Mending School

When do complaints about ‘too much’ standardized bubble testing become strong enough to bring about change?  Now that some students are spending more than 10% of their school ‘instructional’ time on test-prep and testing, have we reached the tipping point?  Now that some students are reported to be taking 20 different bubble tests during a school year, are we there?  With some students taking bubble tests in art, music and physical education, have we gone over the cliff?

Our kids are already the most tested in the world, and now the Common Core tests are on the doorstep. Is anyone in power demanding that schools swap out tests–eliminate one for every one they add?  Or eliminate two when adding one?  Or sampling a la NAEP?  Those voices are out there, but they are hard-to-hear and hardly heard.

Robert Frost is one of my favorite poets, and his “Mending Wall” inspired this effort, which I call “Mending School.”

Something there is that doesn’t love more bubble tests
And students bubbling and learning how to bubble
When they might be making robots or reading Frost.
They take test upon test in arid classrooms,
Mixing memory and guesswork, stirring
Dull anger and gnawing fear of failure.
The work of test-makers is another thing:
Teachers come after them and make repair
Where they have ground down creativity.
I let my neighbor know beyond the hill,
And on a day we meet to walk and talk
Of learning, testing and hopes for children
But we keep a wall between us as we go.
To him, this is just another kind of mental game,
One on a side. It comes to little more:
Now is when we do not need more tests, I tell him.
He only says, ‘More testing makes good education.’
Spring is the mischief in me, and I wonder
If I could put a notion in his head:
‘Why do they make good education? Isn’t it
Where they are timely and used to help?
But here the tests punish takers and givers alike.
Before I gave more bubble tests, I’d ask to know
What I was I testing for, and why,
And to whom I was like to do harm.
Something there is that doesn’t love bubble tests,
That wants them stopped.’ I could say ‘Elves’ to him,
But it’s not elves exactly, and I’d rather
He said it for himself. I see him there
Bringing a stone grasped firmly by the top
In each hand, like an old-stone savage armed.
He moves in darkness as it seems to me,
Not of woods only and the shade of trees.
He will not go behind his father’s saying,
And he likes having thought of it so well
He says again, ‘More testing makes good education.’

Click to view the full-size annotated poster!

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14 thoughts on “Mending School

    • Dr Merrow: Marilyn Jager Adams, in her new “ABC Foundations For Young Children”, shows that most American children finishing first-grade still can’t name and write all of the alphabet letters.
      This disgrace is easily preventable, and our schools won’t improve until it is fixed.


      • The solution however is systemic. Teachers have 2 fundamental choices, 1. Fail the student, possibly for the whole year, or pass without learning. This is fundamentally what has to change. Take kids from where they are and the dominoes of 18th century education fall all over the place.

        Pass demonstrated proficiencies when they are ready making failure a positive learning experience and proficiency success always around the corner. My new book is somewhere around the corner also giving details for talking points.


  1. Thanks, Amy. I hope you will urge all your friends and colleagues to get copies to put on walls everywhere….


  2. One irony out of this is that since Frost wrote his poem, many have approvingly cited Frost to “agree” that walls make good neighbors, when Frost was clearly disagreeing with his neighbor. I suspect no one reading this will think that John believes ‘More testing makes good education.’ Thanks, John.


  3. I just read your “Mending School” and liked it a lot. Robert Frost read his poems at Dartmouth when I was a student.

    I sent your poem to an English teacher friend who shares my enthusiasm for Frost. He replied as follows.

    “Check out Frost’s poem, “The Ax-Helve.” Zero in on lines 83-90. I use “The Ax-Helve” to show my writing students how the wisdom that this woodsman has is to craft his tools in such a way that form and content merge, making a helve that will not split. The exceptional writers use form and content, content and form.”


      • Wow! I was a class of 1962 math nerd who stayed on to get one of Dartmouth’s first PhDs in 1966. One of my closest math friends was Steve Garland ’64 who now lives in Philadelphia. I live in Port Angeles, WA where I can see Victoria, BC. A couple of weeks ago I attended a reception for President Hanlon in Seattle.


      • If you have time, I’d love to talk by phone or email about education. Can you send me an email address?


  4. John,

    You sly devil! You not only think in prose but you muse in verse! Thanks for sharing this lovely walk through much-needed “Frostian Perspectives” on testing. The test for the tests is: Is the test aimed at what we want kids to learn – or to drill down a bit into this: does the test reach the deeper aims of learning beyond skills and facts, important though they are?



    • Thank you, my friend. I hope you will share this widely, so that the poster will end up on many, many walls, where all its informative side notes will be read and appreciated as well. A couple of the side notes are also kind of funny. Well worth making a contribution to Learning Matters, I should say…..


  5. Such poetry, now for a song, might be the blues. 🙂 I have been trying to mend schools as long as I can remember. The time is now to hold the conversation about solutions. Many talk about the problems but the solutions are what’s need now. Although the plan I developed is bold, the talking points must be heard.

    Keep on keeping on



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