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Posted at 05:00 AM ET, 04/18/2012

Testing day: ‘More like lockdown than an elementary school’

This was written by Larry Lee of Montgomery, Alabama, former executive director of the Covington County Economic Development Commission and the West Central Partnership of Alabama. Lee, who writes often about education, sent the following email to friends and other people whom he thought would be interested. He gave me permission to publish it.

Larry Lee’s email:

Friends,

I have long felt that we need to have a statewide conversation about “What is education?” rather than continue to bounce from one “flavor of the month” ed reform notion to the next. And had you been with me [a week ago on] Monday, I think this point would have been made loud and clear.

I got up at 5 a.m. to drive 115 miles so I could be at Fruithurst Elementary in Cleburne County by 8 a.m. I went because last week and next are when schools across the state are taking THE TEST and I wanted to observe this process first-hand.

Fruithurst is a really good rural school, one we studied extensively in 2009 when we wrote the publication lessons learned from rural schools. more than 70% of these kids qualify for free-reduced lunches. Yet math proficiency rivals that of all Mountain Brook elementary schools where not a single child in the system gets a free-reduced lunch.

Christy Hiett is principal and a very, very good one. (If every school in the state had a Christy Hiett as principal, we would be in great shape.)

I have been to this school many, many times. It is always filled with the normal sounds of a school. Kids asking questions in class, laughing at something the teacher says, whooping and hollering on the playground. Lots of smiles. Christy getting hugs from her students as she walks down the hall.

Not so Monday, the first day 3rd, 4th, 5th and 6th graders were taking part one of the Alabama reading and math test, the test that so much emphasis is based on these days.

Honest, it was more like lockdown than an elementary school. No laughter, no smiles, no hugs, too many straight-faced youngsters, too many with stress so evidently showing (which is why the school nurse was a key part of the staff yesterday as kids were going to see her with upset stomachs and headaches).

There were no backpacks in the rooms. They lined the hallway. Teachers turned in their cell phones to the testing coordinator. Rooms were stripped of anything that could possibly give a student as clue as to what a correct answer might be.

Each teacher had a plastic box full of exams, exam instructions, pencils and scratch paper kept under lock and key in the test coordinator’s room. In fact, this room was behind two locked doors. Only the principal and test coordinator had the keys to this room.

About 8:15, the teachers began picking up their individual boxes and signing forms. Testing began at 8:30. Each teacher had a timer in her room.

Special ed students were tested separately. The counselor tested a visually impaired student. Some 95% of students are required to be tested. There were three of the nearly 300 students absent yesterday. Friday will be make up test day.

(During the testing period, a car horn accidently started going off and was quickly quieted. One of the special ed students was very distracted by this. Christy said the incident would be reported as a “testing irregularity.”)

All staff wore sneakers so there would be no sound as they walked. I had on a pair of loafers with leather soles and wondered if I should take them off as I clicked down the hall. Christy steadily monitored each room, noting her presense on a sign-in sheet taped to each door.

When a group of kindergarteners needed to take a bathroom break, they were sent outside around the building to reach the restroom so they would not go down a hall and cause a distraction for students taking the test.

When the test was completed, teachers took their boxes back to the test coordinator’s room where they were locked up, waiting to be delivered to the central office.

As students lined up in the hallway afterwards to go to the restroom, there was still no smiles and no laughter. It was eerily quiet.

I questioned two teachers afterwards. A 6th grade teacher said, “I suppose it’s a necessary evil, but you really have to wonder how good of a picture do you get of how well a child can read when you test them for only 160 minutes with largely multiple choice questions.”

A 4th grade teacher now in her third year of teaching confessed that she was not quite as stressed as last year, but nervously said, “It’s still a lot of stress because you know how much is riding on the results.”

And what do the kids get from all of this? Not a damn thing. None of their grades will be impacted by how they perform on THE TEST. This is all about trying to reach unrealistic goals set by No Child Left Behind that declares that all children in this country will be above average by 2014. In other words, Lake Wobegon here we come.

As I left to head home my only thought was: “My God, these are children. They are not small adults.” Here are kids growing up under difficult circumstances in many cases. (Christy told me of one family that lived in a camper with no running water on land that was not theirs. She told me of a second-grade boy who is being raised by only his grandfather. She does not know what happened to the mother and daddy or to the grandmother. One day the grandfather wanted to show the boy what a gun could do and why he should not touch them, so he shot and killed the boy’s dog while he watched.)

These scenes will be repeated time and time again in Alabama for the next few days.

Robert Scott, the Republican commissioner of education in Texas, recently said that the notion that standardized testing is the “end-all, be-all” is a “perversion” of what a quality education should be.

Several hundred Texas school boards have now passed a resolution saying that high-stakes standarized tests are “strangling” public schools.

I saw nothing Monday to make me think otherwise.

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