December 6, 1999
Soccer Moms vs. Standardized Tests
By CHARLES J. SYKES
ILWAUKEE -- After decades of endless gold
stars, happy faces
and inflated grades,
apparently were not
ready for a reality
check about how much our schools
are really teaching our children.
Across the country, new, higher
academic standards that states
adopted in a spirit of educational
reform are being dumbed down, and
supposedly rigorous graduation
tests are being diluted or dropped, as
evidence mounts that too many students will fall short of the higher
It is not surprising that more rigorous state standards have come
under fire from the usual opposition
coalition of civil rights groups, progressive educators and teacher
unions. What is striking though, is
the opposition from soccer moms.
In Wisconsin, where legislators
backed off plans to require a high
school graduation test, most of the
opposition to the exam came not
from troubled urban schools, but
from affluent suburbs. A group calling itself Advocates for Education
and based in the Milwaukee suburb
of Whitefish Bay, insisted, "High-stakes testing will be detrimental to
education and unfair to children."
Suburban critics in many parts of
the state fretted about the pressure
that tests would place on children.
After suburban parents lobbied parent-teacher organizations, the State
Legislature voted to scrap the graduation test before a single student
had taken it.
In New York and Massachusetts,
officials yielded to pressure to set
absurdly low passing grades for
their new tests, while in Virginia and
Arizona, state boards of education
are already backing away from
tests that proved to be too tough for
even the so-called better schools. In
Virginia, only 7 percent of schools
met new achievement standards,
and in Arizona, 9 out of 10 sophomores failed a new math test.
For much of this century, the educational establishment has behaved
as if it were addicted to bad ideas,
indulging its own wishful and romantic thinking even in the face of
mounting evidence of failure. The
new tests were supposed to counteract the trendy experimentation, watered-down curriculums and questionable teaching methods by introducing both accountability and consequences for failure.
But for decades, the schools had
been allowed to obscure the fact that
many children were not mastering
basic subjects. The constant positive
reinforcement of unrealistic grading
and easy tests was meant not only
for the children, whose self-esteem
remained strong in the face of shaky
math and reading abilities, but for
their parents, as well.
For many of these parents, the
new tests were a very rude shock.
Accustomed to thinking of educational difficulties as somebody else's
problem, they and their school districts suddenly faced the possibility
As reformers have belatedly discovered, they badly underestimated
the extent to which parents as well
as teachers and bureaucrats had a
vested interest in believing that
whatever else might be wrong with
American education, their own children were above average. Support
for high standards came with an
unspoken caveat: they were quite all
right when they were applied to
someone else's school and someone
So instead of sounding an alarm
about the need to change the way we
teach our children, one state after
another is fudging the test. And a
remarkable number of parents have
gone along with the move to ratchet
down the standards, expectations
Reforming the schools sounded
like a good idea until it hit home.
Charles J. Sykes is the author of "Dumbing Down Our Kids."