25 April 2012

May the odds be ever in your favor

This week marks the beginning of my personal favorite time of the year; testing. I, like some the vast majority of teachers, am going through two weeks of special schedules and reading instructions out of books. This week also marks the end of The Hunger Games' four week run as the most popular movie in America. You're hopefully wondering what these two things have in common. Well, dear readers, wonder no longer, because I'm about to draw a long and convoluted analogy between the imagined dystopia of Panem and the very real dystopia of testing in America.

(editor's note: This is probably a good time to mention that if you haven't read all three books in the Hunger Games trilogy, this post will have some significant spoilers. Also, get off the internet and start reading those books. They aren't like Twilight. They're actually engaging and good.)

Imagine, if you will, the scene unfolding as the Tributes are selected for the Hunger Games. Effie s standing on the stage, in front of the assembled people of District 12. However, instead of simply drawing one boy and one girl's names from the many names, she keeps drawing names. In fact, she keeps drawing names out the globe until she has drawn the name of every single child. That is testing today in American schools. The only people not available to be tributes are those whose parents keep them home or opt them out of testing. The stakes aren't quite as high (instead of fighting to the death in a custom world they are fighting boredom in a sterile classroom), but I think that, in this case, popular young adult fiction can help us to illuminate the very real world of high-stakes testing. 

The Hunger Games are State Tests

Let's start at the top, shall we? For what reasons do the Hunger Games exist in Suzanne Collins' uber-successful novels? They exist to remind the people of Panem that they are still under the rule of the Capitol, and that they must sacrifice themselves for greater good. In our elaborate and all-too-long analogy, the tests that students are subjected to are the Hunger Games. Schools that do well are rewarded with awards and assemblies. Plus, as an added bonus, they get to keep their meager allotment of government funds (just as the victors in the arena received accolades, and their districts some extra food).

The tests serve to remind those average people, teachers, (and their unions, which I've attacked before) who is really in charge - the state. Just as the poor districts must be reminded that the Capitol is still in charge, teachers must be reminded that the state is still in charge (and by extension, the voters. Or corporations that use organizations like ALEC to write legislation. You know, whichever you choose). Schools are forced into giving tests because they rely on the state for funding, and the state threatens to remove that funding if the schools don't give the tests. 

But the Capitol doesn't roll out the same Game every year; if they did, tributes would know exactly how to prepare, and that would mean that they would improve. So the Capitol pays a man known as the Gamemaker to create new and exciting ways to challenge the tributes as they fight to the death. In The Hunger Games, this is a man named Seneca Crane. Crane is a true believer in the Game. He wants to put on the best show possible. Seneca Crane in real life is a bevy of reformers led by Michelle Rhee. The BlazeBlog has profiled Ms. Rhee before, and it wasn't exactly glowing. She is the front for testing and "accountability." She wants to move toward more charter and private schools. You might be wondering why I made her The Gamemaker and not the much-more-insidious President Snow. I made that decision because just like Seneca, Ms. Rhee isn't in charge. She's working for someone. 

In the novels, the Gamemaker's boss is the much-maligned and previously mentioned President Snow. He pulls the strings and manipulates the people of Panem. He works behind the scenes to make sure that he will be able to stay in power. In U.S. education today, there is a force just as underhanded and unlikeable as President Snow, albeit much less visible; the major testing corporations. The four major corporations, Pearson, Harcourt, Riverside, and CTB (who also happen to be major players in textbook publication), are estimated to make between $400 million and $700 million annually from administering tests to help the states comply with No Child Left Behind. They have a vested interest in making sure more and more students take more and more tests. So, you can believe that they have heavy interests in lobbying. Yeah, you read that link right; Pearson alone spent more than a million dollars lobbying last year. It really is as clever as wearing a rose to disguise the scent of death on your breath; they take money from the states, then use some of that money to bribe lobby the politicians who then mandate more testing. Genius; really, really evil genius. Was that link gratuitous? Yup, just like most testing. (Zing!)   

But what represents the evil that President Snow serves to lead, the wealth and privilege of the Capitol? Why, dear readers, that's clear to me. No Child Left Behind is the driving force behind this, just as the Capitol is the driving force behind the Hunger Games. And just as the Capitol isn't forced to send any tributes to the arena, the writers of NCLB were never subjected to its onerous mandates for testing.

This whole terrible show (killing children for amusement, not testing) has to be sold to the people of Panem. How can it be done? With a slick talk show host, of course. In the books he is Caesar Flickerman; charming, debonaire, and witty- he is the perfect foil for the inherent evil in making young people commit murder. Who fulfills that role here in America? Why, the Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan. He sells America on these ideas, even on talk shows. Coincidence? Probably, if I'm being honest.

OK, so we've got the broad analogy out of the way. Shall we delve further into this admittedly stretched comparison? Why not, lets go all English major and see if we can't really get to comparing!

The Participants in the Hunger Games are Students

There are two types of tributes in the Hunger Games; tributes and "careers". The tributes are selected at random to be sent to the arena, without special training or other advantages. The careers, on the other hand, come from districts with more resources and have spent their entire adolescence training to complete in the arena. Obviously, the careers win the vast majority of the annual contests. It is rare and noteworthy when someone from outside the career clique wins.

And so it is with testing. Some schools have enormous advantages. They are in wealthy areas, perhaps. They have large percentages of parents who have college degrees. Their schools are in communities that traditionally value education. In short, their students have great advantages. On the other hand, the majority of schools in America don't have those vast advantages. They are trying to educate students. But they're also dealing with larger problems. Slashed funding. Increasing class size. Kids who come from broken homes. Kids who come to them homeless. And yet, just like in the arena, all of these kids compete directly against one another.

In the Hunger Games, the tributes have people to help them prepare. They have mentors and stylists. In the case of District 12, it is a drunk named Haymitch serving as mentor and Cinna as the stylist. These two men do the best they can to help their charges survive, but they are working with limited advantages, namely the natural abilities of Katniss and Peeta. In our world, the stylists and mentors are the most important people in the room not taking the test; the teachers. Just like Haymitch and Cinna, teachers are making the best product they can with the resources and tools they have. And just as Katniss, especially, resists any change, many students resist change. And just like Haymitch and Cinna, teachers in the end send their charges out as prepared as they can be, but it is up to those children to perform.

(This is admittedly where the comparison starts to fall apart. You see, in the books, Haymitch and Cinna aren't punished (or haven't been punished in the past) when their tributes fail to be victorious. In education, teacher of students who don't comport themselves well are ostracized, criticized, and in extreme cases terminated. However, just like a good English major, I'm going to ignore this small detail and keep on trucking!) 

If you've read all three books, you know that rebellion is coming, aided by former insiders turned rebels.  "How will they fit into this comparison?" you're asking. Well, I'm glad you asked, because here it is:

Bad test questions are Mutts and will cause the rebellion which dismantles NCLB

In The Hunger Games there are creatures designed by the Capitol to help them keep track of their "citizens" and to attack the participants in the arena. They have been intentionally mutated from their original forms, and the outlying citizens call them "mutts". When we look at testing, all we see are mutts, because the tests are made up of them. That's right, the thing that started out natural and good, which is now used to keep the people in check: the questions.

Sure, questions are a natural part of the testing process, but teachers and students have become slaves to the questions. We spend an inordinate amount of time teaching not the material that will be covered, but test taking strategies. We talk about how to eliminate wrong answers. We look at every available released question. On top of that, with the massive boom in the number of tests, the publishing companies have taken to writing questions best described as "mutated". If you haven't clicked that link, it's important that you do so. For my argument and for a good laugh.

And just as the Mockingjay was a mutt that became a symbol for the revolution, so the pineapple may become a symbol of a growing rebellion against testing. You see, as more and more of these epically ridiculous questions become public knowledge, more and more parents will see that these tests aren't actually testing the things they claim to be testing. They might not take up arms against the Department of Education, but they will opt their students out of the tests, which is a small act of rebellion that could have lasting impacts, just like Katniss showing up as the Mockingjay.

In the novels, the rebellion is aided by a Gamemaker who has seen the error of the Capitol and works to fight to bring it down. Thankfully we have a Plutarch Heavenbee in America, a person who helped to create the hated game NCLB who now spends a life trying to undo it's damage. Our hero (or heroine) is Dianne Ravitch. Ms. Ravitch helped to write No Child Left Behind, but has now emerged as a leading critic of the law. 

That, friends (and enemies who read my blog out of spite), is the good news. Just as the rebellion rose up, crushed the Capitol and ended the Hunger Games, American education is poised to do the same. Certainly, there will be lasting damage from our ongoing experiment with testing, but in the end we will probably see the error of our ways and fix the system. 

However, until we do, I'd like to propose a change to those standardized directions I've spent the last week reading. Instead of "you may begin" I think I'd rather use "may the odds be ever in your favor". Has a nice ring to it, don't you think?