know.” I’ve long thought Hirsch’s curriculum for sixth-graders was wacky in its scope (and lack of sequence), but the SAT 9 makes Hirsch look puny. The SAT 9 interrogates sixth-graders on the functions of local government (as contrasted with state and national), on the location of Idaho and Utah on a U.S. map (full disclosure: my Ph.D. husband missed both), on the processes of the Constitutional Convention of 1787, on the relationship between production and consumption, on causes of the change in American family structure, and on the meaning of the Preamble to the U.S. Constitution.

The SAT 9 asks sixth-graders to identify the requirements for a police search of one’s home; the climate of Moscow, Seattle, Cairo, and Paris; the Northwest Ordinance of 1787; the outcome of the Industrial Revolution; reasons that English colonists came to Massachusetts; and results of the Louisiana Purchase. Sixth-graders must also know about Eli Whitney, the Holocaust, and treaties between the U.S. and the Soviet Union in the 1970s and 1980s; the reason for the growth of urban areas in the 19th century; why the Republican Party was formed in 1854; the relationship of Henry Ford’s assembly line to the price of cars; whether the person for whom Constantinople was named was a pope, scholar, emperor, or poet; what the law says about handicap access; what archeologists study; the differences between a will, a license, a deed, and a lien; and the significance of California’s being granted statehood before Wyoming.

Whew! Fifth-graders have it easy. They just have to guess whether totem poles carved by the Native Americans of the Pacific Northwest were most like modern family albums, road maps, science books, or almanacs. They also need to know whether the clothes of early Hawaiians who lived in rain forests were most likely made from wool, feathers, sealskin, or cotton.

In California, complaints circulate that the SAT 9 test is too hard in grade 2 and just gets worse through the grades. The “Los Angeles Times, long rumored to be in possession of a bootlegged test, published questions in fall 2000, along with expert commentary explaining how goofy the questions are. A teacher, frustrated by threats of losing his job if he reveals what he knows about the inconsistencies and outrages of the SAT 9, posted research findings on a test resistance website. His work indicates wildly inappropriate reading levels. He also points out that students taking the Graduate Record Examination or the Law School Admissions Test are given more time per item than is given to a 6-year-old taking the SAT 9.

Mickey VanDenwerker is a cofounder of Parents Across Virginia United to Reform SOLs. (SOL stands for Standards of Learning and is Virginia’s entry in the “test ‘em till they drop” marathon.) VanDenwerker points out that posing questions like “What is a cartouche?” to measure a student’s knowledge of “the contributions of ancient Egypt and China which have had an impact on world history, with emphasis on written language, laws, calendars, and architectural monuments such as the Pyramids and the Great Wall of China” is what caused her son, a sixth-grader, to fall backwards off the bus because his book bag was too heavy.

“He weighs 62 pounds; the book bag is 41 pounds. He does homework from 5 to 9 each night with a 25-minute break for dinner. He has gone to bed crying twice this week because he is doing a 1,000-word research paper on what the walls of the U.S. Capitol would say (from 1800 to 1900) in addition to everything else. We are definitely speeded up around here.”

Is it any wonder that the people who write these tests and the Standardistos who spend millions of dollars buying them insist that they be kept secret? Teachers in New Jersey are forbidden to look at the tests while they are administering them to the children in their care. Glancing at a test question is the eighth deadly sin in New Jersey. Teresa Glenn, a North Carolina middle school teacher, was suspended for five days for paraphrasing two oddball test items on a listserv set up by the sta te as a place for teachers to discuss educational concerns. Teachers may be concerned about the test, but they are forbidden to discuss it.

Fortunately for Oregon teacher Bill Bigelow, the Portland superintendent refused the then-state superintendent’s demand to fire Bigelow for writing an article titled “Social Studies Tests from Hell.” Jim Bougas, a Massachusetts middle school teacher, was suspended for two weeks for refusing to give the state’s high-stakes test as required by the corporate-led forces of education reform in that state. Bougas says, “If the MCAS (Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System) continues, I have no job because they’ve taken it away from me as long as I have to spend my time teaching to the test.”

At 17 hours, the MCAS is longer than the Massachusetts bar exam. In Birmingham, Alabama, Steve Orel, an adult education instructor, was fired for questioning why 522 students were pushed out of city schools that were under threat of state takeover because of their low test scores. The students were “administratively withdrawn” shortly before the SAT 9 tests were administered. Testing experts note that the easiest way for a school to raise its scores is to make sure the students who are likely to score lowest don’t take the test. Obviously, those who are kicked out of school won’t be there to take the test.

Although fired, Orel refused to stay down. He has opened a new school, with new students arriving daily. Teachers and students around the country are responding to his efforts and raising money to buy books to send to Birmingham

Veteran Chicago teacher and journalist George Schmidt has paid the highest price for resisting high-stakes tests. Schmidt was fired from what even his antagonists admit was a distinguished career of 29 years teaching in the public schools of Chicago. He is also being sued for $1.3 million for publishing six of 22 Chicago pilot tests in “Substance”, an investigative and analytical newspaper about Chicago schools. Independent experts, including Gerald Bracey, have declared these tests unprofessional, simplistic, and error-ridden, but Schmidt, not the test-makers, is on the firing line. A group of teachers and parents has established the Committee to Recognize Courage in Education and offers the Emperor’s Clothes Award. George Schmidt will be the first recipient of the group’s award.

Last February, the St. Petersburg Times challenged Florida politicians to take the high-stakes tests they insist high-schoolers pass in order to graduate. All declined. Parents and teachers in Colorado asked Gov. Bill Owens and Bill Maloney, the state commissioner of education, to take the CSAP (Colorado Student Assessment Program), the high-stakes test that the president of the Colorado Association of School Boards said Einstein would probably have failed. Both state officials declined. Parents are speaking out against the testing insanity.

Carol Holst, a Texas mother-turned-activist who heads the Parents United to Reform TAAS Testing, tells of her fourth-grade son who couldn’t sleep because he was worried that, if he and his classmates didn’t do well on the test, Holst would lose her job and her children would not have food. She points out that her son’s school had no science or social studies because they aren’t covered on the TAAS (Texas Assessment of Academic Skills).

Mary O’Brien, a parent activist who has been questioning the Ohio Proficiency Tests (OPTs) for more than three years, says her husband and sons tell people that the telephone receiver is “surgically attached” to her ear. O’Brien says that her group’s largest success has been in holding testing parties, groups of 10 to 15 people who come together to learn about the tests.

Parents in Gwinnett County, Georgia, took the fourth-grade practice test and then asked why they, well-educated adults, scored so miserably. They formed the Concerned Parents of Gwinnett County to fight the tests. Now these parents are under investigation by Gwinnett County policemen. The cops who appeared at my home promised to go easy on me if I’d just implicate the activist parent who set up the protest website, who filed for documents under the Freedom of Information Act, and who distributed fliers that provoked 700 concerned parents to show up at a school board meeting to protest the high-stakes tests. On 3 August 2000, some 1,000 teachers attended the Gwinnett County school system’s orientation for new teachers and heard tips on communicating with parents. Maybe the governor and the cops should have been invited.

In 1937 Frank Lloyd Wright built a house in Wisconsin for industrialist Hibbard Johnson. One rainy evening Johnson was entertaining some important guests for dinner when the roof began to leak. The water dripped onto Johnson’s bald head. He telephoned Wright in a rage. “Frank, you have built this beautiful house, but I have told you the roof leaks, and right now it’s leaking right on my head.” Wright replied, “Why don’t you move your chair?” That’s an answer worthy of the Standardistos.

When 97% of the schools in Virginia fail the state test, state officials declare that something must be wrong with the students, but not with the test. But as the “Honora” — “Honor Honor Roll of Resistance” shows, the Standardisto boat is leaking badly.

Last October, on the occasion of receiving the New York ASCD (Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development) Educator of the Year award, Thomas Sobel, the former state commissioner of education, remarked that we “don’t need more prizes for measuring rain but should award prizes instead for building arks.” Sobel added that it’s time for people to stand up and say that our current mania for standards and measurements is “crazy and immoral.” He concluded by observing that the people who do stand up may be lonely. But they will also be doing the Lord’s work.

NOTES: 1. Books and money for books can be sent to Steve Orel, Windows of Opportunity, c/o MWW, 7429 Georgia Rd., Birmingham, AL 35212. Purchases of books made from www.angelfire. com earn book certificates for this program

2. Readers can subscribe to Substance by sending $16 to Substance, 5132 W. Berteau Ave., Chicago, IL 60641. 3. Contributions can be sent to Emperor’s Clothes Award, 710 N. State St., Champaign, IL 61820. For more information, write Susan Ohanian or visit

SUSAN OHANIAN is a longtime teacher and the author of “Caught in the Middle: Nonstandard Kids and a Killing Curriculum” (Heinemann, 2001) and “One Size Fits Few: The Folly of Educational Standards” (Heinemann, 1999). She is media consultant for the John Dewey Project on Progressive Education at the University of Vermont, Burlington.

• Mitch Balonek — Toledo high school English teacher who took sick leave during the week that the ninth-grade Ohio proficiency tests were administered rather than give the tests

• Jim Bougas — Massachusetts middle school teacher who was suspended for 10 days for refusing to administer the MCAS.

• Curt Doble — Massachusetts high school student who refused to take the MCAS and was suspended, arrested, charged with making a bomb threat, and jailed overnight on $10,000 bond

• Juanita Doyon — Anti-WASL (Washington Assessment of Student Learning) activist parent from the state of Washington who penned the slogan “I think I shall never see a WASL worthy of a tree.”

• Mary Ginley — 1998 Massachusetts Teacher of the Year who travels the state helping to organize parents, teachers, and students against the MCAS.

• Teresa Glenn — A North Carolina middle school teacher who was suspended for five days for paraphrasing two oddball test items on a listserv set up by the state as a place for teachers to discuss educational concerns.

• Maggie Hagan — An Ohio teacher and nonstop gadfly on the topic of high-stakes testing who sent the governor a copy of “The Emperor’s New Clothes” and suggested he read it

• Susan Harman — California teacher activist whose T-shirt slogan “High Stakes Are for Tomatoes” became the title of an article in the “Atlantic.”

• Carol Holst — Activist parent and cofounder of Parents United to Reform TAAS Testing.

• Hudson High School and Zephyrhills High School Teachers — Led by colleagues Doug Jones and Jean McNary, these teachers in Pasco County, Florida, rejected the ugly labeling and refused the bribe money offered to outstanding teachers at “low-performing schools,” so designated by Gov. Jeb Bush’s A+ Plan.

• Cathy Kitto — A principal in Sarasota, Florida, who traveled with four teachers to Tallahassee to return the governor’s “bribe money” they had received because of their work at a “high-performing” school.

• Mary O’Brien — Ohio parent who wouldn’t accept the answer from state department of education officials, legislators, or district personnel that the tests are a political reality and instead organized a “Say No to the Bully” protest at the statehouse, followed by “Be a Hero — Take a Zero, Say No to the OPTs.”

• Steve Orel — Adult education instructor who refused to stay down after he was fired for questioning why 522 high-schoolers were pushed out right before the SAT 9 was administered. Orel opened a new school, welcoming these students.

• Gloria Pipkin — Longtime Florida teacher who set up a “courage” website to honor test resisters and who proffers comfort and information to resisters nationwide: http: //www.angelfire.

• St. Petersburg Times — This newspaper challenged Florida politicians to take the high-stakes tests, but no one accepted the challenge.

• Annelise Schantz — High school valedictorian in Hudson, Massachusetts, who denounced the state’s high-stakes tests while the governor sat on the stage. Her classmates responded with a standing ovation

• George Schmidt — High school English teacher in Chicago, fired for publishing six of 22 Chicago pilot tests in “Substance,” an investigative and analytical newspaper about education. He is being sued for $1.3 million for publishing tests that independent experts have declared unprofessional, simplistic, and error-ridden.

• Lynn Spampinato — Denver principal, described as a “premier Principal,” who resigned in protest over the governor’s report card rating of schools, telling the board of education, “As a true believer in public education, I cannot be a participant in its demise.”

• Unknown Test Defier — Gwinnett County, Georgia, educator who turned district’s Gateway test over to media.

• Unknown Test Defier — California educator who analyzed readability of secret SAT 9 test and published results. Guess who gets more time per item: a 6-year-old or a student taking the Law School Admissions Test?

• Unknown Test Defier — California educator who sent copies of the SAT 9 test to the “Los Angeles Times” and to resisters around the country.

• Mickey VanDenwerker — Former teacher and activist parent who stopped on the highway to phone a talk show host to complain about the Virginia deputy director of education’s lying about that state’s Standards of Learning (SOLs). She also signed up several gaping onlookers to the Parents Across Virginia United to Reform SOLs. Mickey advises resisters to make bumper stickers legible from a distance so one doesn’t get rammed from behind by drivers trying to read the message. “But if a collision occurs, be sure to sign up the highway patrolman investigating the accident.”