Tuesday, July 17, 2018

Commencement Address

     My daughter graduated from high school last month.  (I told you not to worry so much.) Several days before the end of the final term, she brought home her cumulative folder.  It contained absence records, consent and registration forms, proof of residency, various permission slips, and, of course, report cards and standardized test scores.
     I could brag about many of her school accomplishments.  And I don't mean to show off, but here's one I'm especially proud of:

Grade 7 PARCC report.

     Determined not to have our children used by the testing-industrial complex, and inspired by a visit to Washington, DC, where as a family we attended an Occupy the DOE protest and a march to the White House, we made the decision in 2013 to opt-out of our state standardized testing.  We faced pressure from the school, the district, and the state, but our minds were made up.   The superintendent refused our request to have our daughter moved to another room to read, study, or do schoolwork.  She sat at a desk in a classroom hour after hour, day after day, as the rest of her classmates filled in bubbles and wrote constructed responses in their test booklets.  (That first year we learned an invaluable lesson; even if you have no intention of taking the test, you need to actually crack the seal on the booklet.  Day one she had left the book unopened, and we were informed that when the week of testing was over the district would insist she sit for that day's make-up, missing actual instructional class time.  As if we needed any more proof that the system was completely out of control.  Of course now things are different and I'm not sure what the computerized equivalent of cracking the seal might be.) 
    She was bored and self-conscious, but children have suffered much, much worse in displays of civil disobedience.  The following year she did it again, and my son, two years ahead of her in school, did the same.  My hope was that the opt-out movement would grow, ultimately reaching some type of critical mass.  I pictured the entire corrosive system as a giant monster with an insatiable appetite for data.  Data was its fuel.  Data was its sustenance.  It needed data to live.  Withhold the data and the monster would die.  As the years went by the movement did grow, as more students elected to opt out.  And the district softened its policies.  They provided rooms for the refuseniks to read and study while their classmates were testing.  But the critical mass I had hoped for never materialized, and the insanity continues.
     In recent weeks New Jersey has moved to eliminate some of its testing requirements, and I can't help but think we played a small role in making that happen.  Yet federal law still requires that all children starting in grade 3 be tested each and every year.  States can work around the edges, lessen the number of testing days and change the name of the assessment, but the monster still lives, feeding off the data generated by the sweat, tears, and humiliation of hundreds of thousands of children.  They won't be mine.


     The truly educated become conscious.  They become self-aware.  They do not lie to themselves.  They do not pretend that fraud is moral or that corporate greed is good.  They do not claim that the demands of the marketplace can morally justify the hunger of children or denial of medical care to the sick.  They do not throw 6 million families from their homes as the cost of doing business.  Thought is a dialogue with one's inner self.  Those who think ask questions, questions those in authority do not want asked.  They remember who we are, where we came from and where we should go.  They remain eternally skeptical and distrustful of power.  And they know that this moral independence is the only protection from the radical evil that results from collective unconscious.  The capacity to think is the only bulwark against any centralized authority that seeks to impose mindless obedience. 
     ....We must fear, (Hannah) Arendt warned, those whose moral system is built around the structure of blind obedience.  We must fear those who cannot think.  Unconscious civilizations become totalitarian wastelands.

     The path to graduation wasn't always smooth.  Classified the summer between grades 4 and 5, by the time her middle school career was over she would, by sheer force of will, work her way from a self-contained class to a resource room to full declassification.  And despite the continued protestations from the state and the district, she would never take the PARCC.  The earth continued to spin on its axis and circle the sun.  She went to class, did her homework, and took an untold number of school quizzes and tests.   She became a bat-mitzvah, danced, got her driver's license, and worked 20 hours a week as a server in a retirement community dining room (no cash register.) She has attributes that no standardized test can measure, like courage, persistence, and empathy.  What could a PARCC score have possibly told me about her that I didn't already know?  That her teachers didn't already know?  What could taking it possibly do for her except reinforce the notion she was a less than adequate student?  Whose interests would be served?  Ultimately, who would care?  Not any of the six universities that were happy to have her enter with their freshman class.






  1. Wow! This post is beautifully written. I too am a teacher and one of the best things that happens every year is when the high school seniors come back to their elementary school to give us an update on their plans for the future. I am always blown away by how much they mature and the confidence they develop. I too have a son on an IEP who struggles a lot in school. It is hard for me to not to "worry so much" and focus on his weaknesses. He is a remarkable kid who loves his family, is a wonderful friend and can dribble a basketball like no one I've ever seen. The sky is the limit for him and thanks for reminding me of this - as a teacher and a parent. : )

    1. Thanks so much! I'm confident that, like my daughter, your son will find his way, as will most of the kids the standardized testing industry attempts to dehumanize. We must refuse to allow them to be so narrowly defined.

  2. Congratulations to your daughter, Joe. And good on her for being up for 'refusing to test' - all of you - for not having those very limited scores ('understanding your child's performance'!!) hanging over her, and for contributing to the change. I wish her all the best in her next steps!