I acknowledge that we live in a society based upon high-stakes, high-pressure, high-competition standardized testing. I begrudgingly accept it as well. What I won’t stand by and idly watch is the public celebrations forced upon our teachers and students lauding the special-interest, corporatist, lobby-driven, political-kabuki shit-show that is our data-driven education system.
Here in Pennsylvania, it’s PSSA time. That’s Pennsylvania System of School Assessment. It’s like a vacation…if vacations really sucked. Like, sucked a lot. As far as I can tell from various conversations with educators, administrators, students, and parents, apparently every minute of instructional time before these days is dedicated to ensuring a particular average score that will seal the fate of funding and educational autonomy. This endeavor is pursued to the detriment of humanities like music and art as well as exercise opportunities including physical education and recess. Fucking great idea, huh?
I walked into a school today and needed to battle my way through a wall of hanging streamers to enter the office. “That’s odd.” I thought, “Must be someone’s birthday or anniversary or baby shower,” then continued with the sign-in process. The school calendar, displayed prominently, settled my speculation. On one day, in bright excited font, was written: PSSA Pep Rally! Then, on each succeeding day that the PSSA would occur (including this very day…me sitting there slack-jawed, attempting to process what was coming into my head) there appeared smiley emoticons and rainbow acronyms as if the letters stood for: Pizza & Snacks & Soda & All-day-recess. If the teachers’ and students’ faces, demeanors, and behaviors were any indicator, that is certainly NOT what it meant. But they had a pep rally nonetheless. What the hell did that look like?! Imagine rounding up your entire family, forcing them into an echoic, crowded gym, hooking up a tinny, loud PA system, playing whatever shitty formulaic pop music is current, then chanting about your family’s genetic predisposition for heart disease. Yay! How about a hysterectomy party? We could pound a fallopian tube and uterus piñata filled with hard boiled eggs. A genocide parade. Pin the toe tag on the murdered ethnic minority. Sounds like a blast, right?! How about a sciatica celebration. Jump around. Jump around. Jump up, jump up, and get…OUCH!!! Really. A goddam PSSA pep rally. Who is actually buying-in to this? The writers and creators and hucksters of said standardized assessments and corresponding curricula? Lobbyists? Politicians with as much sense as…well, politicians? It isn’t students. It can’t be teachers. I pray it’s not administrators. Truly, what a shit-show.
And then, the entire fucking school was decorated as if high pressure standardized testing is a holiday. Hey everyone! Let’s celebrate PSShannukkA, but instead of candles, we’ll be lighting your fingers on fire for each day of emotional torture. Presents? Sure. You’ll be getting the gifts that keep on giving for a lifetime: low self-esteem, frustration, worry, anxiety, confusion, and failure. (Wait, that part kind of sounds like a real Catholic or Jewish holiday. But I digress.)
And to ensure that no teacher could escape, that no child was left behind, everyone was wearing a pseudo-motivational shirt. The logo? “With hard work there will be success. #PSSA2015.” And it was in a military font on a matte green shirt. I fucking gag each time I think about this. I envision the meeting, perhaps one person, the superintendent(?), mustering up false enthusiasm…or God forbid authentic enthusiasm. “So! We should, like, use a hashtag because, like, that’s cool, right? It’ll fit with the current atmosphere of social media. Oh, and let’s lay all of the responsibility on the students and you teachers. We thought about: Don’t be a lazy fuck…but ultimately decided on a gentler message still rife with judgment and expectation. With hard work there will be success. Whaddayathink?” (A few hands hesitatingly raise.) “Okay great. It’s unanimous then.” (“Ahem,” from the back of the room.) “And we’ll add the hashtag PSSA2015. Thanks for your input, everyone! Grab a Giant Eagle Danish on your way out.” (The crowd shuffles out, most looking down, the rest pressing buttons on phones to escape for just a minute.)
I thought about this, more than I should have, and here are a few of my t-shirt suggestions:
With hard work you’ll likely still not succeed because you’ll be anxious and emotionally overwhelmed. #PSSA2015
If we focus on #PSSA2015 as if only it matters, perhaps someone will cry or even emotionally crack. #Yay
Only good people get good scores. #PSSA2015
You’re only 10? Fuck you, take the test. #PSSA2015
Oh, and you’re 11? Stop crying, take the goddam test. #PSSA2015
If we waste any more of your life with these tests, your brain will atrophy…perhaps to the extent of an intellectual disability and then you won’t need to suffer through the eventual realization that we did this to you. #PSSA2015
(That last one might not fit on the shirt.)
I need someone to make me understand, to convince me that all of this is a good idea…that it is NOT a bad idea. Just one person, with an independent brain and the ability to self-generate thought and solve problems. Not a ditto head. If we were sitting over drinks at happy hour and I was being entirely honest, and if you asked me, “Where would you start, Greg?” I’d set my base position at this: I would abolish all standardized tests except for those employed for pure peer-reviewed research purposes. All of them. The history and reality of how we’ve used and, indeed, still use these tests indicates that we don’t know how to use them. And not only that, we use them incorrectly and to the detriment of society. Like a child who not only can’t share his baseball bat, but also bashes anyone over the head who even looks at it, and rightfully loses said bat…we need to lose our standardized tests. (And we shouldn’t get the damn things back until we learn about them…how to administer, score, and interpret them; what they tell us and how we should disseminate that information; for what purposes are they indicated and, conversely, contra-indicated; and why we even need or want them in the first place.)
Help me here, because this has been a challenging year as a speech/language pathologist (SLP), as an instructor of aspiring teachers at Duquesne University, as the husband of a school-based SLP, as the step-father of a middle-school student, as a tax payer, and as a citizen. It’s getting very, very hard to not gnash my teeth, scream, cry, and throw shit. (Literally, like a monkey. Throw…shit.) So I write jokes, and I laugh…but just as the tears of a clown are poignant and heartbreaking, so is the sarcastic laughter of an armchair sociologist.
Why do I call this endeavor, “Driven to Drink,” you ask?
This shit is assuredly part of the answer.
(Dude, I’m totally down with *this* PSSA.)