Wednesday, November 7, 2007
AN OPEN LETTER IN SUPPORT OF DAVID WASSERMAN
I am writing to support David Wasserman's decision to refuse to administer a test in which he did not believe and to decry the way in which he was subsequently dealt with by his superiors. I am a mathematics teacher educator, teacher, and expert on standardized test preparation with more than 30 years' experience working with students on various instruments (e.g., SAT, GRE, ACT, LSAT, and GMAT) as well as with grading state tests from Michigan, New York, and Connecticut. With that experience and expertise in mind, I am deeply troubled by the manner in which this nation has been pushed further and further towards accepting an ill-founded religious belief in the power of (for the most part) multiple-choice, multiple-guess tests to measure not only student achievement, a concept which is at best open to question, but teacher, administrator, school, district, and state competency (not to mention national status when viewing similar international tests such as the TIMSS), in total violation of one of the basic principles of psychometrics: never use a test to measure something it has not been specifically designed and normed to measure. This country has long been enamored with numbers and rankings, going back to the early decades of the 20th century, when we shamefully abused IQ scores to restrict immigration in ways that can only be viewed as unscientific and utterly racist. I urge everyone to read Stephen Jay Gould's definitive work on the abuse of "intelligence" testing, THE MISMEASURE OF MAN, for a shocking and sobering account of how standardized tests have been misused and abused in the United States, generally out of racist and chauvinistic ignorance and bias.
It takes a brave person to risk his job and his livelihood, to put himself and his family in jeopardy, in the face of blind obedience on the part of so many of his fellow teachers and education professionals to what is nothing more than an outlandish political ploy to destroy public education, undermine teacher authority and autonomy, punish students, parents, teachers, administrators, schools, and districts MOST in need of support, and to shamelessly promote vouchers and privatization to help those most advantaged and least in need already. Sadly, there is not a single member of the US Congress (and, I suspect, of any state legislature) who has a balanced view of educational politics, who actually has K-12 teaching experience, who has a background in either education or psychometrics, and who understands that measuring something is not the way to improve it. Regardless of political party or identity as liberal, conservative, reactionary, moderate, or libertarian, our politicians have no little interest in reading educational research, theory, or case studies beyond what they need to figure out which way the political winds are blowing and what policies will sound good to the voters, regardless of what professional educators believe or know from hard experience. No Child Left Behind has devolved, predictably, into No Child Left Untested, Untraumatized, Unabused by high-stakes, high-pressure exams that for the most part are not grounded in state or district curricular frameworks, do not reflect best practices, and are not scientifically sound when misapplied for a host of purposes for which they were never intended by the test authors. I have personally witnessed teachers being instructed by administrators in my home state of Michigan to lie to elementary school students about the implications for individual students of their scores on the state tests, to wit that they should tell these children that their scores will "go on their permanent record and follow them throughout their lives." This is a bald-faced lie, as everyone reading this knows full-well, but 7 year olds are not so savvy and often neither are their parents. These administrators were not evil, but merely people succumbing to immoral and unethical bullying pressure originating with a president and federal government bureaucracy that has been acting cynically in the name of helping the very children they are helping to destroy.
Few individuals whose careers and families depend upon their acting like good little Germans and pleading ignorance of wrong-doing have had the courage to do what David Wasserman did. And how was he rewarded? He was immediately made to feel the power of the institution and individuals that wield power over him and his students. Instead of applauding his integrity, they endeavored to crush him or force him to capitulate. And as a parent and husband, he did so, though I am sure it was very painful for him to have to choose between his family and his students, between his principles and his fear.
It is shameful that the administrators in the Madison Metropolitan School District did no more (or less) than those fine citizens of Munich, Berlin, Frankfort, and so many other cities in Germany and other European countries brought under Nazi rule: they used their power to snuff out the first sign of real bravery and dissent, the first act that really was designed to see that no child is forced to take meaningless tests that measure little, if anything, that most educators value. A multiple-choice test can easily reward luck over knowledge, mechanical regurgitation of mere facts over thought, imagination, and creativity, and, of course, conformity over individuality. I would be very much surprised if there is a state or national high-stakes test being used in conjunction with NCLB that is not primarily or entirely of this type. David Wasserman had the guts to stand up for his students and for meaningful assessment over shallow, cheaply processed "data"-gathering and number worship. His colleagues, principal, and superintendent should have applauded him. I suspect many of his students were grateful for even a moment's thought for their plight. Instead, we saw no acts of courage from those with a little more power than a mere classroom teacher. It was business as usual, full speed ahead, and testing uber alles. How utterly sad, and how utterly tragic for real kids and real learning.