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Testing is ruining our public schools, says the author

Beyond Measure: Rescuing an Overscheduled, Overtested, Underestimated Generation

By Vicki Abeles with Grace Rubenstein

Simon & Schuster

248 pages, $26

By Peter Simon

Excessive testing is sucking the intellectual life out of public school students and threatens to produce a generation of young people lacking depth, creativity and resourcefulness. Faced with narrow, high pressure, cookie-cutter instruction, students are overwhelmed and alienated, and– in many cases – suffering both physically and emotionally.

So writes Vicki Abeles.

Instead of well-rounded, curious students able to discover and pursue their strengths, the national school reform movement – combined with other demands and expectations – has become a recipe for anxiety, depression, sleep deprivation, eating disorders and even thoughts of suicide.

“We have a nightmare, a national testing obsession of monstrous proportions” according to Abeles. “From privileged enclaves to low-income communities, students, parents and educators across the country feel relentless pressure to compete, achieve and perform. Crowded out is time to genuinely learn, discover and grow.”

With passion and conviction, Abeles takes dead aim at the school accountability movement – built around the Common Core standards – that is the centerpiece of President Obama’s education strategy. That plan places heavy emphasis on English language arts and math instruction, relies on extensive testing to measure the effectiveness of individual schools and teachers, and is intended to provide a reliable way to compare educational outcomes from state-to-state.

Abeles, who has also produced two films blasting the reform movement, said it has forced resourceful and astute teachers to put those skills aside and instead, like robots, “teach to the test.” The narrow emphasis of the tests, she says, has also led to deep cuts in instruction in science, social studies, art, music, physical education and even time for recess and lunch.

“Teachers are tethered to a heavy bureaucracy, stacked all the way up from the principal’s office to the halls of Congress, which insists they cover more material each year than is humanly possible,” she said. “Then it tests the students on this and publicly praises or shames their schools on the results.”

In addition, many students are driven to tackle more than they can reasonably handle in order to make their college applications more attractive. Combining excessive homework with the demands of being on a sports team or taking lessons in dance or music, students are on “treadmill schedules” that prevent them from sharing family dinners, spending time with friends or simply resting.

“Chronic lack of sleep is practically an epidemic among American teens.” said Abeles, a former Wall Street lawyer. “How in the world did we reach a place where school and enrichment activities, of all things, could literally be making our children sick?”

She is hardly the first to sound those alarm bells. But to her credit, Abeles offers concrete suggestions to slowly and eventually end the damage.

Homework should be given only occasionally, and should involve personalized assignments that can’t be replicated in the classroom. Abeles also urges schools to grade students based on performance on real world projects rather than tests; be more flexible in classroom scheduling; keep elementary school students with the same teacher for two years, and halt the publication of honor rolls, class rankings and test scores.

The tone of the book is one of dire urgency, but Abeles finds a ray of hope in growing public and political questioning -- and even defiance -- of the Common Core approach.

“We are publicly calling competitive childhood what it is: a perversion of values, a sickness, a poison,” she said. “We have broken the barriers of awareness. There is still too much private suffering, denial, and shame. But now we know that we are not alone.”

Peter Simon is a former Buffalo News education reporter