Toxic testing?

The standardized testing juggernaut in our schools shows no signs of slowing down. Recent headlines announce that now even kindergarteners in some parts of the country are being required to bubble in answers so their skills can be assessed.

In a seemingly unrelated headline, the self-appointed Food Babe, blogger Vani Hari, petitioned Subway to remove the chemical azodicarbonamide, a dough conditioner, from its bread. They announced three days later that they would phase it out.

My suggestion: Let’s have the Food Babe see if she can find some azodicarbonamide in standardized testing. Maybe then elementary schools would finally be able to toss the endless pages of test prep to the trash bin where they belong.

The Subway petition actually struck me as over-the-top, although that’s in keeping with Food Babe’s style. She investigates the food industry extensively, but her reports have been decried by some observers as “fear mongering.” Her letter to Subway cited studies questioning potential health risks but grabbed attention by emphasizing that azodicarbonamide is also used in making yoga mats. “We want to really eat fresh, not yoga mat,” her petition declared.

How silly, I thought. Eat yoga mat? Regardless of whether or not this additive is harmful, surely she would reach a wider audience and gain more credibility if it weren’t so overly dramatic and alarmist. Every can of Play-Doh is labeled as containing wheat, but nobody thinks we need to remove wheat from bread because it’s in Play-Doh. And nobody thinks we’re eating Play-Doh when we eat wheat.

But within 24 hours 50,000 people had signed the petition, and Subway conceded (or seized an opportunity for good p.r. by agreeing to something they were already planning to do – your call.) The Food Babe declared victory.

So why don’t we put her to work figuring out what kind of mental yoga mat our young kids are consuming by spending hours upon hours preparing for these tests? It hasn’t worked that teachers have spoken out against them. Neither has it made a difference that parents loathe them. Perhaps if there were some chemical we know to be harmful – like red food dye or trans fat – involved we could rally support to just say no to multiple choice. I can see the headlines now: Students subjected to toxic testing, parents protest.

We know growing kids need healthy food for their bodies, but the trickle-down effect of this mandated testing robs them of another valuable resource for their minds: time. Time to learn at their own pace, to read when they’re ready, to delight in the joy of learning before the endless drumbeat of A, B, C or D drains the fun out of it all.

Is there anyone who thinks these legions of tests are making our kids smarter and better thinkers? Are any teachers pleased with these exacting standards to which they are required to tailor their instruction? Do any parents look at the page after page of multiple choice worksheets coming home in their kids’ folders as early as second grade and think it was a commendable use of their class time?

Surely so. Otherwise the reality of public education today wouldn’t be that excellent schools with excellent teachers are handed a myopic definition of education to which they’re expected to adhere and told that test scores will determine their success. Dedicated, caring teachers and school administrators today still succeed in preparing our children for the future – but it’s wholly in spite of standardized testing, not because of it. It’s because they are caring and dedicated that they find a way to teach our children regardless of these restrictions.

Calling Food Babe: Help us find the academic azodicarbonamide. Maybe an alarming trend needs an alarmist response after all.

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