Critic Will Urge Parents To Boycott Tests{614A10B1-89CF-4AEA-83EE-9CF87F1F3DB6}

Joanne Laucius
The Ottawa Citizen
Thursday, February 21, 2002

Standardized testing is turning schools into test prep centres, says a prominent education critic who advocates boycotting the tests.

"It's turning education into a giant contest," says Boston-based author Alfie Kohn, who is bringing his message to Ottawa tonight.

Earlier this month Mr. Kohn, described by Time magazine as "perhaps the country's most outspoken critic of education's fixation on grades" urged 6,000 teachers at a Toronto professional development seminar to refuse to take part in standardized tests. He got a standing ovation.

Last year in New York's Tony Scarsdale, two-thirds of the parents of Grade 8 students refused to allow their children to participate. In Illinois and Massachusetts, hundreds of students organized boycotts.

On a smaller scale, some Ottawa parents are also boycotting the tests.

"The pressure on teachers is to begin teaching to tests and use valuable class time," said Lynne Oreck-Wener, who along with about seven other parents at Westboro's Churchill Alternative School opted to pull her children from school on the province wide test days for trips to the Experimental Farm and the Supreme Court.

A week ago, Ontario's 14,500 Grade 10 students wrote a literacy test they will have to pass before they graduate. It's the latest addition to a series of provincial tests that already includes tests for Grade 3, Grade 6 and Grade 9, and may eventually include tests at every grade level.

Standardized tests are, at best, a numbers game that forces teachers to play the system to keep marks high. At worst, tests are starving schools and children of the education they deserve, says Mr. Kohn, who was invited to speak by the Education Coalition of Ottawa, with members that include school boards, parent groups, teachers' unions and private schools.

Standardized tests measure the ability to decode words, but are poor at revealing whether a child is thinking deeply and creatively, he argues. "Ontario tests aren't about problem-solving, but are really about whether students have memorized an idea. Research tends to show that kids who do well at standardized tests are better at superficial thinking."

Life in the classroom is also squeezed out, maintains Mr. Kohn, who says teachers have dropped music, independent reading and even recess to buy time to prepare for tests.

Meanwhile, in the U.S., there has been a spike in the dropout rate. High dropout rates are good for test scores because students with poor test scores simply aren't around to be tested.

But standardized tests have their advocates.

"The test reflects the knowledge that's supposed to be in the curriculum," says Peter Cowley, director of school performance studies at the Fraser Institute, a think-tank that has been ranking schools by provincial test scores for the past five years.

"Good teaching will cover the material in the test and a whole lot more."

Test scores provide parents with valuable data, he says. And the public uproar that often accompanies the release of test scores is a good thing, he maintains. "My e-mail inbox tells me people are interested. Parents need more information, not less."

A few months ago, a rumour circulated that teachers were asking not to be assigned to Grades 3 and 6. The Ontario Principals' Council decided to check it out. A survey went out to 5,000 principals and got 541 responses, says council president Martha Foster. Of those, only about 10 per cent reported that teachers were asking not to teach those grades.

"The more time a principal spends in this kind of administering, the less time they have to work with students and staff," said Ms. Foster. "There has to be a better way to spend your time."

Mr. Kohn will speak at 7:30 p.m. at the Congress Centre. Tickets are $10, and are available at the door.