(Annelise Schantz delivered this speech at a Hudson, MA. high school graduation. Governor Cellucci, a supporter of high stakes tests, was on the stage at the time as Annelise received a long standing ovation led by her fellow graduates.)
Umm yeah, so I'm the valedictorian. Number one. But, what separates me from number 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 50, or 120? Nothing but meaningless numbers. What really is the difference between 3.8, 2.9, and 1.5? All these randomly assigned numbers reflect nothing about the true character of an individual. They say nothing about personality. Nothing about desire or will. Nothing about values or morals. Nothing about intelligence. Nothing about creativity. Nothing about heart. Numbers cannot and will not ever be able to tell you who a person really is. Yet in today's society we are sadly becoming more and more number oriented. Schools today are being forced to teach to the numbers. Children are no longer learning because it is interesting and fun; they are learning to pass the test so that the school will continue to be funded. New mandates across the country and in our own state incorrectly correlate test scores with the worth of teachers and schools. Not once do these new mandates take into account that schools in low income areas will never have as many books, long term students, parent volunteers, or state of the art facilities. How can anyone call these tests fair? Just as class rank and SAT scores say nothing about the true worth of a person, a child's or school's score on a test says nothing about the worth of the school or teachers.
It is disturbing enough that throughout high school, GPA and grades are pushed as the most important things, while learning, the real reason we are in school, falls by the wayside. The MCAS serve as just another set of meaningless numbers that add one more reason to focus on scores and forget learning.
The already teetering learning process, made difficult by the social dynamics of school cliques, disrupted by a constant lack of funding and misplaced values, has been further torn apart by a few meddling politicians and yuppies who were bored and felt the need to create what they call a standard. Who cares that it is completely biased against those with learning disabilities and those in ESL programs. Who cares that the test itself is frighteningly ethnocentric in its rigid definition of what we should be learning. Who cares that all these numbers and standards only help to stamp out independent thought. All that matters is that the head honchos want some numbers that they can spew to the public to prove that they are so helpful to today's school children. Numbers, useless meaningless numbers. I doubt that a single one of these politicians has ever stopped to consider that we are not numbers. We are individuals. How dare they restrict us once more into useless categories of failing, proficient, advanced. Judging us by our competency on a biased test is perhaps the biggest injustice that the state could ever inflict upon us.
Useless information about the double helix shape of DNA or the square root of negative one will not help anyone to survive. Last time I checked, the properties of diffusion and osmosis were interesting but they still were of no help in reality. The battle of 1812 cannot help you prepare a healthy meal and common error C cannot help a jurist in a murder trial. Instead of realizing this, the bureaucracy that claims to be for the people continues to push for the advancement of uniform mediocrity in schools. Learning rote information never taught anyone to think. History, Science, Math, and English won't do you any good if you can't apply them. Formulaic thinking might help one to get good scores on tests but it doesn't do jack in reality.
When will society realize that the only useful skill that high school could ever teach us is the art of using our brain to think independently and express our ideas coherently? With the use of one's brain anything is possible, any problem solvable, any question answerable, any goal reachable. Unfortunately, it is the one thing that many students never learn because they are too busy trying to pass the tests.
Schools are being turned into factories churning out brainless, mindless, opinion-less hacks year after year. Any student that challenges the system is labeled a difficulty. Any teacher that pushes the limits and forces their students to actually use their brains is chastised and labeled extreme. In my five years, I have seen too many wonderful teachers lost or restricted to the box. I have seen too many extraordinary kids give up on school. But no one cares.
The idea of MCAS testing is similar to putting a band-aid on a severed limb. Not only is it pointless, it is a waste of time that could be much better spent. The solution to the poor education of children is not a uniform curriculum and it is certainly not a test. The solution lies in equal and adequate funding for all schools. So that teachers are paid what they are actually worth and budgets don't have to choose between paper for the copy machine or books for the students. Perhaps it is the grand old elected officials' education that needs to be questioned. Public officials that can unflinchingly spend a third of the national budget on an unnecessary army and billions on the Big Dig to please commuters, but cannot hack up enough money to adequately fund schools and social service programs.
How are we supposed to grow up to be thinking individuals when the examples set for us are those of greedy politicians bought out by money in a corrupt democratic system where only the rich are allowed to participate? A corporate world where our parents whore themselves out to heartless companies that are only out to make a buck. A clothing and manufacturing industry that moves to the third world so that it can freely underpay and abuse its workers in order to make the most profit. A world where our education is reduced down to GPA, SAT, and MCAS. Maybe our society should worry less about the three R's and more about the morals of future generations, and leave the teaching to the teachers.
There are some who have managed to grow beyond the memorized facts and formulaic thinking. Those who were in Seattle at the WTO conference. Those that are in Harvard Square today protesting the Gap's labor and environmental policies. Those that will be protesting at this year's republican and democratic national conventions. Those that are trying to make a difference. But they are a miraculous few. They could be and should be so many more. We do community service and plant a few flowers but are never given the chance to truly understand what a community is. We participate in a student government but never learn what it truly means to be an activist. We are taught history but are never truly taught about the history that we have the chance to make.
We hear GPA, class rank, SAT, test grade, midterms, finals, scholastic achievement but never once do we hear "never mind the grades, think about the learning, think about activism, think about life." We celebrate those who have earned good grades but don't bother to consider if they are at all worthy of the praise. Does anyone care about the human beings behind the numbers?
Perhaps I am bitter, but I have every right to be bitter and angry about the world that I see around me. My responsibility lies in that I must do something constructive with my anger. And I suppose that in the end I have school to thank for making me so unhappy, inadvertently giving me the fuel to take a stand in life and do something with what I have been given. And so I stand here today and forever, and refuse to be defined as a number.
June 4, 2000