It’s state testing season in New York and Louis C.K. is pissed. At home with his kids (who, unlike so many children of the city’s cultural and financial elite, actually attend mainstream public schools), he found himself trying to help them through their last-minute review for the state math test and getting more and more upset. Taking to Twitter, he started venting his frustrations about the questions they were being given and the horribly anxiety it was unleashing in everyone. Since this week was math testing, he started posting some of the most egregious (to his eye) questions: obscure “number sentences,” confusingly phrased instructions, esoteric terms and techniques. His kids had been reduced to tears. Their love for math had been sapped. They have great teachers, he was quick to point out, but the whole experience of school has “changed in recent years. It's all about these tests. It feels like a dark time.”
We’ve talked before about parent protest movements against testing under the Common Core. Then, as now, it seems that the problem -- and this is at the heart of Louis’s anguish -- isn’t the standards, it’s the metrics. The Common Core Standards, in and of themselves, have much to recommend them. It's the big businesses of testing and curricula development, often inextricably linked, that are the problems. The curricula that have been designed around the test, and companies like Pearson who profit from the whole industry are pointing us in the wrong direction. The culture of testing and its Death Star-like presence in the lives of our students is squelching the exuberance of so many students. The vexation we feel in seeing questions like this, in which 3rd grade students have to express data in a pictograph and reflect on the pictographic methodology, isn’t that data analysis is too hard in itself. It’s that the question, the test, makes the medium of expression the issue, when it should be the concepts.
In many ways, standardized tests (and especially these Pearson-designed tests) are the ultimate expression of the backwardness we’ve been writing about recently when it comes to math instruction (and teaching in general). Testing perpetuates the disintegrative and hierarchized madness of most contemporary curricula and then adds to it a rigid set of question types, tricks, and techniques. Student can’t help but feel alienated from the content. No matter how good some sections of the Common Core standards may be, as content, they simply can’t function optimally under the regime of Common Core testing.
Louis C.K. is not alone in his frustration -- or even outrage. Patricia Marx, writing the New Yorker, reminds us that schools all over the city and across demographic lines are feeling restive. With the war between teachers and the mayor’s office that we saw under Bloomberg quieting down, we hope that the new administration and the DoE will finally hear them and speak out for our students.