Can vampires and testing co-exist in the NCLB era?

This guest post was written by Dave Orphal, a brilliant teacher leader in Northern California. You can check out more of his writing at Learning 2030.

“What if a Jewish person turned into a vampire?” Kirin asked me one day.  “Would that vampire be afraid of a Star of David like regular vampires are afraid of a cross?”  “That’s the great thing about vampires,” I replied.  “Because they are a literary device, they can do pretty much whatever the author wants them to.”

We talked for about fifteen minutes about Kirin’s Jewish vampire, specifically, whether or not he will cringe at a Star of David, and what that decision might mean.  Would it mean that Kirin has replaced the “exclusive rightness” of Christianity with an exclusive rightness for Judaism?   Or would vampirism be more multi-cultural, where the hypothetical vampire cringes at a variety of symbols of goodness and righteousness?

In a different year, a puzzled-faced fourteen-year-old girl stuck up a conversation with me one afternoon.  “I was reading here in Hammurabi’s code,” she began, “I get how it says that if the farmer doesn’t keep the levees on his land in good repair, and the river floods, the levee breaks and ruins his neighbor’s land,  then he’s responsible to repair the damage and pay for the neighbor’s ruined crops. I get that… but what if the farmer was renting the land?”

Both of these children were in classes of mine at Skyline High School, in Oakland, California.  What makes these children remarkable is not their uniqueness; I could talk all night, telling you similar stories.  What makes them remarkable is that these stories of curiosity and wonder come from a so-called “failing school,” as labeled by No Child Left Behind.

The problem for these children, and my school is that neither Babylonian rental law nor Jewish vampires are on the high-stakes test. Curiosity and student-driven inquiry aren’t valued. The centerpiece of our current accountability regime insists that all students must test at “proficient” or above in reading and math by 2014: 100 percent of schools, 100 percent of students.

A high-pressure goal like that leaves little room for wonder.  It leaves little room for creativity or divergent thinking.  A goal like this reduces schools and teaching to a corrupt game of trivial pursuit with only two categories of value.  A goal like this tells children that what they are good at doesn’t count and what they are curious about doesn’t matter.

I hope we can all take a deep breath and remember that education is a lot more complex than the score on a single test.  I hope we can come to our senses and demand that our government does away with these tests. As the farmer says, “You can’t fatten the hog by weighing it.”

We need fewer high-stakes tests in our schools.  We need more room for curiosity, more room for wonder.  We need more room for Jewish vampires.

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