By Ruben Navarrette
Washington Post Writers Group
Do you remember when teachers liked tests? Do you recall a time when they didn't seem to care that students might stress over a final exam in history, or didn't worry that a pop quiz in spelling was only a "snapshot" of what a student knew, or didn't criticize standardized tests because students don't all learn the same way?
Sure you do. It wasn't that long ago. I started elementary school in the 1970s, and I was given hundreds of tests over the next 12 years.
In eighth grade, my American history teacher told the class that — in accordance with California state law — we'd be given a test on the U.S. Constitution. Then came the threat. If we didn't pass, he said, we couldn't graduate and go on to high school.
How was I supposed to explain this to my parents? They had already planned a party. Talk about stressful. But no one cared — least of all my teacher. His response would have been: If you don't want to freak out over not knowing the answers, go study some more.
Today, teachers are more touchy-feely, and they actually worry that students could be under a lot of pressure to test well. So teachers criticize tests as harmful to kids.
Time to clarify terms. Teachers still use traditional tests all the time — in their own classrooms. What teachers object to, and have been fighting against, is so-called high-stakes testing mandated by government.
It's the kind of thing that the Department of Education has required for more than a decade under both the Bush administration's "No Child Left Behind" law and the Obama administration's "Race to the Top" initiative.
Under President Bush, schools where students did poorly on tests faced the threat of being shut down. Under President Obama, schools where students did well could earn additional funding.
Teachers hated both approaches because, with either the stick or the carrot, they would finally be accountable for the product they turned out. And, in what should have been our first hint that something was amiss, they had no confidence that they would emerge from the process covered in glory.
And so teachers, and the unions that do their dirty work by trudging through the muck of politics, went to war against high-stakes tests because they understood that the tests were dangerous — to teachers.
As Education Secretary Arne Duncan pointed out, if we test students to see what they know, we might find out that they're not as smart as they think they are or their parents hoped they were. And in a society where individuals have trouble owning up to their failures, students and their parents will eventually blame educators for not teaching the material well enough.
That's the key. With classroom tests, the penalty for not doing well falls on students. With government-mandated tests, it falls on teachers and schools. Those who have no problem with the former have a big problem with the latter.
It's depressing that defenders of the status quo found it easier to go to war against high-stakes tests than to spend their time and energy improving the education they give our kids.
Now, in a disturbing development, teachers unions — along with the strange bedfellows of "local control" Republicans who don't care if students outside their districts receive a quality education — have rolled the White House. Obama recently acknowledged his administration's own mea culpa in pushing high-stakes tests and urged schools to make exams less strenuous.
Do you suppose that right now leaders in China, India and other hyper-competitive countries are saying the same thing to the administrators who run their schools? Not a chance.
Trying to spin the change of course in an interview with The Associated Press, Cecilia Munoz, director of the White House's Domestic Policy Council, offered commentary that was priceless.
"There's just a lot of testing going on, and it's not always terribly useful," she said. "In the worst case, it can sap the joy and fun out of the classroom for students and for teachers."
What a tragedy. Tests sapping the joy out of the classroom? Is our top priority making school fun?
What can we conclude from Munoz's ridiculous comment? Only that, when the White House was trying to fill her job, there must not have been an IQ test.
Reach Ruben Navarrette at firstname.lastname@example.org.