Photo – Reading (PA) School District

Last week, Ohio gubernatorial candidate Mike DeWine released a remarkable statement that said too much testing in school “interferes with a child’s ability to think creatively and problem solve.”

Huh? When he was a Member of Congress, wasn’t Mike DeWine one of the strongest proponents of the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) law that’s been the bane of educators for nearly two decades?

Steve Dyer, an attorney, and Education Policy Fellow at Innovation Ohio examined the previous positions of both DeWine and his running mate, Jon Husted, in the area of education policy. Dyer served in the legislature during the Strickland administration and was a key designer of the evidence-based school funding reform model. This team, Dyer reminds us, served for years as a Republican wrecking crew in the area of education policy and finance at both the national and state level:

I find it awfully interesting that one of the key architects of the law that created our high-stakes testing system now wants to de-emphasize tests (as opponents of NCLB have said for years).

I’m glad that these two men are now acknowledging that the last 17 years in which they have led Ohio and America down their education policy paths has essentially failed. But it sure seems like they’re saying, “I know we tried this before and screwed it up, but trust us, we won’t screw it up again.”

In light of his past role as a test and punish advocate, Ohio educators and parents were bemused when they read DeWine’s Education Plan. Here is a sample from that document:

Reduce standardized testing.
Standardized tests are limiting educator’s creativity and forcing them to teach to a test. This interferes with a child’s ability to think creatively and problem solve.

The DeWine-Husted Administration will reduce the number of tests that students are required to take, and will provide parents and teachers with more meaningful and timely results. Under Mike DeWine’s leadership, Ohio will put more emphasis on teaching and learning, and develop a school report card that parents can understand.

All of the talks about testing from DeWine and his Republican running mate reminded me of an experience in the spring of 2017. It started by answering an ad in the Sunday paper, where a testing company was recruiting people to score a state writing exam.

Since I previously worked with teachers to help improve student writing, the opportunity to serve as a scorer was a way to measure, six years after retirement, the current state of student writing and gauge the progress of young people as thinkers and as organizers of information. (Note 1: since confidentiality considerations are part of service as a test scorer, there will be no mention here of the scoring company, specific writing prompts used in the tests, the state whose writing was being processed, names of particular schools or students, or information that might be proprietary.)

As scorers work hard in carefully reading and evaluating student essays in making determinations as to whether the student was successful in responding to the writing prompt, it’s only natural that your mind occasionally drifts from the plentiful prose. Yes, after reading nearly a thousand writing samples in that period of time, you think about the young students who composed these pieces and the issues they face as you recall Paul Simon’s lyric in Kodachrome:

It’s a wonder
I can think at all
And though my lack of education
Hasn’t hurt me none
I can read the writing on the wall

Photo – Ann Arbor Public Schools

Except the writing is on a computer screen, and the assignment is to read the musings of seventh-graders as they are asked to perform on a state test. (Note 2: as per the previously mentioned agreement for scorers, I can’t identify the state, but let’s just say that the middle schoolers who were being assessed live in a state that’s located some distance south of the Ohio River.)

One student wrote this gem in responding to the writing prompt on his state’s exam. If only Mike DeWine could have read this jewel on his computer screen:

“I’m a 13 year old boy. So if there’s a robot reading this I’m screwed. Thus, I will douse my finger tips.”

Wow. At the very least, this student has a definite opinion about assigning robots to score writing tests, and maybe he has issues with the test, test, test environment in general.

If seventh-graders weren’t intimidated enough by robots scoring their exams, maybe some were afflicted in their homes by being doused with a liberal (snicker) dose of Fox News flammable invective, as this student response demonstrated.

“This could make students weak and would distract them from their learning. Plus, it would make liberals happy and no one would want that.”

(Note 3. No, um, these students were not from Southern California.)

While scoring these state student writing tests in the spring of 2017, at a time when Donald Trump was in office for just a few months, some other nuggets were found that indicated how middle school students were influenced in their thinking by his ever-present word choices:

“Fake parents.”

“What’s fake in theater?”

As a former middle school principal and as an administrator responsible for the operation of a school district scoring room, where personnel are trained to evaluate student writing, I have my favorite war stories about the very best – and worst – papers among thousands read. But now, where writing exams are completed on computers and sometimes even scored by those robots so dreaded by thirteen-year-old boys, new favorites await.

Testing is stressful not only for kids but also the adults in the room who have to score their work, sometimes in a boiler room environment. In the corporate model, where dozens of people sit in a large, quiet and secure room accessible only by swipe card and score as many as 8-10 tests per hour, there are moments when someone will burst out in uproarious laughter over what they’ve just read.

Like me.

I pled guilty for breaking the scoring room silence rule after reading this gem, where a student argued about the need for exercise, proper diet, and health. Go ahead and ignore all of this advice, the middle-schooler wrote about his friends, “If they want to be a potato couch.”

How would a computer, programmed to score student essays, react to that answer? Better yet, would the machine, surrounded by similar devices in a large, quiet and secure room, be able to burst out into laughter, as I did?

In an open letter dated September 7, 2018, to Ohio Superintendent of Public Instruction Paolo DeMaria, English teachers from Shaker Heights High School had this to say about testing and machine scoring:

In the nation’s unthinking rush to test, test, test, we have reached a new low: We are now expected to teach our students how to write for a machine to read…

Imagine for a moment how humiliating it is for students to hear that what they write will be read by a machine, not by a human. Can you think of anything as pointless? Would anybody be inspired to do their best work?

The message that we send students is this: Your inner self, the ground from which all writing springs, has no value, no relevance. We do not care about the content of your mind, only that you have the mental machinery to decipher and generate informational text.

Writing for a computer is antithetical to everything that led us to become educators.

As politicians like Mike DeWine now say that we must somehow de-emphasize the need for a testing-industrial complex, it is incredible to learn that the state education agency may be examining the need for machine scoring of writing tests.

Not only will this prove humiliating for millions of students to realize that they must soon learn about “how to write for a machine to read,” but it will also prove harmful to those thousands of elderly folks who, in a perverse way, look forward every year to completing a stint as writing scorers.

Mike DeWine, you’ve been wrong so many times, as you were with your earlier misguided support of No Child Left Behind and the testing-industrial complex. If you and the Republican Party might support machine scoring of writing tests, that will sentence these erstwhile human scorers to morph into potato couches, deprived of the opportunity to exercise their minds through a delightful diet of reading thousands of starchy (?) student essays.

If Mike DeWine would revise and edit yet again his previous positions on student testing, he would affirm that writing is indeed a recursive process. Student work – like much writing – is under construction over a period of time, and that fact alone makes machine scoring of student writing antithetical to the education process, as the Shaker Heights teachers opined to the state superintendent.

Mike DeWine is, like me, a septuagenarian. He needs to be mindful of the well-being of old folks who like to exercise their cognitive abilities by serving as writing scorers rather than becoming potato couchers.

But if DeWine ignores this advice, that thirteen-year-old writer will be proven right: if there’s a robot reading this we’re screwed.

Potato couchers of the world, unite!