A few weeks ago I was collecting data for a research project at an urban elementary school. The day I arrived was the first day after the students had completed taking the state’s required standardized tests. I did a double-take when I walked into the school and saw this:
Colored paper covered every bulletin board, alcove, display case, and poster, even in the hallways. This specific school looked like an elementary version of the work of Christo and Jeanne-Claude, but I don’t think that was the intent. I think the intent was the same as when I was in school and teachers would take a poster off the wall while we were taking a test if the poster had information on it that we were supposed to have memorized. Never mind the fact that in real life we all google historical facts, equations, and use spell check. The teachers took down the information that might pollute their assessment of what we knew. This school just took it to the extreme.
Although covering to this extreme may not be the norm in public schools across the country, I don’t think this practice is all that unusual. So what about covering? I walked out of the school that day with my mind racing about the concept of covering. What was being covered? And who decided to cover? and why? And when, if ever, would there be an un-covering?
I immediately recalled two religious stories about covering that I heard throughout my childhood. In one case, people covered themselves in shame. In another, women wore coverings as a sign of submission. Only then did I realize that these two ideas, shame and submission, are very related to the standardized testing happening to students in public schools across the United States.
I am ashamed. Ashamed that we have settled for assessing only the specific kinds of knowledge that are the easiest and cheapest to collect, and have tied school funding to students’ results. What is more shameful is that as a result of having tests tied to funding, high test scores appear to have replaced learning as the #1 priority of many schools. The replacement might seem subtle, but the implications have been huge for entire content areas, such as the arts, which do not appear on the test.
I also feel that schools have been bullied by governmental policies to submit. Without a visionary and charismatic leader, a group of involved and overly concerned parents, and/or teachers with enough energy leftover after school to start grassroots movements, these schools submit rather than resist.
To me, these covered walls communicate my deep sense of personal shame at schools’ (somewhat involuntary) submission to standardized testing. I left the school sad for the students, the teachers, and the community. I want to be about the business of un-covering. I’m just not sure exactly where to start.