Cook: How to score a zero on the TCAP

photo David Cook

TCAP begins this week.

So does the boycott.

"My fifth-grader will not be participating," said Sandy Calhoun.

As her classmates endure the Tennessee Comprehensive Assessment Program, Calhoun's daughter Molly won't fill in one single standardized bubble.

It is sit-in philosophy: a refusal to cooperate with something that does more harm than good.

"The point of boycotting is to demonstrate that TCAP testing is an empty endeavor," Sandy said.

No, Molly won't be lounging all week in front of the TV; she and her mom will volunteer at shelters, soup kitchens and food banks. And yes, she'll get a zero on the TCAP, which means 15 percent of her year-end grade will be a big, fat goose egg.

It's a punch they're willing to take.

"If somebody doesn't start making noise, it's never going to change," said Sandy.

Which school does Molly attend? Doesn't matter. It's Every School and Sandy is Every Parent and Molly is Every Child, for the TCAP and the forces behind it have slithered into every square inch of our public classrooms.

Sandy sees what so many other parents and teachers and principals do: that we have elevated TCAP into the false idol of our educational system, the four-day test we bow to while forsaking the still sweetly curious minds of our kids and the joy, creativity and flexibility of our teachers.

"It's not that I'm anti-testing," said Sandy. "But we've allowed our system to take a diagnostic tool and turn it into a weapon."

Like all weapons, this one makes money. Pearson is America's largest corporate maker of standardized testing. It has a multiyear contract with our Department of Education: For creating and implementing the TCAP and the end-of-course tests for high schoolers, we pay more than $150 million.

(That's three times what it would have cost to give Tennessee teachers a 2 percent raise.)

The deepest cut of all? Teachers aren't able to preview the test. They are neither editor nor author of the single most influential test of the whole year. It's the educational equivalent of a slap in the face.

"It is stupid on top of stupid on top of stupid," Sandy said.

I spoke to a school resource officer lately. He's got presentations he can take into any classroom to help kids learn about the dangers around them: guns, drugs, pill parties, drinking and driving, dating abuse. His discussions are life-saving and society-changing.

But he can't get in a classroom.

Teachers don't have any time to spare. The Test is approaching.

They're too busy, he said.

One of the most powerful moments in local education happened in 1998 at Whitwell Middle, when principals and teachers created the Paper Clips Project so students could learn in true and meaningful ways - not just bubble-filling and memorizing - about the Holocaust.

The students hoped to collect 6 million paper clips - one for each Jew killed in the Holocaust. The project ignited, making headlines across the world. People responded from continents away. The students ended up collecting 30 million paperclips. The school created a children's museum with a real German rail car. Someone made a documentary.

This is true education. It is love - a word most missing from policy conversations - for the minds and souls of our kids. It is respect for the ways they learn. It is deep and vertical and unforgettable.

And it never would have happened under the TCAP pressure of today.

"If I lived with the fear of test results that principals and teachers do today, it would not seem reasonable to undertake such a project," said Linda Hooper, principal of Whitwell Middle during Paper Clips.

High-stakes testing would have killed Paper Clips.

"But then it has always been my contention that vision and passion are not reasonable items," said Hooper. "We did meet the testing requirements of the time, but they occurred much less often than today."

The problem is not testing, which can be used in healthy ways to evaluate student progress.

The problem is how much importance we've given testing.

Our state has tried to yoke student test scores to teacher pay. And teacher evaluations. And teacher livelihood.

High-stakes testing creates a classroom culture of fear.

"We had probably 10 kids throwing up [during TCAP]," said Sandy, who volunteers 20 hours a week or so at Molly's school.

The mother-daughter boycott won't end high-stakes testing in Tennessee. But it might if 1,000 other families joined in next year. And teachers. And principals. And school board members.

"Parents, make noise," Sandy said. "Teachers, take your profession back."

The high-stakes TCAP begins tomorrow.

Perhaps the end of it does, too.

Contact David Cook at or 423-757-6329. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter at DavidCookTFP.