The Long and Narrow Rut of Standardized Testing

Last year, education scholar William Reese drew our attention to articles published in the Atlantic Monthly and Harpers that “vilify” schools for “inhumane, soul-destroying pedagogy” and “heap scorn on tests.” In his book, Testing Wars in the Public Schools, Reese quotes the Cincinnati schools superintendent, John Peaslee, who pointed out that “in order stimulate teachers to greater expectations . . . [test scores] are paraded in the daily papers, and published in school reports.” 

It was a fact about which Peaslee was none too pleased. He argued that, “attaching undue importance to [test scores] leads to the driving and cramming process, to teaching in narrow ruts… [and] drives poor pupils out of school.” No doubt, it is a sentiment with which many of us would agree.

As contemporary as Peaslee’s analysis may seem, it is worth noting that his thoughts were originally delivered during his tenure with Cincinnati schools, which ran from 1874-1886—the same time period during which the magazine articles from the Atlantic and Harpers appeared.

As Reese and others have documented, testing mania has been with us for a long, long time—plenty long enough to teach us that it will neither improve learning nor end inequality, nor does it deserve the forward-sounding labels of “reform” or “innovation.”  Standardized testing, in fact, has functioned for over 100 years as the preferred technology to label, segregate, and treat children very differently, based on the unearned advantages of class and ethnicity.

Early Misuses of Standardized Testing

As early as the 19th century, standardized testing served to drive less privileged children back to the farms and into the factories and to make high school the proper preserve of children from the economic elite, who were viewed as the ones for which higher levels of education were obviously meant. It was called Social Darwinism at the time, and it applied a gross misunderstanding of evolutionary theory to justify every oppressive social policy for the poor and every benefit for the well-heeled as ordained by nature, no less.  

Forty years later during the rise of the Eugenics movement, which came to inspire practices used in Nazi Germany, standardized testing took on an even darker role. In 1916, American Robert Yerkes, a leading eugenicist, developed the Alpha A and Alpha B intelligence tests, which were used to screen and efficiently sort enlistees for the U.S. Army leading up to World War I. The tests were scaled with the racially and economically oppressed at the bottom and those of Teutonic origins at the top. Those with high intelligence scores were more likely to end up with desk jobs at headquarters, and those with low scores were more likely to end up in the trenches of France. 

By the early 1920s, immigrant children in first and second grade were administered IQ tests that they often couldn’t even read, and that data was then used to justify their education in industrial training schools that taught children the dignity of unskilled labor and the benefits of modesty and compliance.

To say that testing was out of control during the 1920s and 1930s would not be an exaggeration. With IQ testing widespread and achievement tests proliferating at a furious pace, education professor Harold Rugg referred to the situation as “an orgy of tabulation.” Ellen Lagemann at Harvard documented that “between 1917 and 1928, some 1,300 achievement tests were developed in the United States; by 1940, there were 2,600.

The Current Era of Test Abuse

As part of a research study that evaluated high-stakes testing programs in Louisiana, in 2000, I interviewed fourth-grade teachers in a poor Shreveport school, which was then enduring the latest iteration of testing mania, requiring elementary school children to pass a state test before moving on to fifth grade (Louisiana can claim the dubious distinction of being the first state in the nation to require such a measure). 

In 2002, I interviewed the school’s fourth-grade teachers again and found out that 60 to 70 percent of their fourth-graders were failing the state test; so many, in fact, that at this one school, the number of fourth-grade teachers had to be doubled. 

I heard about nervous children having nosebleeds and vomiting on test forms that had to be zipped into bags and sent back to the state for security reasons. I heard from stressed out teachers and about parents who were, in desperation, having “Lean on Jesus Test Rallies” in their community church.

I heard about the boy with spina bifida who was so ashamed to have failed the test that he left his wheelchair and hid under the bed from his mom. And I heard about the boy who had failed two years in a row and how the teacher who had to tell him he had failed the third time could hear his heart beating from across her desk where he sat waiting for the news. I saw teachers, children and parents all working their guts out, making progress and getting further behind at the same time.

When I met with Louisiana education officials to discuss the new state testing program, I had the temerity to ask what the state was going to do with all the schools that would surely fail to make expected progress.  The state official responded flatly: the state doesn’t want to do anything with them.  I didn’t understand that then, but when No Child Left Behind became law just over a year later, with its demands of 100 percent proficiency to avoid the “school failure” label and punitive interventions, the scales began to fall from my eyes.  And when I read Elizabeth Debray’s policy history of NCLB a couple years after that, which details how the policy’s designers in Texas had vouchers and charter schools in mind for those schools that would surely fall short, then I really understood what this was all about.

Privatization: From No Child Left Behind to Race to the Top

In short, No Child Left Behind was never about closing the achievement gap; it was about closing public schools—or at least turning them over to private management, beginning with the most vulnerable schools with the least powerful parents. 

Even though vouchers were finally stripped out of the NCLB Act before it became law in 2002, the total compliance charter model was winning national attention, thanks to KIPP’s primary backer, Don Fisher, and national exposure on "60 Minutes" and at the 2000 Republican National Convention.  Charter schools became the royal road to putting publicly funded schools under private management —with scant public oversight and huge tax advantages for venture philanthropists and billionaires.

So NCLB was deployed in 2002, despite warnings by testing experts about what was surely going to happen. The trigger device used to blow up public schools for the benefit of this new business model and its education industry supporters was, predictably, another generation of high stakes tests that would deliver, via assured failure, a continuing supply of low scoring schools that could be either taken over, or closed and reopened as charters. The number of charters went from 500 in the mid-1990s to over 6,400 today. Charters have grown 100 percent since 2008, when the Gates Foundation and the Walton Foundation essentially bought control of national education policy.

To get their piece of the $3.4 billion in Race to the Top money proffered by the Obama administration in 2010, states closely followed the grant application guidance, which offered bonus points for state systems that agreed to 1) close the lowest performing public schools, while removing limits on charter schools growth; 2) adopt the Common Core Standards and the new generation of tests the standards would spawn; 3) create new data systems that would allow for increased collection of student and teacher data; and 4) implement teacher evaluation systems based significantly on value-added test scores.  

While we now see that NCLB left many children behind and put the testing industrial complex far ahead, it is similarly clear that Race to the Top was, from the start, designed to run on a narrow, corporately beneficial track, leading to a finish where participants would be forced to hand over their prizes to the race promoters: the charter school industry.

The Charter School Expansion Cycle

Here is how the charter school takeover cycle works: First, we need public schools isolated by years of neglect, segregation and poverty—schools that everyone outside the affected communities would rather forget about. Every urban center of America has an ample supply of these schools in the poorest neighborhoods.

These neighborhood schools make easy targets for profiteers and ideologues convinced (or pretending to believe) that these public schools have not met accountability expectations over the decades because of lazy teachers, public bureaucracy, unconcerned parents, unions and other reasons having nothing do with poverty or a sordid history of educational inequality.

Since 2002, NCLB’s impossible demand for schools to reach 100 percent proficiency by 2014 brought the accountability issue to a crisis state, beginning with the poorest schools where students’ scores were the lowest. Over the past decade, parents who could afford to moved or sent their children to schools outside of the dreaded “Needs Improvement” zones, thus leaving the poorest schools with smaller and academically weaker student populations, and thus, with even less capacity to make the yearly progress on test scores that was required by NCLB.

Further deprived, then, of resources both human and monetary, these schools are eventually labeled “underperforming” and “under-utilized,” thus clearing the way for school closure attempts. The only thing standing in the way are parents, students and teachers. It will take bodies to block this juggernaut.

Waiting in the wings are the charter operators and management companies, ready to open total compliance corporate charter schools and staff them with temporary missionaries from Teach for America, or one of the other organizations that emulate the TFA practice of exploiting the idealism and naiveté of predominantly white, economically privileged young people by placing them schools that require the most professional and mature teachers—despite the fact that they have little experience and receive scant teacher training.

With empty buildings from the shuttered public schools sitting idle, the charter operators step up to claim them by offering a token payment to the County.

The rejected or ejected students who threaten the high profile charter chain brands end up back in the remaining public schools in surrounding areas, which further concentrates the low scorers in the surviving schools.

These surviving public schools are further weakened by being forced to absorb austerity measures inflicted by their local government, which is required to pay thousands of dollars to (often) private operators for every public school student lost to a charter school. If another 2,000 students are lost to new charters next year in Memphis, for instance, that amounts to $15,036,000 leaving the public schools and going to fund “corporate welfare” schools getting fat on taxpayer dollars. Meanwhile, ballooning school budget deficits are used to justify even deeper cuts, and continue to weaken the surviving schools’ capacity to meet testing demands.

Still Looking for Innovation

For years now we have heard about “innovation” in these corporate education reform schools that are to replace public schools. Instead of doing something to help the poorest public schools that have been battered down by neglect, poverty and standardized tests, parents of these children are offered “innovative choice,” the reformers say. That is, choose a charter school, move away, or be satisfied with a public school destroyed by austerity measures to pay for charters. 

Despite such promises of innovation, I have not found much of it in years of looking.  In the early days of charters, supporters like Arne Duncan called for “letting a thousand flowers bloom.” Today, however, Secretary Duncan pushes charters with “proven strategies” that can “take innovation to scale.” And yet when we look inside these schools or talk to those who have taught there, I wonder where the innovation is. 

Is it considered innovative to ignore special needs children’s IP Plans, which happens regularly in proven charter schools like KIPP? Is it innovative to scream at children, put them in padded isolation rooms, make them earn a desk to sit in, or force them to remain silent all day, even at lunch? Or is it innovative to label them as “miscreants” for departing one inch from the behavioral catechism that makes these schools look more like penal farms than places to learn and grow?

Is it innovative to make children walk like prisoners between classes, or to limit their curriculum to what they can memorize for standardized tests? Is it innovative to economically segregate children in schools where the racial composition resembles the early 1950s? Is it considered innovative to issue children paychecks based on behavior, or to issue report cards based on how stoic they can remain in the face of mistreatment and ridiculous demands that no middle class parent would allow? Is that what they mean by innovation?

What is innovative about ingraining in children that any and all of their own shortcomings are entirely due to their own lack of effort? That doesn’t look innovative to me. In fact, the pedagogy of the corporate reform schools looks very much like extreme versions of the traditional schools of the early 20th century that John Dewey referred to as chain gangs.

Where I do see innovation, however, is on the policy side, where negative, rather than positive, results continue to accrue. 

It is indeed innovative in modern schooling annals for the federal and state government to incentivize and subsidize the most aggressively segregated schools that one might dream up, to create an education caste system based on junk tests that punish students for being poor. And it is equally innovative to use public money to pay corporations to run them with little or no oversight. 

I think we could make the case, too, that it is quite innovative to turn these economically segregated school children over to two-year corporate enlistees who get five weeks of basic teacher training before taking charge of classrooms that need nothing short of the most experienced and caring professionals. 

And it is also quite innovative to dispense with libraries and guidance counselors, gymnasiums, art rooms, and recess in schools serving children who have no other access to these basic human needs. 

But what is most innovative of all, perhaps, is the hijacking of elected government to install officials who use primitive business management practices to implement a scientifically discarded educational model with a well-established history of social and economic oppression.

If this is innovation, we don’t need it in a democratic republic trying to remain viable. We need to make public education to serve the public, rather than to undergird oppression, reproduce inequality, feed corporate revenue streams, and destroy public governance of schools.  It is time to stop pretending that high stakes standardized testing will ever accomplish any other goal other than that for which it was designed.

A version of this text was offered in a speech March 1, 2014 at a public forum in Nashville, Tennessee sponsored by Tennesseans Reclaiming Educational Excellence (TREE). Included are excerpts from The Mismeasure of Education (2013) and an earlier commentary published by Common Dreams, “The Charter School Takeover Cycle in Memphis Schools.”

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