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Our damaging emphasis on testing

Hypernormalized school testing hurts students’ social and emotional growth.

State Education Commissioner MaryEllen Elia, left, and State

State Education Commissioner MaryEllen Elia, left, and State Board of Regents Chancellor Betty A. Rosa discuss the shortening of controversial state tests in Albany earlier this month. Photo Credit: Hans Pennink

The term hypernormalization is widely credited to Alexei Yurchak’s book, “Everything Was Forever, Until It Was No More: The Last Soviet Generation.”

In his 2006 work, the University of California anthropologist argues that in the waning days of Russia’s communism, “Everyone knew the system was failing, but as no one could imagine any alternative to the status quo, politicians and citizens were resigned to maintaining a pretense of a functioning society. Over time, this delusion became a self-fulfilling prophecy and the ‘fakeness’ was accepted by everyone as real.”

Hence, an effect Yurchak dubbed hypernormalization.

British filmmaker Adam Curtis took the concept beyond the Soviet reference in last year’s award-nominated documentary “HyperNormalisation.” The film details how governments, financiers and technological gurus have given up on the complex “real world” and built a “fake world” run by corporations and kept stable by politicians.

Sound familiar? This is precisely what is taking place in the United States today — most notably in public education.

The hypernormalization of public education has been creeping into our schools, becoming the official party line with a federal mandate of testing our children to death with the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001. This legislation required that students in grades three through eight be tested every year in English Language Arts and mathematics. The later incarnations of the law have only upped the testing ante by making high test scores such a priority that a school’s existence might well depend on making the mark.

This means that what most of us consider “normal” is no longer normal. School days filled with reading, writing, math, science, social studies, playing outside, working out problems with friends, art, music and taking an occasional trip are no longer normal. If we compared our public school experience from 25 years ago with the “new normal,” we witness children losing the ability to play in the classroom (when true learning takes place), the significant decline of recess and the loss of social and emotional experiences that benefit all children. This new normal is teach less and test more. And because of the high stakes attached to the tests, schools are forced to focus on academic outcomes at the expense of a child’s social and emotional growth. Under this hypernormalized model, teachers now rank and sort children based on a proficiency model instead of how much growth each individual child might show.

So don’t celebrate too soon New York parents, educators and policy makers. Even though the Board of Regents recently trimmed the state’s third- through eighth-grade English Language Arts and mathematics tests from six days to four, the new normal hasn’t budged. As long as the stakes attached to the tests remain as high as they are, schools will remain driven by only two outcomes: ELA and mathematics state test scores, not enlightening the whole child to maximize his or her true talents.

I recognize that the obstacles in achieving a new healthy normal are huge, as our politicians at the state and federal levels, along with so-called reformers and business opportunists who have reaped financial profits from this system, continue to praise and fund a high-stakes, test-driven school model.

But make no mistake: This new normal, as research has shown, is taking an unacceptable toll on our children. Focusing on the whole child, regardless of scores, is what desperately needs to become our newer normal.

Michael J. Hynes is the superintendent of Patchogue- Medford schools.

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