The Public Square

Brenda Koenig on the use of a single score to grade school performance


My kids' favorite book these days is The Very Persistent Gappers of Frip, by George Saunders. In this strange and wonderful tale, a girl named Capable spends her days brushing tenacious burr-like creatures called gappers from her family's goats and dumping them into the sea, only to find them back again in the morning.

The persistence of the burrs, and their random focus on various families' flocks, pits neighbor against neighbor as they rush to point fingers at each other. In the end, although she has tried her best, Capable gives up, sells the goats and leads her neighbors towards a more rewarding career in fishing.

Perhaps I love this little fable so much because I have been brushing out my own burrs these last few years as I and other committed parents publicly challenge accountability reforms like NCLB. These reform movements, aimed at narrowing the achievement gap between the haves and have-nots, use a single test score to shape educational policy and enact punishment on schools whose scores don't measure up. Like in the story, the harder I brush, the more persistent these gappers.

I attend school board meetings embroiled in test score data. I listen to teachers defend their right to teach to the test as their only survival strategy. I hear administrators justify the squeezing out of social studies, science, PE, foreign language, recess, art and music in pursuit of test score success. I hear parents choosing schools based only on published test scores. Indeed, the blind reliance on and pursuit of a single, yet very fallible, test score drives every decision on every level in education today.

And even when decision-makers agree that this is not in the best interests of children, they are immobilized by the sheer momentum of the accountability movement. The movement's power point disciples over-populate school board and administration conferences and make it virtually impossible for decision-makers to come face to face with the more unsavory side of testing.

But in the end, all this hysteria surrounding test scores only causes distrust and fear, tearing communities apart and causing powerlessness and despair. Fingers are pointed, those who question are shunned, and sadly, students and teachers flee the system.

In the story, village dwellers spend piles of money to move their homes further and further away from the gappers, only to find that they have backed themselves into a swampy, gapper-infested mess. If only our children weren't involved, this whole thing might be funny.

Indeed, I am not laughing and neither are the children, who now spend more time than ever on test-prep worksheets instead of fun, engaging activities. As Capable discovered, perhaps the only thing to do is to break the cycle, drop the gapper brush, sell the goats, learn to do something different, and hope that others might follow.