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Civil Disobedience: South Bronx 8th-Graders Refuse the TEST! (I'm Impressed.)

Dan Brown

My spirits soared this morning when I saw the headline in the New York Daily News: "Hell, No, we won't take another test!"Virtually the entire 8th grade at the South Bronx's Intermediate School 318 handed in blank exam packets for a three-hour social studies practice test. The social studies teacher, Mr. Douglas Avella, is being fingered for inciting the boycott, but the students say otherwise. Here are some choice quotes from the article:

Johnny Cruz, 15: "They're saying Mr. Avella made us do this. They don't think we have brains of our own, like we're robots. We students wanted to make this statement. The school is oppressing us too much with all these tests."

Tatiana Nelson, 13: "We've had a whole bunch of these diagnostic tests all year. They don't even count toward our grades. The school system's just treating us like test dummies for the companies that make the exams."

Tia Rivera, 14: "Some teachers implied our graduation ceremony would be in danger, that we didn't have the right to protest against the test. Well, we did it."

Department of Education spokesman David Cantor: "This guy [teacher Douglas Avella] was far over the line in a lot of the ways he was running his classroom. He was pulled because he was inappropriate with the kids. He was giving them messages that were inappropriate."

High-stakes testing has spiraled out of control. Test companies, under the guise of boosting accountability, are reaping millions and students are being cheated out of their precious school days. We are kidding ourselves if we think students aren't wise to this scheme. The reason we haven't seen more uprisings like the incident at I.S. 318 is that students have been intellectually and spiritually bludgeoned into submission.

Perhaps the dramatic boycott at I.S. 318 can help to bring into focus the fact that solely defining achievement via test scores (as is the current practice) is not authentic assessment. High-stakes tests, administered to students starting in early elementary school, terrify children, narrow curricula, and distort the discourse on public education. When supervisors' bonuses (or jobs) hinge on one specific factor -- test scores -- unhealthy fixation is a natural byproduct.

America's test-mania leaves out too much important stuff, and students are the losers for it. Comprehensive portfolios of standards-based student work paint an infinitely truer picture of students' growth and achievement. We can keep standardized tests, but we must leave behind the end-all, be-all nature they currently own. Going to school should be about discovering and unlocking one's potential through rigorous work in a supportive, personal environment -- not an endless rehearsal for a basic skills test.

I applaud Douglas Avella's students at I.S. 318 for taking a difficult, risky stand on a high-stakes issue.

Dan Brown the author of the teacher memoir, The Great Expectations School: A Rookie Year in the New Blackboard Jungle.

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