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Monday, Jun 16, 2014

This is not a test of the Emergency Broadcast System

This is an actual emergency—is this thing on?

By Aaryn Belfer
BW 6-18-14

As of this moment, most schools in the San Diego Unified School District (SDUSD) have let out for the summer, and kids all around the city are settling into routines—camps for the haves, video games for the have-nots. Hooray for the level playing field.

Those of us on the year-round schedule, however, still have five insufferable weeks left. And let me say here, I'm just as burned out as my friends whose kids are frolicking on the beach today. My husband, daughter and I are limping—no, we are thrashing our way like partial-limbed, flesh-dripping zombies—to the finish line of third grade, a less-than-fantastic experience for any of us. 

This year was a tough one for many reasons. To name just a smattering: Our kid struggled in math, and despite repeated requests for help and intervention, we were brushed off; there's been one class party and zero field trips—though, due to parent complaints (?), a trip to a museum has been slipped in at the last minute; my kid and her classmates were the beneficiaries of a grand total of six incongruous and uninspiring "art" classes taught by abominable visiting educators somehow approved by the district's pathetic Visual and Performing Arts program; and there was a racial slur directed toward my child by an SDUSD substitute teacher, something we are still in the process of addressing.

My child, Ruby, who used to skip to school every morning and bounce home in the afternoons, has become more intimately familiar with gravity, shuffling her feet both ways now with her head hung and face long. Her innate enthusiasm has been slowly ground right out of her, and I have watched it happen. 

But the year isn't over; there must be opportunities for reigniting her curiosity, no?

As a matter of fact, during the second week of May, parents received a letter that all third-through-eighth graders would be (drumroll) taking the still-in-development "Smarter Balanced Assessment Field Test" at the end of the month. Such a snappy PR name. It just sounds like there should be apples and crossbows involved somehow. 

The notice reassured parents not to sweat it, that the test was "not going to count" and "that the school won't receive scores." It was being done to, you know, work out the kinks and see how it goes, presented as an opportunity for kids to take this untested test on laptop computers (cool, right?!?) that the kids haven't used all year. Whether the test counted or not, most third graders don't have the keyboard skills necessary to be successful. Like lots of schools in SDUSD, the kids at Ruby's school rarely have a computer to work on, so while I'm aware that ours certainly isn't the worst school in the district, inequities abound.

Of course, we opt out of testing, and this testing-to-test-the-test farce was no exception. Since the school couldn't tell me how it intended to occupy Ruby during the test-of-the-test time, I made plans to hang out with my girl (word to The Waffle Spot) during the three two-hour sessions of state / district / school-sanctioned child abuse. 

Or free labor, as a group of sixth graders at Ipswich Middle School in Massachusetts view it. They drafted a petition asking U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan to pay them for their time spent testing the untested math test ( writers argue they should have sued). Their reason—and I agree with them—is that they lost a week of instruction time to validate a product from which at least one organization is going to make a lot of money. So, why not pay them minimum wage?

Worthy of mention is that, according to Zillow, Ipswich Middle is 92 percent white with only 9 percent of students qualifying for free or reduced-price lunch, and it boasts an enviable student to teacher ratio of 14 to 1. These are privileged students of a certain socioeconomic class, the ones for whom these tests are really designed. If only students in schools with far different demographics and class sizes were empowered to protest in this manner.  

Which brings me back to my kid's school, which is focused on practicing tests, not on lessons of civic engagement or social activism. 

Like Ipswich Middle, Ruby's practice test required practice, so instructional time was ditched in lieu of test prep for certain blocks of time each day during the course of at least one week. Such teaching to the test is something Barack Obama claims to revile, even as it's central to his dismal education policy. There isn't any opting out of test practice.

Beyond this, parents received another notice cheerfully telling us to log on to a website and have our kids—wait for it!—take practice tests at home. And, finally, because you have to have precisely the right environment for testing, the school went into what I call "Prison Mode": For the entire three weeks of practice-test administration, no parent volunteers or visitors were permitted on campus.  

As my friend Justin would say, "WAYal." As I would say (and did) as I swallowed a Xanax with a very dirty, very dry martini, "Bottoms up." 

"Disaster" is the test-of-the-test descriptor I heard used by varying teacher sources, none of whom dare go on the record for fear of retribution. Which makes me wonder, if they're so afraid with all of their supposedly extravagant union protections, what will the environment be like after the Vergara ruling goes into full effect?

Things in education are dire, my friends. I'm throwing up a flare like a firework. Is it summer yet? We are all really ready for summer.

Email Aaryn Belfer. Aaryn blogs at and you can follow her on Twitter @aarynb.