Friday, April 30, 2004


You’d be surprised how much kids can learn from tests. That’s right: test questions teach. And when the questions have nothing to do with academics, they shouldn’t be asked at all, in public schools.

I’m talking about all those questionnaires and surveys schools give, every year, collecting sociological data on the students in an attempt to ‘’measure’’ how many of them are at risk, how much they are drinking or using drugs, how sexually active they are, who might need psychological help, and how they can justify additional expenditures for social service programs in schools, like drug testing, assemblies, social workers, encounter groups and so on.

The main purpose is to get the statistics jacked up on how many ‘’at risk’’ kids they have, so that they can get more federal grant money.

The questionnaires are supposed to be confidential and anonymous, but of course, they are not. They are supposed to be reliable and accurate, but of course, they are not: many teens wildly exaggerate their behavior on these tests and make a game out of it. Meanwhile, who knows what the shy, meek children are thinking as they are assaulted with questions about sex, drugs, booze, vandalism, depression and all kinds of things . . . many of them still in grade school.

Innocence pierced, once again, by our public schools. Sigh.

I’m all for helping troubled kids. But a scatter-shot approach, like this, is stupid. Yes, there are suicides, overdoses, pregnancies and fatal DWIs among our teens . . . but look at the numbers. What sense does it make to treat 100 percent of the student body with a costly, time-consuming, distracting series of “interventions” when only 5 percent of them will act out so extremely in any given year? Yes, schools should target and intervene with kids at risk. But they should do that professionally and scientifically . . . not with guessing games and privacy invasions.

We need a rifle-shot approach. Schools can use data already readily at hand to spotlight who’s in trouble: tardies, truancy, absences, downslips, suspensions, arrests . . . and respond to what is, not what “might be.”

Schools have dug themselves into this hole by banning simple human kindness on the part of teachers – they can’t even put a caring hand on a sad child’s shoulder any more because that could be construed as “sexual harassment.” Yet schools still think they can cynically invade the child’s privacy, and that of his home and family, with these intrusive tests. It’s just as threatening, and it’s just as wrong.

Smart parents instruct their children NOT to answer any psychological surveys or write any in-school essays with prompts that seem nosy about their personal life. Instead, kids should slip the survey forms or assignments into their backpacks and bring them home to their parents. If questioned, they should say, ‘’Mom and Dad want to see anything I’m supposed to do in school that makes me feel bad or uncertain, before I do it.’’

Then if the questions are OK, the child can complete the test. If they’re not — and believe me, if you saw these questions, you wouldn’t like them -- we parents can go to school officials and the school board and ask what in the Sam Hill they were thinking.

Will they get mad that we did this? That we . . . INTRUDED? Well, gee: isn’t it OUR tax dollars paying for these things? We certainly have the right to know what our children are being taught. The same thing goes for what our children are being ASKED.


Here’s what’s going on in Pennsylvania along these lines, and may be coming soon to a school near you:

By Vince Guerrieri
Tuesday, April 20, 2004

Ken Kaleida envisions a day when suicidal tendencies and potential mental illnesses are identified with a test in school, much like hearing or vision tests now.

The director of Outreach Teen and Family Services in Mt. Lebanon is overseeing the local administration of TeenScreen, a test developed at Columbia University in New York City. It's not a diagnostic tool, Kaleida cautioned, only a screening tool to identify students who might benefit from further counseling.

"There's no foolproof method," he said. "This is pretty good."

The test was born out of research by David Schaffer, a psychology professor at Columbia. He performed "psychological autopsies" on suicide victims by talking to their friends and families to identify a mental state.

"For a long time, it was thought you couldn't tell who would do it, that it was impulsive," said Tiffany Haick, regional coordinator for TeenScreen, which could be used as early as this fall in the Washington School District in Washington County.

Kaleida said as many as 90 percent of teen suicides are preceded by some symptom up to a year in advance. Suicide is the third leading cause of death for people ages 10 to 24.

At most schools, guidance counselors serve as a safety net for at-risk students, and failing grades or drug problems, for example, warrant a conference with parents. State law mandates that all school districts have some type of student assistance program for secondary students.

But while professionals can react to suicide attempts or warning signs, there are few preventative programs, Haick said.

"How do you get these kids before they are identified?" Kaleida asked.

The test, administered by computer, takes about 10 minutes and asks students about drug or alcohol use and feelings about anxiety, depression and suicide.

As many as a third of the students who take the test could exhibit some type of symptom, leading to a follow-up interview by the test administrators, Kaleida said. Of those interviewed, about half will be referred for professional help, but the family ultimately would decide whether to proceed.

Kathy Mastantuono, director of pupil personnel services for the Allegheny Intermediate Unit, said TeenScreen poses potential privacy issues.

However, students taking the test must sign consent forms, and they are identified by number, not name, Haick said.

TeenScreen currently is administered at 110 sites in 35 states, as well as Korea, Canada, Panama and Guam, Haick said. Kaleida said, ideally, every school district in Western Pennsylvania would use it, along with local organizations such as Boys and Girls Clubs. Outreach would need more funding to expand the program, he said, and while he doesn't have specifics yet he doesn't think it will be very expensive.

The Washington School District could become the first Western Pennsylvania district to use TeenScreen, largely because Outreach already provides a behavioral specialist there, and this could be a natural next step, Superintendent Roberta DiLorenzo said.

"We're not doing this because we see a long-standing increase" in troubled students, said DiLorenzo, adding the school board could approve the test at its meeting at 7 p.m. April 26 at Washington High School.


Come to find out, the subject of yesterday’s story, Cheri Pierson Yecke, was in Nebraska more than a decade ago, helping grassroots activists successfully tone down the introduction of Outcome-Based Education in this state. Now the Minnesota education commissioner is in danger of not being confirmed in the State Legislature, largely because of her strong stand against phony baloney education “deforms” such as Whole Language and Whole Math, which are preferred by left-wing, union-controlled Democrats. Those “deforms” still got into Nebraska, but perhaps not to as large an extent as in Minnesota. We wish her well.

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