In this book, In Schools We Trust, Deborah Meier disses the "high-stakes" testing regime that's taking over our nation's schools. Testing won't save us, Meier argues. In place of killer tests and today's hermetically-sealed youth culture, kids need sustained engagement with adults they can respect and trust. They need small, self-governing, innovative public schools. Meier's impassioned arguments deserve our consideration. She's earned it.

Forty years ago, Meier started teaching in stressed-out Southside Chicago. To her surprise, she hung in. Jewish and left-leaning, Meier was ready for the educational reform movement that arrived in the '70s. In that decade, she got to design a small, autonomous public elementary school in Harlem. A lottery picked her students.

In Meier's school, everyone knew everyone else. Together, the school community hammered out its own fixes for problems, whether pedagogical or "street." Results were spectacular, even by brute measures like attendance and retention. One bureaucrat tried to put Meier out of business by siccing a team of "performance" experts on her school. But these testers morphed into Meier supporters.

Her success was no fluke. Meier later founded other successful schools, including high schools. In The Power of Their Ideas (1995), Meier showed how her vision plays out at Central Park East, her flagship Harlem high school.

Students are encouraged to adopt five "habits of mind" that are posted all over the school. Faced with any phenomenon, students ask "How do we know what we know?" (the "evidence" question); "Who's speaking?" (the "viewpoint" question); "What causes what?" (the "search for connections and patterns"); "How might things have been different?"; and, finally, ""Who cares?" (the test of relevance). As Meier acknowledges, critical thinking can be a stretch for lawyers and scientists, let alone for "at-risk" high school students.

But Central Park East delivers. Graduates go on to four-year schools, including high-powered ones. In the '90s, her success made Meier the toast of a revived educational reform movement. She received a MacArthur grant, plus $50 million from the Annenberg Foundation for a plan to remake a major urban public school system. But for now, this project remains on hold. In Schools We Trust, Meier's latest book, explains why.

By Deborah Meier
Beacon Press, 2002, $23
ISBN: 0807031429

Part of the problem (a bigger part than Meier acknowledges) is institutional. Meier insists that there's "nothing special" about her teachers. But her books belie this claim. Unconventional thinking is unpopular in bureaucracies, educational ones included. It wouldn't be easy to clone Meier's teachers: live-wire idealists who endure the million hassles required to chase Meier's dream.

But Meier's real problem is her basic values. Her Annenberg project disappeared under the tsunami of testing that now passes for school reform. Patiently, Meier dismantles the fantasy what our schools need is make-or-break tests, plus punishments for schools that don't make the grade.

To begin with, all such tests have problems with "validity" and "reliability." Instead of determining your reading "level," such a test will situate you within a wide range of possible reading levels. Take the test on a bad day and your score goes in the tank. Furthermore, notoriously, test-takers get a bonus if they're attuned to the culture of the test-makers. If you're the kind of person who leaves National Public Radio on all day, you can probably score pretty well on a multiple-choice reading test without bothering to read the selections.

Furthermore, reading at "grade level" means something bone-simple: scoring in the middle of the current spectrum, whatever that may be, of student scores. And that's all it means. Thus "grade level" is a moving target: if student scores start inching up, so does the score required to read at grade level. Half of all student scores, every time, will be "below grade level," by definition. To preserve this ideal bell-shaped curve, test-makers include trick questions, known as "distracters." Politicians who want every student to read "at grade level" don't know what they're saying.

State-written achievement tests are no better. State officials often talk tough, but then fiddle with passing scores to achieve whatever result they want. And such tests take their toll. The official Texas state drop-out rate (1.3 percent), like government "body counts" during the Vietnam War, is highly suspect. It's an open secret that school authorities juice this number by various means, including pushing many students out--into dodgy G.E.D. programs or counting as "transfers" drop-outs who really end up on the street.

Such testing speeds the Brazilianization of U.S. society. For rich schools, testing is minor irritant. Their screwballs and strivers can buy courses in how to "game" tests. Meanwhile, poor schools, under the gun, switch over to scripted teaching and rote learning. Some test proponents openly hope these schools will go under. If they do, poor kids will be indoctrinated for their role in life by corporate-run or religious schools-- subsidized by taxpayers' dollars. That's what Bush-era educational "reform" means.

Deborah Meier remembers that another world is possible. So should we. •

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