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Pencils Down: Rethinking High Stakes Testing and Accountability in Public Schools

reviewed by Boni Thompson - March 01, 2013

coverTitle: Pencils Down: Rethinking High Stakes Testing and Accountability in Public Schools
Author(s): Wayne Au & Melissa Bollow Tempel (eds.)
Publisher: Rethinking Schools, Milwaukee
ISBN: 094296151X, Pages: 360, Year: 2012
Search for book at Amazon.com

What a story! Pencils Down offers the reader an engrossing tale of what education has become in America in the 21st century.  And truly, if we ever get things sorted out, future generations will look back at this book as a classic tale of injustice. It is a story of good intentions gone terribly wrong, a tawdry tale of inequality, discrimination, inappropriate and misplaced ideology, mismanagement, and even cruelty. In the end, the editors save their readers from despair by leaving us with a light tasting of what might be done to save us, if we are smart enough to listen.  Whew! Thank goodness, you will murmur to yourself as you turn the final page, all is not yet lost!

Pencils Down is a Rethinking Schools publication. You dont need to be familiar with this organization to appreciate their efforts in this work.  Rethinking Schools is, according to their website, a small non-profit organization run mainly by volunteers who have high hopes and a strong commitment to public education in America. They publish a regular magazine and a variety of texts.  This book is their latest effort and I suggest they send copies to the homes of every State Governor in America. If even one of them picked up this book and took a look, we might begin to see a change in the trajectory of the adoption of progressively more standardized testing across the United States.

This book is a compendium, mostly of short, high-interest articles. The editors have done an admirable job of weaving a story using the work of a wide array of authors from the notable professor, Linda Darling-Hammond of Stanford, to Kindergarten teacher Kelly McMahon of a local public school in Milwaukee. In fact the diversity of experience that is reflected in the pieces is the prevailing strength of the book.  The whole is greater than the sum of its parts, in this case because each short article adds one more layer of injustice or incredulity or even, in some cases, pity. All together they produce a mountain of evidence that our current accountability frameworks have lost touch with reality and are floating off in some bureaucratic zone of mercenary self-interest, totally out of reach for mere human children and teachers.

The book is divided into six sections, each section containing several focused articles that shed light, often a disturbing light, on the prevailing topic.   The introduction, by the editors, Au and Tempel, provides an overview of the influence of testing and test-makers.  According to them it is an influence that cannot be overstated. We are in the midst of a war on public education, and high-stakes standardized tests are the enemies weapon of choice (p. 4).

Part 1, entitled Testing, Testing, 1, 2, 3&., excoriates the topic of standardized high-stakes testing, why it is not doing the job we thought it should or would, and how the implementation of high-stakes testing across the country works to keep the status quo alive and well.  All six of the articles in this section, including such titles as A child is not a test-score and Racism in the history of testing allude to the democratic purposes of schooling and show that standardized testing, as a high-stakes pattern of events, erodes the just and egalitarian intentions of public educators by allowing a seemingly never ending slew of testing regimens to take precedence and primacy over extended rich educational experiences, even simple ones such as the deep reading and exploration of a novel and its author.

Part 2, Testing kids, begins with a disturbing glance at a Kindergarten classroom wherein the teacher, God bless her, is required to complete a dizzying array of pre and post assessments on everything from early reading, a variety of strands of math, to science and health.  I was left wondering when she finds time to teach! The author is unequivocal in her assertion that some of these tests are completely unsuitable for young children and expect levels of reading fluency far beyond what is reasonable for a Kindergarten student.  Anyone who has ever stepped foot in a Kindergarten classroom will immediately be filled with righteous anger. No time for play or rest in that classroom and certainly no time for developing a love of school. The remaining articles in this section drive home the point that testing is often not age-appropriate, not suited for those students whose mother tongue is other than English, culturally biased, and wildly unrealistic.  What made my blood boil was reading Tempels account of computerized testing of 4 year-olds in their second week of school.  One of the literacy tests is 53 multiple-choice questions long&students end up in tears (p. 67).  Enough said.

Part 3, Testing teaching, shifts focus to the teacher. In this section we hear stories from the trenches. Because we have bought into the notion that testing helps kids learn, the only answer to doing poorly on a test is to test some more.  A vicious mean-spirited cycle (p.93).  We hear of tests that are poorly written, fraught with errors, asking questions that defy reason.  Is this not insane? (p. 92) quips teacher Gutowski after she gives an example of a truly ridiculous and confusing question her grade 4 students must attempt to decipher. We learn of the vast array of corporations that are vying for funds in the lucrative test-making, test-selling, test-marking market.  We learn of the narrowing of the curriculum for low performing students, their days taken up with test writing courses instead of art or music.  We learn of suicidal teachers who reach the breaking point after being publicly shamed by low test scores. We learn of scripted curriculum expected to be delivered directly from manuals without variation. We learn of national exit exams that will prevent the graduation of large numbers of students who have been working hard and succeeding despite tremendous odds. And finally, we learn of new teacher training programs where the clientele has a hard time imaging how to teach without tests!

Part 4, Testing the tests, takes a rational look at the world of test-makers, and test-graders.  A shocking world by all accounts, where all those hundreds of thousands of tests are marked by temporary workers, who have received little training and must work long hours, sometimes paid piecemeal, and never much more than minimum wage. Scorers often emerge from training more confused than when they started (p. 139). Even the videos they are asked to watch are full of errors.  Irony at its best! In this world, computers purport to mark writing, even though computers cant read, reading specialists in schools become testing supervisors, and mega corporations pitch expanded testing regimens seeking millions in federal grant money.

Part 5, Resisting and responding to high-stakes testing arrives just when we thought all was lost.  There is a resistance movement developing. In an effort to alleviate the high anxiety of students and the destruction of the public school system in America some people are taking a stand.  There are superintendents, teachers and principals who are publicly opting out, putting their jobs at risk. There are Facebook pages and national forums discussing opting out. There are other efforts to keep testing and its madness at bay by redoubling efforts to support students who must write the tests. There is the history of African-American educators who have resisted all along; their insights into the racist aspects of testing makes for grim reading.

Finally in part 6, Beyond high-stakes testing, we are offered views on what might replace standardized testing.  Here Darling-Hammond writes concisely of the Finnish system where teachers are considered professionals, students start school at a later age, spend less hours in school, never write a standardized test, and blow the competition out of the water world-wide when it comes to writing the international PISA test.  We are given another look at assessment, never underestimating its importance, but focusing on a wide array of possibilities where deep focused learning might replace the shallow education that testing has created and the flexibility of good assessment tools create a more democratic and holistic educational experience.

There now exist many excellent volumes by respected authors who provide clear theoretical and political frameworks for understanding the terrible plague of neo-liberal accountability, and high-stakes standardized testing that has been wrought upon us. A few that come to mind include Biesta (2010), Glass (2009),  Lipmann (2011),  Ravitch (2011),  Watkins (2011), and Willis (2008). However, even if you think you know all there is to know about this sad and surprising topic, you will be captivated by some of the articles in this collection. It is the human voice that reaches out, the stories that are told, that makes the volume so interesting to read. Concise, pertinent, and full of information they are nevertheless completely human, and therefore completely compelling.  


Biesta, G. (2010). Good education in an age of measurement: Ethics, politics, democracy. Boulder, Co: Paradigm Publishers.

Glass, G. (2008). Fertilizers, pills, and magnetic strips: The fate of public education in America.  North Carolina: Information Age Publishing.

Lipmann, P. (2011). The new political economy of urban education: Neoliberalism, race, and the right to the city.  New York: Routledge.

Ravitch, D. (2010). The death and life of the great American school system: How testing and choice are undermining education.  New York: Basic Books.

Watkins, W. (2011). The assault on public education: Confronting the politics of corporate school reform.  New York: Teachers College Press.

Willis, A. I. (2008). Reading comprehension research and testing in the U.S.: Undercurrents of race, class, and power in the struggle for meaning. New York: Lawrence Erlbaum.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: March 01, 2013
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 17035, Date Accessed: 10/23/2021 8:40:47 PM

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About the Author
  • Boni Thompson
    York University, Toronto
    E-mail Author
    BONI THOMPSON is an elementary teacher in Orangeville, Ontario and a recent PhD graduate from York University, Toronto. Her dissertation is entitled Goodness, promise and importance: Perspectives on cultivating democratic education in an age of accountability. She is currently engaged in several writing projects.
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