Testing Against Democracy

By Bill Bigelow

“Just shut up and do as you’re told.” That was the message Oregon education officials tried to send teachers after my article “Social Studies Tests From Hell” was published in the Dec. 6 Oregonian. According to Portland Public Schools officials, the day after the article appeared, then-Superintendent of Oregon schools Norma Paulus phoned the Portland superintendent demanding that I be fired. (He declined.)

The following week, Paulus read a letter to the State Board of Education calling for an investigation to determine who leaked the social studies field tests that had been piloted in the fall at selected schools throughout the state. Two questions from these tests — which had not been administered at Franklin High School where I teach — had appeared in my article.

In a not-so-veiled threat, Paulus emphasized that she was sending a copy of the letter to the Teacher Standards and Practices Commission.

“Mr. Bigelow has the right to express his concerns,” the state’s letter said, but it added that teachers do not have the right to publish or circulate any of the specific test items. Missing from the letter was advice on how teachers or anyone else could “express concerns” about something they were not even allowed to see. Evidently, the Department of Education permits us to criticize the idea of the tests, just not the tests themselves. And woe to the teacher who crossed that line. Without intending it, Oregon’s response highlighted a basic contradiction: high-stakes testing requires government-enforced secrecy; democracy requires unfettered discussion by knowledgeable participants.

The state’s bullying tactics backfired. I received well over 100 letters of support from every corner of the state — not only for what I wrote in the article, but for my right to say it. The Oregonian printed a number of excellent letters to the editor and several more supportive op-ed pieces. Our Portland Area Social Studies Content Team remains a vital center of discussion and activism. Just this week, we launched a statewide petition drive calling for a suspension of social studies tests scheduled to be administered to all 10th graders this spring. The drive is less than a week old, and faxed petitions are already coming in from places in Oregon I’ve never even heard of.

A flier titled “Stop the Bullies,” criticizing the Ohio Proficiency Tests, was recently distributed by parents at the state capitol. To those of us confronting the pushers of high-stakes tests it offers some simple wisdom: “We teach our children how to deal with bullies. This is a refresher course for adults who can also be bullied. Say No. Get a friend. Tell.”

— Bill Bigelow, Feb. 21, 1999