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Learning at its Best

A Heretic During Holy Week

We enter into the Holy Week of Standardized Testing.   Gathering around for the initial ritual, the teachers pay close attention to every new commandment spelled out by the high priests of capitol hill, the Mount Sinai of education policy.  Are we in compliance?  Are we following the rituals?  Do we know the hellish wrath that will come upon our school if we screw up?

I strip my walls.  They’re naked.  Stark naked.  Not innocent naked.  No, they’re the duct tape over the mouth of a voice that can’t be heard.  Not on the Holy Week.   I prepare myself for the catechism of “fill in your answers heavy and dark,” as the students mindlessly respond, hoping to avoid the damnation of “approaches” or “falls far below.”  It’s a small act of dogmatic censorship, all in the name of faux fairness.

As we stare at the tidy Power Point full of rules and rituals and taboos, I silently question how many years I can go through the Holy Week as a test-taking atheist; someone who not only questions Data, but doesn’t believe in its inherent deity.

It’s the Cathedral of Data, with the stained-glass pie charts and I feel alone, depressed, broken by the system.  I’m not wearing a “Rock the Test” t-shirt.  I’m not singing in the choir of “do your best on the test.”  I’m bracing myself for the game of pretend, where I have to convince a group of students that I believe in the magic of the ritual.

Truth be told, I let them in on the secret.  I told my students that it’s a rigged system, worse than gambling or Chuck-E-Cheese.  I said that there were folks betting against them and making a great deal of money in the process.  I told them that it wasn’t a religion, so much as a legalized form of organized crime.

I told them that they could be Copernicus or Galileo, ruining a test-centric universe by proving to the world that the best test prep isn’t test prep, but in fact deeper thinking.   I don’t want to be excommunicated, but I don’t want to lose my soul, either.  So, I tell them that we’ll do well, not because we love the test, but because we hate it.  We want to stick it to McGraw Hill, who I see as the educational version of a televangelist promising God’s blessings if we’ll just try harder and pay up.

“Do you have any questions?” they ask.

I know better.

I stay silent.

But still, I have questions.  Unanswered questions.  Rhetorical, perhaps.  Yes, I have questions:

  • If we say we want differentiated instruction, why does every child take the same test in the same way?
  • If we say we want critical thinkers, why are the tests created at the lowest base knowledge level?
  • If we say we need multiple intelligences, why are the tests only in one modality?
  • If we say it’s important that students learn to ask questions, why do they spend the entire time filling out bubbles, answering other people’s questions?
  • If we say we need students who can make connections between multiple sources, subjects and topics, why are all the test questions separated by subject?
  • If we say that students need to articulate an answer in their own words, why are the tests based upon recall instead of synthesis of knowledge?
  • If we say we want creativity, why aren’t students actually creating anything?  Why aren’t they developing solutions and actually solving problems?
  • If we say we want students who can collaborate, why do they test in isolation? And why are we creating a system where knowledge cannot be shared?

Yeah, I have questions.  Not just about the test, but about a nation that holds eighth graders accountable for meaningless facts while the Wall Street execs who bankrupt our economy got off with a golden parachute.

I have questions.

John T. Spencer is a teacher in Phoenix, AZ who blogs at  He recently finished two books, Pencil Me In, an allegory for educational technology and Drawn Into Danger, a fictional memoir of a superhero.

About John Spencer

I teach. I write. I live. I want to do all three authentically.


11 thoughts on “A Heretic During Holy Week

  1. love this! you make so many valid points about the contradictions (glaring!!!) that proponents of testing seem to dodge over and over again!!!

    Posted by morna mcdermott | April 11, 2011, 10:46 am
  2. john, this is fabulous. thank you for the metaphor. in many schools i’m in right now, all real thinking has been shut down for Holy Week. Please god, just don’t think.


    Posted by Kirsten | April 11, 2011, 3:06 pm
  3. Beautiful post – and unfortunately, so true.

    Posted by Mary M | April 11, 2011, 7:41 pm
  4. I lived through such “unholy” weeks too many times before I left my public school classroom to study further and write (1998 to 2009, New York State). Wonderful metaphor. Teachers seem to be gathering, approaching critical mass in opposition. I will re-post this to keep stirring that pot. How many other metaphors can we work into this situation? LOL

    Posted by Carol Mikoda | April 13, 2011, 8:33 am
  5. John, thank you for the incisive and thoughtful questions about testing. They’re the ones that policymakers need to be asking, as well. I admire you for giving voice to what so many teachers must feel when they have to give standardized tests to students.

    Posted by Melia | April 13, 2011, 2:32 pm
  6. Funny, I came across this article just after reading an ad on Craigslist for “term paper writers” (read: cheaters for hire). I feel that all of this emphasis on *results* leads perfectly to cheating.

    Posted by Teri | April 18, 2011, 3:16 pm


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