Editor's note: In early 1999, this series of op-ed pieces was published in the Metro-West Daily News.
The Notion that All Children Undergo the Same Developmental Processes at the Same Rate
published January 29, 1999
The MCAS tests, and the so-called "educational reform" policy on which they are based, are an unmitigated disaster for education in this state. I can think of nothing connected with schooling that has happened during [the twentieth century] that is so destructive of the essential goals of education, and has so much potential for damaging an entire generation of children who are preparing to be adults in the new millennium.
Over the coming weeks, I shall be exploring several aspects of the MCAS framework, in order to show in some detail why I am so convinced that it is destructive and sinister. I shall do my best to examine key issues, in the hope that you, and your friends and acquaintances, will be moved to take action aimed at preventing a continuation of MCAS testing and of ed reform's ill-advised policies.
I shall begin today by looking at one of the key underpinnings of the new curriculum guides on which MCAS is based. The entire strategy is based on the fundamental assumption that all children undergo the same developmental process, at the same basic rate, from birth until maturity. This is key. It is the holy grail of all else that follows. To take the new guides and the MCAS tests seriously, you must be willing to believe that at each particular age, all children have fundamentally the same cognitive, emotional, and psychological profile, and that this profile can be meshed into a teaching framework that provides precisely the right concepts and training suitable for the age in question.
If you accept this assumption, then it can come as no surprise that all first graders are called upon to do the same multitude of activities; that all second graders are called upon to do another, different, multitude of activities; and so forth. And it can seem reasonable to accept the notion that all fourth graders should have mastered the same set of materials, and be tested on them; and so for all eighth graders, and all tenth graders.
There is only one thing wrong with this picture: it is wholly contradicted by the experiential reality of child development! In fact, the reality is that every single child has their own highly specific and original way of growing up. No two siblings, no two identical twins, have ever developed the same exact way over their childhood years. This diversity begins at birth - indeed, even in the womb - and never stops until we die. Only death is the great equalizer; so long as people are alive, they are as different from each other as can be imagined.
The fact is that we all know this. We know this about our families, our friends, and our acquaintances. We know how utterly different are the ways in which each of us learns, develops interests and passions, acquires skills and knowledge, reacts to life experiences, feels and expresses emotions, masters social and communicative abilities, and travels down life's path.
Indeed, one of the defining features of each person's uniqueness as a human being is the manner in which s/he attacks life's challenges, from the earliest age. To deny this diversity is to deny the very existence of individuality. To acknowledge this diversity, and nevertheless to insist that each child be treated as if they are developmentally similar, is to deny each and every child the right to grow up expressing his/her individuality to its fullest potential.
Think about it. It doesn't take special skills of observation to notice that the entire trend of world history at the dawn of the new millennium is towards acknowledging the importance of individual expression. Every CEO of every major corporation, every entrepreneur, every futurologist, will tell you that the future belongs to people who can identify their unique personal strengths and who have the ability to develop those strengths to their utmost level. The age of drones, who do what they are told and accept the robotic demands of the Industrial Era, is gone and over with - certainly in this country, certainly in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, and even in much of the rest of the world.
In the name of "raising standards", the ed reform movement has instituted the most rigorous implementation of lock-step teaching ever known in the world of education. The new educational order all but eliminates, within the framework of public schools, the possibility of each child pursuing his/her special interests, or learning different things from his/her peers, or advancing at different rates from others his/her age. The new educational order all but eliminates, within the framework of public schools, the opportunity for every teacher to teach to his/her strengths, to impart his/her special enthusiasms, to develop unique and diverse relationships with each of his/her students. It eliminates the possibility of significant experimentation by talented principals or school administrators, and makes it all but impossible for a local School Board to try out alternative approaches in special school environments.
The MCAS tests institutionalize this lock-step concept of development with a vengeance. Not only do the tests demand uniformity, they punish schools (and teachers and principals and communities) that do not bend every effort to implement the highest level of adherence to the new uniform standards. Creativity, innovation, individuality, can no longer be afforded by anyone under MCAS and ed reform, because the cost of poor performance on MCAS tests is failure for all parties involved.
MCAS tests, the curriculum guidelines underlying them, and the ed reform movement supporting them, must be eliminated, root, stock, and branch. They have no place in schools designed for the twenty-first century.
They will inflict untold damage upon our children, and they will annul the special talents and skills of teachers and administrators. Every parent, student, educator, businessman, and concerned citizen should insist that this abomination be abolished immediately, before irreversible harm is inflicted upon the entire educational enterprise.
Every Person Must Possess the Same Body of Knowledge
published February 5, 1999
There is no way to overstate the damage that the MCAS tests, the new state curriculum guides, and the educational reform movement are inflicting on the children going to school in Massachusetts. These initiatives are based on patently erroneous principles which, when put into practice, create the least appropriate school environments for the new millennium.
Last week, I explored one patently false central underpinning of MCAS - namely, the assumption that all children undergo the same developmental process, at the same basic rate, from birth until maturity. This week, I shall take a look at a second article of faith that drives the ed reform movement: the assumption that the same extensive body of knowledge must be possessed by every single person in order for society to function successfully. The core of common knowledge, as defined at any given moment by professional educators, must be inculcated in every student, without exception, for the greater good of the community.
This assumption is in flat contradiction to the actual needs of modern culture. The single outstanding distinguishing feature of the historical progress of the human race is the steady, inexorable, unstoppable increase in the quantity of information created by, and made available to, the human mind. In a very real sense, history can be defined as the unfolding of newly created knowledge, arising out of new experiences, new events, and new intellectual constructs.
The way cultures deal with the ever-increasing information load is through specialization. This is a phenomenon as old as recorded history, and probably older. As each culture, in total, grew and expanded, different individuals and subgroups took on the responsibility for delving more deeply into limited domains, small enough to be encompassed by individual people. In this way, every society came to depend on an ever-growing variety of specialists. With the passage of time, as each specialty grew in scope, they in turn became differentiated into new specialties - a kind of steadily increasing bifurcation of the branches of the tree of knowledge.
Over the past century, and especially with the introduction of the post-industrial Information Age (so aptly named), the mass of human knowledge has increased at a phenomenal rate, and continues to do so. The resulting situation, often referred to as the "information explosion", has, as one would expect, led to the creation of a vast number of new specialties - a number that continues to grow at an increasing rate, and whose very growth is the cause for its own continued expansion.
In other words, as human society creates more and more knowledge at an exponential rate, the degree of specialization of each individual functioning in that society increases as well. The overall information at our beck and call grows without bounds, even as the proportion of the total information that any single person knows decreases. This is neither paradoxical nor surprising. The greater the specialization that occurs on the individual level, the greater the complexity that the society as a whole can enjoy. Biological evolution provides an excellent example of this fact. As more complex species emerge, they consist of an ever greater variety of individual cellular components.
What this means for practical purposes is that people who will function best in the new millennium will be those who have been allowed the most flexibility and freedom to develop their particular, specialized interests in depth. There isn't the faintest hope for any single individual to accumulate a meaningful overview of human knowledge today; and the wider the domain of knowledge any person seeks to gain, the more superficial will his/her mastery of that knowledge be. Furthermore, the extent of information available now is so great, that any attempt to identify this or that part of it as more important, or more significant, than any other is short-sighted, and runs counter to the unfailing historical experience that each generation finds its most significant information in precisely those areas that were given short shrift by earlier generations. Think about it. Think about the importance our culture ascribed to computers, or to cultural diversity, or to genetic engineering, or to discrimination, or to feminism, fifty years ago.
Remember, the ed reform movement does not target just a tiny number of "basic" skills for everyone. It targets a vast array of knowledge and skills. It sets for itself a meaningless and impossible goal, and by setting that goal, at best it glorifies superficiality. At worst, it creates a school environment in which huge amounts of information are stuffed down the throats of hapless, uninterested students, who promptly forget at least 95% of what they have learned as soon as they no longer have to retain it for a test.
"What about a core of basic skills?", you may ask. Even here, an attempt to universalize them is doomed to failure. Consider that perennial favorite, Reading. There is no such thing as "reading" in general. Reading is context-related; it is, by definition, an activity that occurs in the presence of material that is to be read! And the simple fact, that everyone knows about themselves, is that our ability to read any particular text depends on our interest in it, on our knowledge of its subject area, and on its relevance to what we are doing now. The English professor who reads Shakespeare with ease can be a bumbling idiot when it comes to reading the repair manual for his 1996 Ford Explorer, just as the auto mechanic who breezes through a library full of complex manuals can stumble when he is asked to explain the meaning of a Robert Frost poem. Does one of these know how to "read" better than the other? Does the fact that reading skills are as differentiated as all other knowledge in any way detract from the ability of different individuals to function effectively and creatively in a modern society?
All ed reform really does is take our children, who are a captive audience for the duration of their school years, and force them to imbibe huge amounts of material that is almost totally irrelevant to what they will do when they grow up; that they will forget almost as soon as they pass on to their next grade or stage in life; and that they will mostly loathe for the rest of their lives. Far from creating the kind of life-long lovers of learning that are needed in the coming century, the ed reform formula of forcing everyone to learn the same exact bunch of stuff creates a generation of people wary of school, anxious about education, and lacking the skills to probe deeply into the specialized nooks and crannies that they wish they could have explored.
Can you think of a more effective way to hamper our children's preparation for their future?
The MCAS Tests Cover Material that is Patently Absurd
published February 12, 1999
The MCAS tests, the curriculum guides underlying these tests, and the educational reform movement that spawned both guides and tests, are so fundamentally flawed that they pose a serious threat to the future of public schooling in our Commonwealth. During the preceding two weeks, I discussed at some length two patently false principles that underlie these efforts: one, the notion that all children undergo the same developmental processes at the same basic rate, from birth until maturity; the second, that the same extensive body of knowledge must be possessed by every single person in order for society, and for its citizens, to function successfully. This week, I shall look at a third basic flaw in the system - namely, even if you are prepared to accept the two foregoing principles as valid, the MCAS tests cover material that is patently absurd by any common sense standard.
In order to better appreciate what I am talking about, you have to remember at all times that these tests are for every single child in the state, and they profoundly affect the future of all students in our public schools, barring none. With this in mind, let's turn to a sampling of last year's MCAS exams for Grade 10 - exams which . . . . will determine whether or not a child gets a diploma in the state of Massachusetts.
Let's start with the mathematics exams. These require every student to be conversant with a huge range of math topics, virtually none of which s/he will ever use or encounter in the course of a long and productive life.
Some questions: "Six students are participating in a fitness program. They are required to work out in pairs. How many different combinations of pairs of students are possible?" "A repair service charges $25 to send a service person on a call and $30 per hour for labor. If h stands for the number of hours of labor, which [algebraic] expression below can the company use to compute the charge for the service call?" (Everyone knows how to compute the charge, even little kids. Apparently, you won't be able to get a diploma if you don't know how to write the algebraic expression for calculating the charge - something no one ever does.) "60% of the cars owned by Best Car Rental are white and 30% have a standard transmission. If you randomly choose a rental car, what is the probability that you will get a white car with a standard transmission?" "The ratio of the volume of a square pyramid with the dimension of the base y units on a side and 3y units high, compared to the volume of a square prism y units on a side and y/3 units high A. is greater than one, B. is equal to one, C. is less than one, D. cannot be determined." Can anyone reasonably defend the proposition that being an effective adult in society today entails knowing this kind of material?
Or how about this so-called "open response question": "To make a house handicapped accessible, a ramp is being constructed to the floor of a porch. The Americans with Disabilities Act requires that a ramp have an incline of no more than 5 degrees. Assume that the maximum allowable angle is used and that the floor of the porch to which the ramp is constructed is 4 feet above the ground. (You may refer to the trigonometric table on your Mathematics Reference Sheet.) a. draw and label a picture showing the ramp and the porch, b. based on the information above, how far is the end of the ramp from the porch? Show your work. c. based on the information above, what is the length of the ramp? Show your work." To be sure, we want our civil engineers, building contractors, and architects to be able to do this kind of work, but MCAS and ed reform want every student in the state who graduates from high school, regardless of their interests or skills, to be able to do this.
The science exam is no less filled with bizarre idiosyncracies. The preoccupation with names continues: "The process by which information can be changed into different forms that can be coded, transmitted, decoded, stored, and retrieved is called A. communication technology, B. transportation technology, C. advertising, D. graphic arts." Get that name right! (By the way, is C the best answer?) Topics covered in the exam include history of science, bridge design, chemical equations, the aquatic food chain, water quality analysis, biochemistry, the structure of eukaryotic cells, rock formation, plate tectonics, the water cycle, deciphering contour maps, the dynamics of air temperature, paleontology, history of science and technology, membrane physical chemistry, the physics of ballistics, DNA sequencing, and social psychology. This is a selection of topics from one of the MCAS tests for tenth graders. All of them, we are told, are essential for every single student in Massachusetts to master in order to get a diploma.
Then there's the so-called "English Language Arts" test. It is based on six reading selections: a piece by Thomas Wolfe called "Of Time and the River"; one by Richard Rodriguez called "The Hunger of Memory"; a detailed hiking trail guide for Pleasant Mountain; a selection from Shakespeare's "Antony and Cleopatra"; William Faulkner's acceptance speech for the Nobel Prize; and an anonymous piece called "The Value of Myths". All but one of these are abstract literary pieces on subjects that very few sixteen-year-olds, or adults for that matter, find absorbing, and none of which can be said to be typical of the average reading done by the majority of successful, productive, creative adults. The one concrete selection is a rambling description of trails and rocks and views, etc., which are usually incomprehensible unless they are read as you are in the process of advancing along the trail. Not one selection is on a topic that lies at the heart of the students' interests, even though it is well established that reading comprehension is closely linked to the degree of interest and focus that the reading elicits.
The questions posed about these readings are often bizarre. Thus, for example, there is a pre-occupation with naming things, as if knowing the right name is the key to comprehension. One question asks: "This excerpt can best be described as A. persuasive writing, B. descriptive writing, C. humorous writing, D. technical writing." Another: "This excerpt is an example of A. biography, B. autobiography, C. satire, D. persuasion". Or: "The organization of information in this article is best described as A. sequential, B. historical, C. geographical, D. hierarchical." And on and on. Get those labels right! It's really crucial to know a label in order to understand the content of a written document. Imagine yourself as a researcher picking up a laboratory manual and not being able to identify it as A. technical writing, B. descriptive writing, C. expository writing, D. persuasive writing. Wouldn't that be a bummer?
There is no sensible basis for the range of selections, or the content of most of the questions, many of which are vague and ambiguous. The essay questions, of course, are entirely a matter of taste - and you know whose taste! Essay questions are graded according to their conformity to the most pedantic guidelines of standard English, even though the key function of writing is to communicate information, and plenty of information has been, is, and will forever be communicated without flaw through the use of non-standard phraseology and syntax; not to mention the fact that the most exciting advances in literature and poetry involve the introduction of highly original linguistic forms that later become accepted usages.
I could give many similarly absurd examples from the eighth grade and fourth grade tests . . . . These tests are, simply stated, the result of an educational establishment run amok. Even if one honestly believes that there is, somewhere, somehow, a solid core of knowledge that must be possessed by every person, there is no way on earth that this core could include the enormously detailed, arcane, specialized mass of material packed into the curriculum guidelines, and tested by the MCAS exams. It is an idea taken to, and beyond, logical absurdity.
The exams are so extensive that they take a week to administer. Because of their importance to student classification and graduation, these exams will become the total center of focus of every classroom in the state. There will be no time for anything else. Teachers and administrators, no less than students, are becoming slaves to the system, with their promotions and salaries dependent on test performance.
Have we all lost our grip on reality?
Are MCAS Tests a Useful Tool for Measuring a Person's Abilities?
published February 19, 1999
In past weeks I have been discussing fatal flaws in the MCAS exams, the curriculum guides, and the educational reform movement: the assumption that all children undergo the same developmental processes at the same basic rate, from birth until maturity; the notion that the same extensive body of knowledge must be possessed by every single person in order for society, and for its citizens, to function successfully; and the inescapable fact that the exams and the guides cover material that is patently absurd by any common sense standard. Over and above these false foundation stones for the edifice of educational reform, there is another that strikes at the heart of the very concept of MCAS - namely, the conviction that tests are a useful tool for measuring something significant about a person's ability to perform a task with proficiency.
The acronym MCAS stands for "Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System". These week-long tests, administered [in 1999] to all fourth graders, eighth graders, and tenth graders (with much talk being given to adding some more at other grade levels), are supposed to assess something meaningful about children. In particular, since the whole point of schooling is to prepare children to be effective adults in the society at large, the tests are supposed to be significant tools in determining whether a child is developing in a manner that will lead him/her towards a productive life as an adult.
Now, if there is one thing that everybody knows, it is this: there is no way to measure in advance, by written test or any other instrument, whether a person will succeed in a given undertaking. I say that "everybody knows" this for a fact, although most people don't realize that they know it. Think about it. If there was a way to design an advance assessment that would tell us whether a person will be a successful entrepreneur, or manager, or secretary, or journalist, or carpenter, or auto mechanic, or artist, or physician, or lawyer, or anything else, then every single employer and institution in the country would use such an assessment with joy! It would eliminate all need to worry about the complex process of evaluating potential employees. It would eliminate the doubts, the questions, the worries, and the failures. One could whip out an assessment packet, administer it to the prospect, and - voila! - hire only the ones who passed, with the assurance that the position will be filled by a competent worker!
Let's be clear about this subject. There are, of course, tests that measure very specific skills that a person has - for example, the ability to type accurately at a certain speed; the ability to use a word processing program; the ability to handle tools properly; the ability to remember the provisions of the plumbing code; and so forth. These are highly specialized, narrowly focused, skills that may be requirements for specific jobs. There are hundreds of such specific skills, and they are all very specific to particular types of work. Tests that measure these skills can tell you if the person tested has them, and to what degree. But the tests do not tell you anything about the ability of the person who possesses these narrow skills to perform the job for which s/he is applyng. Knowing how to type well doesn't make a good secretary, or writer; knowing how to handle tools properly doesn't make a good craftsman.
Nor has anybody suggested that such narrowly defined skills be possessed by everyone. It is too absurd even for educational reformers to suggest that every child who graduates high school must be able to be a good typist, to pass the Mr. Goodwrench exam, to play piano exercises flawlessly, to know the plumbing code, etc. This is because everyone realizes that these skills are specialized, and are needed only by specialists.
But beyond such narrow tests, no method has ever been devised to assess the broader abilities that really count in life - such complex characteristics as judgment, honesty, intellectual curiosity, creativity, self-motivation, initiative, persistence, intensity, interpersonal skills, and the many other such personal traits that distinguish successful, self-fulfilled people from those who consistently fail to realize their goals. The MCAS exams are part of an assessment system that is meant to be central in determining whether a child will function successfully in the modern world as an adult. As such, they cannot succeed, because no such assessment system has ever been designed or used, nor is there any current theoretical basis for inventing such a system.
Instead, the MCAS exams turn out to measure just what every knowledgeable person said they would: the ability of children to take MCAS exams. If they continue to be used, they will spawn a whole new industry, devoted exclusively to promoting successful performance on MCAS. In fact, this has already begun. There will be all kinds of specialized books published, based on past exams, which will purport to focus on the material most important to good performance. There will be tutorial institutes, private coaches, remedial courses, and special preparatory courses, in elementary, middle, and high schools. There will be special teacher-training seminars, devoted to helping teachers produce better results with their classes, because teacher pay and promotion will be tied to those results. Administrators - principals, assistant principals, curriculum coordinators, school superintendents and assistant superintendents - will devote increasing proportions of their time and energy to improve their schools' grades, because their jobs will be on the line. All of this will happen as sure as night follows day - just as much of it has happened with SAT exams.
It all comes back to one simple point: MCAS exams do not assess anything significant to the future of children, because no one knows how to assess or measure the key factors to the future success of any person, child or adult. They are a closed system, which means that MCAS tests exist for their own sake; they measure the ability of the entire school community - children, parents, teachers, administrators - to focus all their efforts on producing good results on MCAS tests! Nothing more, nothing less.
To say that such a massive effort, which basically turns the whole educational system on its head, is harmful, is to seriously understate the case. You and I and everyone know that the essential purpose of an educational system is to provide an environment that allows children to develop into successful adults. Replacing that with an educational system that forces children to perform well on a specific set of exams is nothing less than the end of public schooling as a useful tool for society. If the leadership of the educational establishment persists in using MCAS exams, it will be making a major contribution to the growing irrelevance of schools in the education and preparation of children for life.
The MCAS Emporer Has No Clothes
published February 26, 1999
Perhaps the most disturbing aspect of the MCAS exams, the curriculum guides that underlie them, and the educational reform movement that spawned them, is their sheer hypocrisy. They are based on the stated belief that they provide the knowledge and skills that every person must have in order to function effectively in the modern world. I have emphasized the words "must have" because these words are central to the whole structure of educational reform. The proponents of this system are not talking about knowledge that they would like every person to possess, or have available. On the contrary, the whole system is a strictly coercive one, which insists that every single child who goes through the system must have this material at his/her fingertips. Yes, I mean at their fingertips, because that is where it has to be in order to pass comprehensive exams.
In a free society, the imposition of a massively coercive system requires justification as convincing as that required in a court of law to bring about a conviction which would subject the accused to the will of the court.
Not only is such justification utterly lacking, there isn't even a serious attempt to make a claim for it. To make their case, educational reformers would have to launch extensive studies of successfully functioning adults in the world today, as well as of adults who are dysfunctional, and demonstrate that a determining factor in the difference between the two groups is their respective mastery of the material in the curriculum guides.
Leaving aside the daunting question of who decides that one person is successful while another is dysfunctional, it is obvious that such a study has never been made, and never could be made. This is because it is common knowledge that only a tiny number of adults, regardless of their current positions, could show mastery of the curriculum guides' material, or do well on the MCAS exams. This is true of college professors, lawyers, doctors, business executives, journalists, artists, craftsmen, public officials - pretty much everybody, across the board.
The educational reformers know this; the people writing the MCAS tests know this; the legislators and administrators who developed the material know this. In fact, what they are all saying is that, despite the fact that it is a known, demonstrable truth that even the most successful adults in today's world - people universally admired - are leading productive and creative lives without having anywhere near the comprehensive knowledge and skills contained in the curriculum guides, nevertheless we must force every single child in the state to master this material, because it is essential knowledge for successful functioning in modern society.
Maybe you can make sense of that. I can't. In fact, it is nonsense.
The emperor has no clothes.
In reality, the whole educational reform movement is a cruel imposition of the will of a small group of adults, living in never-never land, on the great mass of young people in our Commonwealth, and indeed across the nation. Imagine trying to impose such a system of requirements and exams on any segment of the adult population! Imagine some group attempting to require all women, or all African-Americans, or all senior citizens who wish to retain their voting rights, or all people who don't have graduate university degrees - imagine some group attempting to require all such people to master the material in the curriculum guides and perform successfully on the MCAS exams before they could go on with their lives!
Children, however, are the last remaining group in our society who are powerless, almost totally devoid of the fundamental constitutional rights of the adult population. They are the last remaining vassals in a free society, and people like the educational reformers find no barriers to impinge their phantasmagoric ideas on the entire realm of childhood.
Make no mistake about it. We are talking about a very brutal coercive system, that currently begins in pre-school and continues until the end of high school. It involves singling out children and labeling them at the earliest possible age if, in the eyes of their teachers and testers, they do not seem to be able to fulfill all the requirements of the system in the required manner and time span. It involves naming an unbelievably large group of children - over one in five! - as somehow handicapped, a categorization that they carry with them throughout their lives. It involves subjecting children to the constant threat of punishment and to relentless criticism, and virtually eliminating any free time from their lives. It robs most children of their childhood, strips them of their self-esteem, instills in them a lifelong distaste for anything academic, and creates in them a well-deserved deep distrust of all adults.
That is the real legacy of our vaunted educational reform movement.
I have, in this series of columns written over a period of five weeks, demonstrated that the MCAS exams, and the system on which they are based, are founded on clearly false educational and developmental premises, are absurd in their application, and are hypocritical at their core. Virtually every educator I have spoken to over the past year has expressed many similar feelings. School teachers and administrators have complained bitterly about the exams and the situation that has spawned them. Yet, these very same people continue to cooperate in making the system happen. They say, "I can do nothing about it. It is the reality of the present educational scene."
It is time for people to stop accepting what is patently unacceptable.
Parents must protest loudly and continuously. Teachers must, as a group, simply refuse to administer the exams, and they should have the backing of their principals and superintendents. The only way the devastating effects of educational reform will be avoided is by the kind of grass-roots resistance of the great mass of sensible people, who recognize it for the sham that it is. We have many examples over the past decades where attempts to impose coercive social systems have been turned back by popular resistance. If we truly care about our children, the educational reform movement should be the next example of the victory of the people's honesty and good sense over their leaders' ill-conceived schemes.
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