Owning our Words

Not long ago, my student teacher asked me, “What is the greatest change you’ve seen in the last ten or fifteen years?” My answer surprised me as much as it surprised her. I answered with a question. ‘When did testing become morally ambiguous?’

What follows is a small tract from an educator to my fellow teachers and administrators.

I am worried. I am worried that we don’t own our own words. I am worried that we belong to a profession that is acted upon rather than acting. Standardized testing is one example. I personally know of no teacher or administrator who feels that standardized testing, as it is practiced, is helpful. I know plenty who feel it is destructive.

I know many who feel standardization has, in fact, corrupted the profession. Jobs depend on scores. When we demand that a school increase a yearly test score by some impossible number, we don’t simply ask way too much of the school. We ask too much of human nature. Too much from a teacher with a kid in college. Too much from a principal with a mort-gage. As for the children, a colleague put it well when he referred to the state test as “just one more thing for a kid to fail.” When overwhelmed with anxiety, people will use every means to de-crease that anxiety, and, in this case, increase the test scores. But this is reactive. We don’t own the dialogue. We let others ask the questions, and, ultimately, dictate our very words.

A major part of the problem is that the classroom teachers, the building administrators, know full well that there are dozens of questions that aren’t even being asked, because we, the folks with the chalk dust under our fingernails, don’t own the dialogue. We know that there is no progress in the development of education. We know that there is no paradigm for looking into the future.

I would like to propose, to my colleagues, that we speak rather than being spoken about. I would like to propose a simple beginning, that we teachers, that we administrators, that we ask the questions, that we dictate the terms, that we initiate this dialogue.

A few premises. First, we stay with the questions, for truth is often found in the questioning rather than the answers. Second, acceptance — no blaming, no shaming. Third, no one is really innocent, and no one is really guilty. Certainly cheating on a stand-ardized test is corrupting. But then giving it unquestioningly is every bit as corrupting. “I was just following orders” has been the defense of much evil. And now, a few questions.


Is standardized testing ethical?

Does standardized testing do more harm than good?

Is it ethical to give such a test to all students without exception?

Is it ethical to refuse to give a standardized test?

Would such a refusal do more harm than good?

How does a teacher, or an administrator, evaluate the good or evil of such testing?

How does one evaluate one’s own participation in such testing?

If the test has little educational value, how does the teacher evaluate the giving of the test?

Is a test meaningful if its only meaning is accreditation for the school or district?

Is it ethical to unquestioningly give the test?

Is it ethical to give students the answers?

For the sake of the school or district, it is ethical to falsify the results?


These are by no means the only questions. But they are a start. As I said, we need to stay with the question, for truth is often found in the question. We, the teachers, the administrators, we need to own our own words; we, the teachers, the administrators, we need to initiate our own dialogue.


Filed under: Prose, Publius