"Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one’s lifetime."
— Mark Twain
It was one of those serendipitous discoveries that only really creative people, like my wife, can come across. Or it would have been, if the educational establishment hadn’t fouled it all up.
It was a killer online deal that would have allowed my wife and our then-fourth-grade son to get a room on a big ocean liner for what they call a repositioning cruise. That’s when a ship that has spent the last few months lazily circling the Caribbean crosses the Atlantic in order to spend the next few months lazily circling the Mediterranean. They would have wound up in Venice for several days before flying home to Upstate New York.
Except, as it turned out, the only week that deal was available was the same week that all New York elementary schools were giving their standardized achievement tests.
The teacher said she could not forbid our son to skip those tests, but she really, really hoped he would be there. It was a small class in a small school. Any absences could count against the school. And our son was good enough at the standardized test game that he would, probably, help the class average.
So they didn’t go.
We have regretted it ever since. Not only had we violated my father’s dictum — never let school get in the way of your education — we also found out that one of our son’s classmates had missed the tests because he and his mother had gone to Egypt.
Reminded me of the time I had written some really stinging editorials criticizing the school board in another town where we lived because it had forbidden the high school band from going to perform at the Summer Olympics in Sydney, Australia. Because they’d miss too much school.
My, and the band director’s, impassioned argument that the band members missed a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for the most educational experience there is, travel, in order to spend a few more days in the same old seats fell on completely deaf ears.
So, my message to all those Utah parents considering opting their children out of the state’s new SAGE computer-adaptive assessment tests is this: If that’s the day you and your child have a unique chance to go to Venice, or Egypt, or Sydney, or Paris, or Brazil, then by all means skip the silly test and go.
If not, just admit that nobody in your house really has anything better to do that day and help out your poor overworked teachers and your poor underfunded school by sending your kids to take the test. It won’t save the world, but the idea that it would be harmful in any way, to anybody, is groundless.
Yes, SAGE tests, and the Common Core Curriculum they are tied to, are the fad du joir in American education. They had things like that when you were in school. They will have things like that when your great-great-grandchildren receive their elementary school education through the microchip implanted at birth in their cerebral cortexes.
American schools give too many tests and spend too much time teaching test-taking skills over real critical thinking and research abilities. But some evaluation of how our students are doing — individually, collectively and by racial, economic and other cohorts — is necessary.
No bank or government agency could function if it were being audited every day. But they have to be reviewed sometimes.
The vast majority of the questions in the testing bank were written by Utah educators. They were reviewed by a committee of parents who sought, and failed to find, any of those sneaky questions that command your children to deny the divinity of Christ or question the moral impregnability of capitalism.
Let your kids take the test. Ask them about it afterward. If the experience freaks them out — or strikes them as a total waste of time — that’s worth knowing. The only way the tests will get better is to roll them out and give the test-writers some informed feedback.
If nothing else, your kids will have learned a very important lesson: Don’t criticize something until you’ve tried it.
George Pyle, a Tribune editorial writer, tested well in first grade and coasted through the rest of his formal education.
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