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A Tale About a Test

More Questions Than Answers

Marilyn Dolmage, Building Inclusive Schools Project Co-ordinator, wrote the following story at Christmas, 1998. She sent it to Andrea, Laura, Daniel, Lyndsay and Leah Blekkenhorst - as a tribute to the insight and courage of their mother Susan. Susan has been a very hard-working and dedicated Resource Team member with the Project, assisting families and schools across north-western Ontario since 1995. She is also Vice President of the Lakehead Association for Community Living, and organized a successful Inclusive Education Conference in 1997, for professional development with both school boards in the Lakehead area. Susan researched the harmful effects and misuses of provincial testing, and resisted - by removing her 2 children from the Grade 3 tests in May 1998, writing about her concerns and speaking up about the benefits of co-operative, inclusive, student-focused learning. Marilyn wanted Susan's children to know what their mother has done to inspire other parents and teachers.

Once upon a time, there was a new Ruler who came to power in the land. He had made many plans to change the land, and had promised his friends that these plans would bring them great wealth and good fortune.

The Ruler was angry that so much tax money had been spent to help people who were hungry and sick, and to teach all the children in the schools. He wanted to take that money and give it to his friends, who were tired of paying taxes to help others. So he told everyone that poor people, hospitals and schools were wasting tax money, and needed to change.

The Ruler took over control of all of the schools. Because he could change all the rules, he told the people their schools would get better if they didn't spend so much money. Being a Ruler, one thing he decided was that all of the children in schools should sit in straight rows! They must no longer get out of their desks, and must not have fun while learning. They must not help each other in class, but must compete to find out who was the smartest. The Ruler wanted to make sure his students were the best in the world. Average was not good enough. He wanted them to learn much faster, wanted their teachers to fill them with facts and skills very quickly.

Being a Ruler, he decided he would measure all of the students! He wanted to check how full of information they were. His faithful advisors worried that it would be too difficult to measure all the children in the land. They thought of a trick - to ask just the Grade 3 students a lot of questions for a week or two, every Spring. The Ruler would judge how good each school was by how well the few students in Grade 3 that year did on the test, every year, and those results would be printed in every newspaper in the land. The children must not talk to each other about their answers; they were forbidden to ask their teachers for help.

The Grade 3 teachers started to worry about the tests. If their students got low marks, the whole school would be disgraced; the teachers worried that they would lose their jobs. Parents might not want their children to go to a school whose grade 3 class got low test scores. No one would want to live in that neighbourhood! The teachers made sure that students they thought could not do well on the tests were sent away. To discover your students were just average would be shameful. But what glory would come to schools where students got high marks!

But some of the teachers knew that some of their students were good at art, or music, or dance and could learn well, even though they were not good at reading questions and writing down answers. Some thought students learned best by helping one another. No one used to think tests like this were so important. But they were afraid to say anything about the Ruler's new tests. He might think they were just worried about their jobs if their students did badly.

At the same time, in the land of the Ruler, there was a busy Mother. She lived in the countryside, where her 5 children attended school. She loved her children very much; they were all very beautiful - especially because they were all very different. This Mother was not a teacher, but she visited her children's schools, asked them about what they were learning and found out all she could about education. The children may have wondered why she spent so much time on the phone, attending meetings, reading and communicating using her computer, helping students, other parents and teachers. The more this Mother learned, the more she realized there was to learn. She didn't know all the answers; instead, she kept thinking of more questions.

So when the Ruler said he had the new test to check whether his Grade 3 students knew all the right answers, she became very puzzled. What if there was more than one correct answer? Why couldn't the students answer the questions together? Why were they spending 1 or 2 whole weeks on the tests? How much did all the tests cost? Why didn't they spend the money on textbooks and computers instead? Why was all the pressure being put on the Grade 3 children? Why would you compare schools just by looking at certain test scores of small groups of 8 and 9 year olds? How could you really compare schools anyway? How would this help? Wouldn't the teachers just start teaching kids less about the world and each other, and more about how to answer this test? The Mother didn't like sending the students away who were not expected to do well on the test; that didn't seem right. She knew all of her children learned differently, but thought that was all right, not wrong. She wanted them to have teachers who didn't care how fast they were, who could help them learn from each other. She wanted her children to feel proud of who they were, and not compare themselves to others. She wanted their world to be peaceful and co-operative, not a place where only the strongest could survive. She asked the teachers her questions, but they had no answers.

Then she asked the biggest question of all. "What if I don't let my children take the test?" The teachers and the principal opened their mouths wide, and gasped in shock. They were getting used to the idea of the right kind of answers and were very nervous about the wrong kind of questions. The Mother happened to have Twins - a Girl and a Boy - in Grade 3 that Spring. Their school was small and didn't have very many Grade 3 students. This Girl and this Boy - the Twins - were very good at answering questions, at remembering things, at reading and writing. The high test results they were likely to get would bring the school's score up, and prove that the teachers were doing a good job. Without them, the school would look bad, when the results were printed in the newspaper. Without this Boy and this Girl, the teachers worried about their jobs. If they did not have students like the Twins, the Ruler would think they were not good teachers. The Mother said "Aha! That was exactly what I was afraid of!"

It was then that the Mother knew how strong she really was - strong enough to say "NO!" to the test. Strong enough to challenge the Ruler. Strong enough to speak up to everyone across the land. Everyone else can give the advice "Just say 'NO!'" but they may be afraid to do it themselves. Everyone else was weakened by "peer pressure": the principal wanted his school to do as well as or better than others; the grade 3 teacher thought the other teachers would be mad at him; even some of the Grade 3 students made fun of the Boy and the Girl. But just one person - daring to say "NO!" - stopped everything. Just taking two children out of the test destroyed the usefulness of their school's test results. This showed how foolish it was for anyone to compare schools, or teachers, or students - using this test. Everyone who said "YES!" to the silly test looked foolish too. Some people still defended the test, because they were afraid of the Ruler. But many parents and teachers admired the Mother's courage. It inspired a whole community - far away across the land - to say "NO!" to the test too. People who had been silent now more bravely spoke up.

And so, the test lost its power upon the people. The Ruler was still in charge of the schools - but only for a little while longer, because more and more people realized he didn't know much about education and couldn't be trusted with their future. The teachers started to welcome questions from the students and their parents. People started to co-operate, instead of compete with one another. The Mother and her 5 beautiful children lived happily ever after - still challenging each other and everyone they met, by asking questions.


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