May 23 2012 11:25 AM

It's bubble time for the kiddos-and not the soapy kind

Aaryn Belfer

Last month in Oceanside, N.Y., Christine Dougherty wrote to her son's principal requesting that he not sit for the standardized state exams. In the letter, posted to United Opt Out National's website, she asked that Joseph instead be "given an alternative real learning opportunity." She received a ghastly response. But I'll get to that later.

Like New York, public schools on a traditional schedule here in California completed the Standardized Testing and Reporting (STAR) exams in April.

Most San Diego students have tested and are officially on cruise control. Of course, kids are still doing work; I'd hate to insinuate otherwise lest the teacher-bashers point once again to lazy teachers as the metastatic cancer ravaging schools. But kids are on the downhill slippery slide of the academic calendar. They're field tripping and class-partying their way to the last day of school, a time in childhood I remember so vividly that I can almost taste the last-day root beer floats of fourth grade, the see-ya-later kiss with Mike Allen at the end of seventh.

A quick aside here for my faithful readers who don't have children and/or couldn't care less about education: Thank you for plodding forward. And just to keep you from leaving me for U-T San Diego, I'll have you know that my bikini waxer recently removed a stray hair that was closer in proximity to my kneecap than it was to my bikini line. It's true and it sucks, but I hope you'll keep it a secret between you and me. And keep reading.

So, the year-round kids still have a way to go before busting through the front doors to freedom, throwing their notebooks in the air.

Like many of their peers have already done, these kids are frantically practicing how best to decipher nonsensical word problems, and how to find reasonable answers among a selection of unreasonable choices. Take, for example, the eighth-grade reading-comprehension problem New York kids faced a few weeks ago, in which a pineapple challenged a hare to a foot race. This ridiculous story and questions—created by testing overlord Pearson—are at the center of what's being called "Pineapple-gate." Just for giggles, The New York Daily News asked Jeopardy! champion Ken Jennings to tackle the problem. Jennings was nonplussed, saying that "the plot details are so oddly chosen that the story seems to have been written during a peyote trip." (The question's been thrown out of the scoring process due to public outcry.)

I read the passage and questions in the calm setting of my home and was stumped. I was upset on behalf of children everywhere, and can only imagine the frustration students must have had when faced with this one under sterilized testing conditions.

Teacher Heather Wolpert-Gawron wrote on her website about being forced to cover or strip from her classroom walls her students' work in an effort to remove anything that might be helpful to the test. She also described her experience of proctoring a test.

"[Three quarters] of the way into the testing period," she wrote back in 2009, "the student who never shows up to school… does. He sits down and looks around realizing that he has appeared on one of the testing days rather than the assembly day schedule he had originally planned. He will spell out ‘This Sucks' on his bubble sheet with his #2 pencil. I continue to walk around the classroom and hear a scream and a cry of alarm. A student has just realized that when she skipped #4, her bubbling had derailed for the remainder of the 46 questions. She has 5 minutes left to erase and re-bubble. I realize that these kids are really being tested on their ability to bubble."

How to create healthy, well-rounded children? Make them maximally stressed out over information that will be as vital to them in adulthood as an electric toothbrush is for an infant.

Ah, but these are the rules! And, so, they're sharpening their pencils at Ruby's school, because for two weeks, all the children from second grade on up will sit in classrooms answering a stream of questions about as compelling as listening to your friend recite last night's dream.

Beginning next Tuesday, the school will be on lockdown every day during test time. Bathroom breaks will be meted out with Nurse Ratched-like oversight. No parents will be allowed on campus, no volunteers permitted. Only teachers, staff and administrators will be allowed entry. Visiting hours are suspended.

It's sorta like prison, only with slightly better food and far less funding, which is both ironic and terrifying if you stop to contemplate where, precisely, society's headed. The structure surrounding the STAR tests makes the district-mandated benchmark tests—which will be given for the third time this school year during the first two weeks of July—look like yard time by comparison. Hmmm. Do you ever wonder how much all this testing costs or who (ahem, Pearson) had fourth-quarter profits in the billions? Nah, me neither.

All of this brings me back to Christine Dougherty and her decision to opt Joseph out of high-stakes testing. Joseph's principal responded with an infuriating letter enumerating the many ways Dougherty and her child would be punished and threatened to call Child Protective Services should Joseph be absent during testing. Dougherty stood firm, but Joseph was forced to test against her wishes. He was held captive.

Sorta like a prisoner. In a prison.

Child abuse is but one of the many evils of high-stakes testing, and every day, more and more parents are waking up to this fact and are opting out. What are you waiting for?

Email Aaryn Belfer. Aaryn blogs at and you can follow her on Twitter @aarynb.


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