December 6, 1999

Soccer Moms vs. Standardized Tests


MILWAUKEE -- After decades of endless gold stars, happy faces and inflated grades, American parents 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 expectations.

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 of failure.

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 else's child.

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 and consequences.

Reforming the schools sounded like a good idea until it hit home.

Charles J. Sykes is the author of "Dumbing Down Our Kids."

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