March 22, 2019
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Learning is about discovery, not quality assurance: Take a stand against school testing


The financial problems of local school districts are usually so dire and immediate that we don’t consider them in terms of the bigger picture of public education. As school districts across Maine struggle to make ends meet, there is bitterness and blame; yet the crisis in public education is national.

We pay more for education than ever, but huge amounts go to implementation of national standards, curricula aligned to those standards, teacher training to support the standards, standardized testing and data processing.

My district, RSU 3 in the Unity area, has many struggles. We have more than our share of poverty, and our enrollment is declining. Transportation cutbacks mean kids’ bus rides are often too long; we have to consider closing schools to make ends meet; and we make cuts to our system every year that make life a little more difficult for everyone.

Many people believe our district must make do with less. Sure, our kids “deserve” a top-drawer education — but where’s the money going to come from?

The link between our local plight and national issues is the demand for test-based “educational accountability” — using standardized test scores to determine whether our schools are doing a good job.

Since its passage in 2002, the testing requirements of No Child Left Behind have corroded our schools.

When we are forced to place undue value on standardized test scores, we change the culture of our schools from places of learning to test prep centers. Now, after a decade of NCLB, test scores have stagnated. It turns out teaching to the test not only crowds out valuable learning experiences, it does not even raise scores. The only thing test scores accurately predict is the income level of a student’s parents.

With the failure of NCLB came new bright ideas — still with an emphasis on testing. Institute the “rigorous” Common Core standards and dangle billions of dollars in new funding in order to get states to adopt them. Monitor schools’ progress on tests and put them in categories based on those scores. Evaluate teachers in part by their students’ test scores.

If schools perform poorly on the new standardized testing, they must act to improve their scores. This does not mean a greater focus on teaching and learning. Failing schools will be entirely occupied by the task of raising scores on a testing system that a growing number of educators, parents and community members reject.

It is not unthinkable that some future legislation will give our state the ability to take over those schools, fire our principals and our teachers, and put a new system in place. ( A memo surfaced last year from former Education Commissioner Stephen Bowen to Gov. Paul LePage that shows that this very idea was floated.)

Of course, we’re poor here in RSU 3, and statistically, poor districts don’t do well on tests. Chances are, we will be a “failing district” in spite of all the money we have spent on the wrong things.

When you force upon kids a system of learning that doesn’t value their identity and their interests, learning doesn’t stop; it just goes wrong. Kids learn that what they are supposed to learn is difficult for them. Year by year we graduate more kids who have a very strong sense of what they are unable to do.

Kids learn best when they are interested and connected. We know this. We see it in ourselves and in the children around us.

But in school, we have to prepare kids for those tests, or else school districts, already deeply stretched, will be labeled “failing.”

We have to take a stand against the tests. God knows it won’t help this budget, or the next, but if we don’t push back, our schools will continue to cost more and our students will continue to achieve less.

Parents can opt their children out of state standardized testing and request alternative educational experiences during test prep and during testing.

We need to stand together and fight for schools that will treat learning as a process of discovery, not as a corporate quality assurance program.

Lisa Cooley is an education activist and an RSU 3 school board member from Jackson. She blogs at Her email is


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