Back to School: Corporate Standardized Testing
Why are corporations working so hard to impose high-stakes standardized testing on the nation's public schools? With Al Gore and George W. Bush competing to be the next education president -- and both supporting education standardization, unlike Ralph Nader -- the corporate connection is too suspicious to ignore. Three competing theories are available: the do-gooder, the cynical, and the conspiratorial.
Corporations prefer their own do-gooder explanation. Corporate officials and their front-group institutes and think tanks say they're genuinely worried about the lack of qualified applicants for today's high-tech workforce. They just want public education to do a better job. This argument has some appeal to worried parents who believe the propaganda about failing kids and lazy, unionized teachers -- especially parents in the half of the population who haven't benefited from high-tech mania.
Here's the corporate do-gooder method. First, states standardize the curriculum around job-relevant, business-defined basics rather than locally-determined priorities. Then they create one-size-fits-all tests to ensure that the revised curriculum is actually taught, with a special emphasis on test-taking skills and simple memorization rather than critical thinking, depth of content, and other frills. Schools commonly administer the tests in fourth, eighth, and tenth grades; students who don't pass by the time they finish twelfth grade don't get a diploma -- even if they pass all their courses.
Test defenders say that those who run the stressful gauntlet "get a diploma that really means something." Those who fail or drop out "get what they deserve."
Even their advocates acknowledge that the tests are imperfect. In some states they're administered even before the new curriculum is institutionalized, so kids are tested on material they never learned. The tests are poorly designed political compromises. Teaching to the test is rampant, as is cheating -- including cheating by teachers and principals, increasingly evaluated on the basis of student test scores and even pressured by local realtors, who find it easier to sell houses in high-scoring districts.
Still, the defenders say, how else can we shake up tradition-bound teachers, especially in inner-city schools devastated by neglect, racism, and poverty? Tests are simply more cost-effective than fully funding schools.
Cynics, mostly liberal ones, reject much of the standardized testing agenda as merely a conservative ploy. Standardization's real goal, they argue, is not to improve public education but to destroy it. Why? To build support for the right's preferred privatized, union-free alternatives: private schools, charter schools managed by for-profit management companies, and taxpayer-funded school vouchers designed to get more kids out of the public system.
Since only public school students take the standardized tests, kids whose parents can afford private schools don't have to agonize year after year about potential failure. That so many test-supporters -- including many state legislators -- send their own kids to parochial and other private schools adds to the cynicism.
So does the proliferating corporate investment in for-profit charter schools and test-prep tutoring programs. All those people making money off parental panic makes cynicism pretty understandable.
Still, conspiratorial types have a different explanation. According to anti-corporate groups like New Democracy, headquartered in Boston where the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System has spawned a student test boycott, the primary corporate goal is not to make money off private education but to lower expectations about what education can provide. In this view, corporations are out to dim the hopes of students whose teachers might otherwise teach them they can get somewhere in life if they work hard and graduate.
The corporate problem is that educated people expect to get somewhere good. And despite all those high-tech job openings, there's even more of a need for low-tech service workers. Cooks. Domestics. Cashiers. Assemblers. Delivery drivers. This is the real new economy, where the job openings are, but it's not what today's students envision for their middle-class futures.
There's nothing more dissatisfied, and even revolutionary, than an educated work force that can only find low-paid jobs requiring low-level skills. People tend to accept poverty when they think there's no alternative, but not when they've followed the rules and still can't get ahead.
The corporate solution is simple: raise "standards" to arbitrary levels, assign impossible tasks and impossible tests, increase competition and stress, and make our kids think they're too stupid for anything better. And if this solution is good for the US, it's good for everyone, which explains why the International Montetary Fund imposes high-stakes requirements all around the planet.
Don't get me wrong here. Public education in the US has serious problems. Chief among them is an underfunded, inequitable financing system dependent on local property taxes, compounded by vastly disparate family and community resources that lead directly to disparate outcomes.
But the solutions, monetary and political, are not reducible to punitive tests or missing-the-mark "education reform." Standardized testing only ensures that more kids drop out into the lowest level of the service economy or into welfare or prison, as in Bush's Texas. Most students who remain in school get trained for higher-level service jobs, while relatively few are tracked into elite public exam schools or high-tech private-school heaven.
What students won't learn in corporatized schools is how to think for themselves.
And that's not such a bad outcome for the corporate sponsors, conspiratorially speaking.
Dennis Fox is associate professor of legal studies and psychology at the University of Illinois at Springfield. His commentaries and essays are posted at dennisfox.net; he can be reached at email@example.com