Testing is murder

Improving test scores will lead to school massacres, according to a Washington Post column by Margaret McKenna, president of Lesley University, on the anniversary of Columbine.

Education Gadfly annihilates the argument, citing Dave Cullen’s reporting in Slate on the FBI’s diagnosis of the Columbine killers: Eric Harris was a psychopath who hated everyone; Dylan Klebold was his depressed tool. Neither was a victim of bullying. Justin Torres writes on Gadfly:

As FBI investigators have concluded, there was no “Trench Coat Mafia,” there was no dark history of abuse by jocks and preps, there was no sick social structure at Columbine High that drove Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris to kill. In fact, while Klebold was a sad and troubled loner under the sway of a stronger personality, Harris, we now know, was a textbook psychopath, drunk with a sense of his own grandeur. He had contempt for the lower beings around him and expressed pleasure at the thought of their suffering and death.

Such troubling moral realities — the reality, indeed, of evil — are far too stark for Ms. McKenna, who mouths psychobabble platitudes about “regimentation,” “student alienation,” “anonymity,” and “supporting and developing human beings.” (Platitudes that, by the way, would have driven Eric Harris crazy with rage, and which he was extremely adept at manipulating.) And, like those who think that the jocks bullied Harris and Klebold into murder, she has her own novel theory about what’s to blame for Columbine — none other than George W. Bush and Uncle Sam!

“[S]ome of the most important lessons of Columbine,” she writes, “have been all but forgotten — left behind, so to speak, in no small measure because of another educational development of recent years: the No Child Left Behind Act. As class time becomes more regimented and tight budgets create larger class sizes, schools are becoming environments even less conducive to teachers knowing their students well. [The law] forces communities to focus more on raising test scores than on raising kids.” A fevered McKenna delivers what she apparently imagines to be the coup de grace: “The growing belief that rising test scores alone equate to successful schools is false, and it can breed a deadly complacency. The test scores at Columbine High were among the highest in Colorado.”

The logic is as tortured as the notion is repulsive. Never mind that, as McKenna notes, “statistics on school violence have shown a continuing decline since 1995” or that the reports she cites showing a rise in school bullying are routinely scoffed at by serious social scientists. Never mind that schools, high- or low-achieving, are in fact significantly safer than malls, public parks, private homes, and other places that children congregate. Never mind that, sadly enough, serious school violence, when it occurs, disproportionately does so in low-achieving schools. Never mind that there is not one shred of serious evidence linking school violence to high academic standards, and quite a bit indicating that a focused and serious curriculum can help create a disciplined learning environment.

Indeed, never mind that on every factual point, McKenna is grievously, irretrievably wrong. Let us state her central contention baldly: Those who advocate for high standards and accountability are pursuing a policy that leads, in due course, to mass murder. Such a contention is outside the bounds of civilized discourse; to use a massacre like Columbine as an excuse to score debating points about testing is despicable.

The No Child Left Behind Act, passed in 2001, gets the blame for the Columbine massacre, which occurred in 1999. It’s a powerful law indeed.

Update: Eduwonk agrees with Gadfly, calling the McKenna column “tendentious” twaddle.

About Joanne


  1. Yep – GWB is m-a-a-a-a-g-i-c. He’s even more powerful at driving Democrats mad than WJC was at driving Republicans around the bend. I really don’t think there was as much (I know, one could do research, but I don’t care THAT much) blaming-of-Bill for things that happened before he even took office.

  2. Ken Summers says:

    [Forgive me for commenting before I read past the first sentence of the post, I promise to finish it shortly]


    Does this person believe that dumbing down student achievement will make them too ignorant to plan a massacre?

  3. Mike Roemer says:

    I guess the fact that she has these delightful insights is not really important. We always have our dreamers who just cannot see life as it is. What is quite frightful however, is the degree that this type of thinking has apparently taken hold in the education community. This isn’t new and it isn’t exceptional. To me, THAT is the real story. The question would seem to be, what are we prepared to do about it? In a previous era, a rail, tar & feathers might be discussed.

  4. I was calmly reading this post and thinking that so many myths were created and presented to the public in mere hours after that tragedy, then suddenly out of no where up pops No Child Left Behind.
    I’m kinda like got angry about that. If I were a Eric Harris type I would….

  5. MAGIC is just science that people don’t understand yet. Obviously Bush used some time of secret NSA device to warp the very fabric of the space-time continuum so that he could travel back in time and somehow caused the Columbine tragedy to happen. I am not quite sure how he did it because I am not an evil genius like Bush is.

  6. Wait, it just occurred to me that since we are talking about time travel Bush might not have gone back in time yet so if we will all vote for John F. Kerry we might still prevent Columbine from happening! Elect Kerry, prevent Columbine! Except for if we elect Kerry and prevent Columbine then the Columbine incident does not happen so Kerry can’t use it as a slogan because it did not happen except that since he does not use the slogan because it did not happen it does happen so he can use the slogan except…

  7. How about we state her central contention this way: those who think we’re going to get high standards and accountability simply by giving students standardized tests are wrong; all we’re going to get from such tests are more useless class sessions focused on passing useless tests, more tension between teachers and students (who will tend to see teachers as agents who inflict boredom upon them, instead of people who actually teach them something useful), and more wasted time in school — which will lead to disaffected, angry, and yes, potentionally violent students.

    And, because too much money is being diverted into these useless tests (which “account” for nothing except how well teachers can teach students to pass the tests), they do tend to use up money which might well be better spent elsewhere — for better books, maybe, or a better teacher.

    That’s how I’m reading her argument, anyway.

    Though the other way is clearly easier to poke fun at.

  8. Clark Myers says:

    Getting the facts wrong in the opening is an odd way to argue.

    Columbine is not in Littleton. Columbine is in unicorporated Jefferson County. Littleton is an old line community and the county seat of Arapaho County. This matters because the nature of the high school community matters. Littleton was the postal code for the high school and the dateline of the original story but not the site.

    There were no automatic weapons used by anybody on either side of the dispute. Perhaps there should have been as part of a prompt police response but there weren’t. Nothing happened that exceeded the capabilities of home made black powder guns (3 shots a minute maximum by the two killers) although the guns used were not in fact home made.

  9. delager,
    Nice post. You and I fundamentally disagree about standardized testing though. You state that

    “And, because too much money is being diverted into these useless tests (which “account” for nothing except how well teachers can teach students to pass the tests), they do tend to use up money which might well be better spent elsewhere — for better books, maybe, or a better teacher.

    I would like to see standardized tests given across all grades including through college (in the form of a common final for certain “core” courses). Standardized tests are not perfect predictors of success but they are not totally useless either. If we as a nation decided that we were not going to accept any less than a certain level of competence on the tests then we could provide a much better education overall.

    The scary thing about standardized test is that they will hurt feelings because half the people are going to do below average on them. We as educators don’t like to think that maybe we are not perfect. “I know that there might be other people out there who can’t teach well but boy am I good” is our overall mantra as a profession. A survey of university professors found that 94% thought they were above average at their job (Gilovich, 1993 page 77)!

    I really do think I do a good job in the classroom, most times at least. By I also know that there is always room for improvement and I would welcome a well designed test that provided reliable feedback. Of course, getting a test approved that is well designed would be a whole different problem.

    Have a great weekend!!!

  10. Richard Nieporent says:

    Those who advocate for high standards and accountability are pursuing a policy that leads, in due course, to mass murder.

    I guess inner city schools must be the safest schools in the country.

  11. How in the name of heaven does a complete ass like McKenna get to be the president of a college?

    So bullying supposedly wasn’t a factor at Columbine? Perhaps in this case, but bullying could be a factor in other cases. This is from an article titled Clique…Clique…Bang! by Dan Savage (of the column Savage Love). It was on page 18 of the May 14, 1999 issue of the Chicago READER.

    While I didn’t suffer the extreme abuse some of my friends did, I was fucked with enough to spend four years fantasizing about blowing up my high school and everyone in it…[Harris and Klebold] were hateful, twisted, racists…But they didn’t go guns blazing into a vacuum…In our rush to make martyrs of the victims and demons of the murderers (the cover of Time screamed, “The Monsters Next Door!”) the culpability of the other kids at Columbine has been glossed over. So long as some kids go out of their way to make high school hell for others–while teachers and other students stand by doing and saying nothing–there will be kids who crack, and not all of them are going to quietly off themselves…

  12. Dave Sheridan says:

    Two things are scary here:
    First is, as Jim C. notes, that this drivel comes from someone who has somehow managed to be the president of a college.

    Second is the elaborate web of assumptions and linkages she uses to make an insane argument.

    Stripping away what passes for supporting logic, she is really saying that teachers’ primary job is to ‘get to know their students,’ and that teaching in such a manner that said students do well on tests of basic skills somehow gets in the way of this prime directive.

    She also asserts that NCLB causes “communities to focus more on raising test scores than on raising kids.” . Sorry, it’s the parents’ job to raise kids. Failures in this category accounted in large part for Columbine.

    One can only pray that the author’s administrative duties keep her well away from teaching students.

  13. Just a Dad says:

    It seems to me that, rather than responding to the substance of the argument, Gadfly’s response is basically “how DARE you even suggest something so repulsive”. In other words, he finds her argument to be politically incorrect.

    If you go back and read the article, you will see that McKenna is NOT blaming the No Child Left Behind Act for Columbine–the word “blame” is totally absent from her writing. Nor is she in any way an apologiest for Harris–either for what he did or for who he was. Her point is simply that, in this day and age, schools are increasingly abandoning any pretense of molding the character of their students, and that an overwhelming emphasis on test scores will accelerate this. The angry nihilism of someone like Harris could, in theory, have been channeled into something positive by a caring and thoughtful adult. Now, I don’t know how true this is in practice, but if no one is willing to respond to her argument in an honest way, how can we ever know?

  14. Jim C.,
    If you go to the Lesley University (www.lesley.edu) website you can see McKenna’s bio. She seems to be very accomplished. I don’t agree with the article but I don’t think I am willing to totally write her off based on one article.

    Just a Dad,
    You are correct that several of us, including me, have implied or outright stated that she says “No Child Left Behind” caused Columbine. You are also correct that she did not make that statement so the tongue in check humor was not appropriate and lessens the legitimate arguments against the points she was trying to make. She does make claim that NCLB is likely to lead to more events like Columbine and that trying to teach children content (raise test scores) is less important than training children to be good little citizens (raising kids). I expect the schools to provide a safe learning environment for my children and to provide an education. To say that the school is responsible for raising my children is a scary concept to me personally and brings to mind the paternalism of Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union where the children “belonged” to the state.

    Have a great weekend,

  15. theAmericanist says:

    I knew a guy in grammar school and in high school who might not have been so different from Harris. He was very smart, and at least a little disturbed. His high school football coach said of him that “in the end, he just wants to learn how to kill people.”

    So he joined the Marines. Last I heard, he had not only learned real violence quite effectively (decorated for bravery under fire), but he’s married and has kids and by all accounts is a good husband and father.

    FWIW (which can’t be much, I’m no expert), I think part of the reason why the Marines helped straighten him out is related to this thread.

    They tested him — big time. He wanted to learn violence, they showed him how. He thought he was bad-ass — they showed him the real thing.

    But they also gave him something to believe in: “Semper Fidelis”. Marines NEVER leave their own behind. Once you’re a Marine, you’re ALWAYS a Marine — Parris Island was surely the first time in his life that he had the choice to do something incredibly difficult, at which he succeeded. His success wouldn’t have been anywhere near as good for him if it had been easier — and THAT is what laid the foundation for his faith.

    Why isn’t that more of a model for education?

  16. I recommend Dave Cullen’s story in Slate. He’s covered Columbine extensively and concludes, based on the FBI analysis, that bullying played no role in the massacre. Eric Harris, child of a middle-class two-parent family, was a vicious psychopath. He left diaries detailing all the many categories of people he hated; it included virtually everyone. Dylan Klebold was his follower. (Think Leopold and Loeb.)

    Obviously, they did not kill because they spent too much time prepping for tests and had too few electives. Famously, they were enrolled in a bowling class, though they didn’t show up the day of the massacre.

  17. Ross, the fact that 94% of college professors think they are above average doesn’t prove your point because they are above average, otherwise they wouldn’t be college professors. Their education puts them into the “above average” category before they ever set put into a college classroom.

  18. Ross said, “A survey of university professors found that 94% thought they were above average at their job….”

    They aren’t comparing themselves to the general population, but to other college professors. So it is a telling statistic.

  19. McKenna may be a moron, but Jacobs is eager to prove herself equally moronic, by claiming that McKenna is blaming Columbine on the No Child Left Behind Act.

    She says nothing of the sort.

    She says that the NCLB Act proves that we haven’t applied the lessons of Columbine.

    “But some of the most important lessons of Columbine have been all but forgotten – left behind, so to speak, in no small measure because of another educational development of recent years: the No Child Left Behind Act.”

    This may be wrong, tendentious, etc. But it isn’t an illogical argument or achronological, as Jacobs claims.

    Why fight something you believe is idiocy by being as idiotic in your turn?

    Ms. Jacobs gets an F in her comprehension test.

  20. Well, McKenna thinks NCLB leads to a focus on test prep above all, alienating students and creating the conditions for a Columbine massacre. But since Columbine preceded NCLB, then the conditions that led to Columbine preceded NCLB. So perhaps NCLB is irrelevant to her argument. Which is bogus.

    By focusing attention on students who’ve been “left behind” academically, NCLB may reduce school violence by reducing the incredible frustration felt by students who can’t read in middle and high school. Frustrated, failing students are far more likely to engage in violent and self-destructive behavior than are successful students. This has nothing to do with Eric Harris, of course, but it’s highly relevant to the less homicidal violence that disrupts many schools.

  21. Ross:

    I did go to Lesley U.’s website before posting my comment in an unsuccessful attempt to find her email address so I could comment to her directly. I didn’t bother with her background.

    I think something Orwell said in his essay “Notes On Nationalism” (which I recommend highly, btw) applies to McKenna: “One has to belong to the intelligentsia to believe things like that: no ordinary man could be such a fool.” I respect education, but having a lot of letters after one’s name is no guarantee he/she won’t come up with something stupid. Rather than having her degrees give credence to her idea, her asinine idea calls the value of those degrees into question.

    A rich man wanted to donate a million dollars to a college. The trustees were very enthusiastic until the man made a condition: he wanted his horse to get an honorary Ph.D. as a Doctor of Transportation. The trustees discussed this among themselves and were very dismayed. However, one of them observed, “You know, this would only be the first time we’ve given a Ph.D. to a whole horse.”

  22. Just a Dad says:

    More than 30 years ago, my fourth grade teacher spent a month going through a series of booklets about how to relate to other people successfully. The lessons covered such topics as don’t celebrate too hard when you win a game (e.g. basketball), remember that everybody makes mistakes, and yes, learn to show respect for the other’s point when arguing. While it seemed silly to me at the time, there’s no doubt that these “soft” lessons helped me get through a very difficult adolescence. I wasn’t Eric Harris, but I did have a lot of anger and depression to deal with, and these kinds of lessons helped keep me from withdrawing completely from society the way that he did.

    I don’t know to what extent elementary schools even attempt this kind of thing anymore, or how effective they are when they do. But, assuming that there are schools still doing this, I can certainly see how the pressure of laws like NCLB could lead to less of it being taught than before. The time that Miss Yamamoto spent teaching me character and politeness made me a better person, but I doubt that it improved any of my test scores.

  23. Jim C,

    I am an elementary school teacher in Texas and I can tell you schools have no time whatsoever to teach things like manners and conflict resolution. Its ALL about the test and nothing else. The funny part is Texas schools are not all that great, but now they’re being used as the model to base all of our schools on. I can’t remember who wrote the article but its called “The Myth of the Miracle in Texas Schools” and it should be an eye opener for most people.

    I’ve talked to lots of people who think the state of America’s schools are the fault of lazy teachers who think teachers have to be forced to do their jobs. The fact is, our schools are a reflection of our society and all the testing in the world will not change that fact.

  24. Joanne Jacobs still gets an F in comprehension.

    McKenna’s argument is that NCLB could lead to -another- Columbine. And her evidence that higher test scores won’t prevent such events is that Columbine itself had high test scores.

    There’s plenty of possible holes to be picked in this argument. But the criticisms made in the post are emphatically not among them.


  1. http://newmarksdoor.typepad.com/mainblog/2004/04/the_president_o.html

    The president of Leslie University predicts that the No Child Left Behind Act will foster school violence, horrific school violence: Across the country, schools are reporting that the pressures of No Child Left Behind-required testing regimes are crowd…