With America in high dudgeon over looming primaries, some issues get pushed to the rear, like education.
This diary offers both a plea for help--Please Recommend--and recent articles that can and should be promulgated so that more Americans understand just where we are at this historical moment.
NCLB has hit stalemate, leaving thousands of schools under threat of State takeover, tens of thousands of teachers in limbo, and millions of young students (the non-drop outs) stuck in dreary test-prep factories right out of a 19th century Dickens novel.
But, this diary plumbs issues beyond the morass that Bush, with bipartisan help, created with his sole domestic "success story"--NCLB.
Going on three decades, America's political elites have bought into a simple, seductive meme about what education means and how it can be measured. It was sold by business interests intent on boosting America's "competitiveness"--faced with eroding profits from foreign competition.
Together, they created a dynamic right out of the privatizer's handbook: denigrate the quality of a public service, blame a convenient scapegoat, and thereby justify unprecedented changes to the way government serves citizens, especially the poor and people of color.
The core of this strategy has been to use standardized testing as a means of "measuring" student achievement. It's key because it offers a quasi-scientific patina to calls for "accountability." Numbers can be created or twisted to show just how awful America's educational system has become, particularly in urban and poor rural districts. Never mind that the reality behind these numbers is far more complex, entangled in socio-economics and laden with uncertainty.
The key has always been to up the ante on testing.
Not just once in awhile, not just to aid instruction, not just to identify strengths and weakness, not just to assess program efficacy--but for everything, from teacher pay, to ranking schools, to awarding scholarships, to deciding which students graduate and which do not.
We have truly sold our soul to the standardized testing devil, so much that it's all some schools and many students have time for during a school day.
Whatever your view of public education, or kids, or accountability, or teachers, please take time to examine the following resources, all recently published articles concerning standardized testing.
Together, these articles show, beyond any doubt, America is completely off its rocker in terms of how it views public education: whether it is the gestalt of what real learning is for an individual, the efficacy and rationale for what teaching is, or how we mistake appearances, in the form of numbers, for the reality of creating well-educated and fully engaged citizens.
They also reveal that, far from being a reliable and valid measure of student learning, standardized tests are, in fact, the equivalent of Enron's stock certificates, sold as a panacea to the equivalent of Katrina victims stranded in a flood of inequality on America's rooftops, produced by the equivalent of America's subprime pushers--not because they are effective and accomplish what they are meant to, but because they create lucrative profits while placing an expanding burden around the necks of people trying to stay afloat in America's "survival of the fittest" milieu.
The first article, just published in the The Minnnesota English Journal, makes the big case against standardized testing. (Full disclosure: I know the author really, really well.) For the indolent, or those whose hands cannot be separated from a coffee mug, the key grafs produce a full dozen reasons why standardized testing does not equate with genuine learning, several of which I reproduce here:
- In the trash-bin of history: low order thinking skills
Standardized tests, typically multiple-choice and lacking
in breadth and depth, tend to measure low-order thinking skills,
the kind of short-sequence logic operations which are routine
and involve immediate recall of discrete but obvious facts. There
are two problems here: first, these types of questions are often
abstract, with no connection to a student’s life and are therefore
inherently uninteresting and unable to pierce through to their
real-world concerns. We know, or should, that connection to a
student’s identity is one of the surest ways we can bring him or
her into the world of academia.31 In a word, students find these
problems unimportant and useless, and many don’t care enough
to put forward a good effort. Second, the kind of skill-set that
these questions build is rapidly becoming obsolete in today’s
economy. When you look at jobs that are being outsourced to
Asia, it is exactly this kind of rote, sequenced operation that
workers in India and China are able to do much more cheaply
than the best-trained American workers.32 Bottom-line: even if
American students master these kinds of short, logical operations,
executing them over and over again, the reality is there
won’t be much demand for these skills in the world of work.
2. The future is in the right-hemisphere.
The skills that are most necessary for today’s work environment
are much more right-brained: creativity, whole analysis,
a collaborative people orientation, aesthetic appreciation,
complex reasoning and critical problem-solving.33 It is a fact
that standardized tests do not, and cannot, measure these kinds
of aptitudes.34 Right-brained abilities are much more dependent
on instructor modeling, personal exploration and experience,
effective pedagogy and inspiring curriculum. This is precisely
why America’s best private schools do not overly bother themselves
with standardized tests, but, rather, attempt to directly
build academic skills—love for learning, creative problem solving,
stimulating reading and discussion, critical thinking—that
can be transferred to other endeavors.
3. A lousy way to teach and learn.
Standardized tests result in the kind of "drill and kill"
pedagogy that we know is ineffective. In his ground-breaking
book How Children Fail, John Holt wrote this about how and
why children learn:
The child who wants to know something remembers
it and uses it once he has it; the child who learns
something to please or appease someone else forgets
it when the need for pleasing or the danger of not appeasing
Brace yourselves: Holt wrote this 50 years ago in 1958!
Teaching in a standardized testing environment encourages
lousy teaching techniques—memorization, drill-and-kill, rote
learning—and results in the kind of shallow, fleeting and compartmentalized knowledge that is ineffective and prone to turn
children off from school. We have known this for over five decades—
why would we go back to a kind of instructional practice
that never worked in the first place?
5. We are ruining brains.
Brain development is perhaps the most pressing reason
why we need to rethink our current high-stakes testing mania.
By age 9 or so, young people have the physical structure—the
hardware, if you will—of their brain in place. Over the next ten
to twelve years it is crucial that they actively utilize different
brain functions—develop the software—in order for it to reach
its maximum potential.36 Structured complexity in the classroom,
an enriched array of choices and modes of assessment,
varied social groupings all contribute to growing the brain in
particularly fruitful ways. And so does creating an environment
in which adequate time, physical activity and low stress levels
are baseline considerations.37-38 Similarly, the aesthetic appreciation
found in music and the arts as well as more contemplative
activities like spirituality and compassion are not things that
happen without schools making them a priority, or at least a possibility.
39 All of these are currently being shunted aside in our
mad rush to increase test scores. As a result, we are in danger of
producing a generation of learners who cannot critically think,
appreciate the arts, nor marvel at the profound mysteries of our
universe. And, tragically, once these abilities are neglected long
enough, up through the age of 24 or so, there is less of a chance
that they will ever be fully integrated into a person’s intellectual
6. Exams merely ratify the achievement gap.
The oft-stated purpose of NCLB is to narrow the achievement
gap between whites and students of color. Yet, we know,
and have known for a long time, that the most reliable predictor
of a student’s standardized test score is the square-footage of
their principal residence.40 In other words, students of affl uent
families almost universally score higher on exams than do students
in under-privileged homes. Researchers have found that
by the age of six, children in affl uent families have been exposed
to fully 2 million more words than have been children in more
trying circumstances.41 They are more likely to have been read
to regularly, engaged in enrichment activities like travel and
museums and also to have had access to adequate nutrition and
health-care. Is it any wonder that there is a substantial achievement
gap when there is a veritable gulf of difference between the
haves and the have-nots in America? (I don’t even understand
why we are surprised by this.) But to then take the one reliable
instrument which has always privileged well-to-do students and
make it the basis of comparison and academic achievement for
every kid in America is simply to lock in place existing inequi
ties. Poor children are, by far, more likely to drop out, have a
stressful home-life, get suspended, repeatedly move and change
schools, run afoul of the law and act out during class.42 They are
also least likely to be interested in or motivated by abstract questions
or the need to score highly on an instrument far removed
from their personal experience. We are not closing the achievement
gap under NCLB as major research studies have shown,43
but, rather, we are confirming and institutionalizing at the level
of policy how real and profound are the differences between rich
8. Narrowing the curriculum to a lifeless skeleton.
Fact: 71% of schools48 report having to cut back on important
electives like art, music and gym class in order to find
more time for remedial instruction in math and reading. Some
critics might consider this a step in the right direction, more like
our highly competitive adversaries in China, India and Japan.
But, as previously mentioned, in terms of brain development,
pedagogical excellence, real-world skills and fostering intrinsic
interest in learning, this is a huge net loss for children and our
society. Doing more and more of what is not working does not
equate with an effective educational program. We are asking
children to do the metaphoric equivalent of bang their heads
against a concrete wall for hours every day—and when we discover
that it isn’t working, we are urging them to do it harder
and for longer periods of time.
9. The higher the stakes, the lower the bar.
High-stakes standardized tests are not good measures of
academic excellence. As mentioned previously, they measure
a narrow band of logical sequence operations which are useful
only for taking further exams. In fact, because states are under
tremendous pressure to show that their academic programs are
working, the truth is that state exams are becoming less and less
demanding.49 It is a truism: just as in gym class where every student
must jump over a bar at some minimum height, the temptation
is to continually lower the bar until a vast majority can
make it. This is not driving the system toward Olympian heights
of excellence; on the contrary, it is driving the system toward
lower and lower levels of acceptability. Why is it that some
states like Georgia and North Carolina have such remarkable
pass rates on their State-wide exams but such a dismal pass-rate
on the NAEP exam?50 The answer is that high-stakes exam bars
are not set very high, and are certainly not indicative of students
who are ready for college, work or the complex demands of being
an adult. Look at the amount of remedial instruction now
required on college campuses before students can even begin
taking introductory classes. On the route of trying to measure
and prove academic excellence, we are guaranteeing ourselves a
progressively larger share of mediocrity. We are being dumbed-down
in a systematic, organized and expensive way.
11. We are undermining and losing our best people.
As an educator, I can attest to the increasing levels of
frustration and dissatisfaction within the ranks of teachers. We
are losing fully 50% of new teachers in the fi rst fi ve years of embarking on what they hoped was a lifetime career.54 We are also
losing a staggering number of veteran teachers, some through
retirement, others through the frustration of seeing what has
happened to education.55 Think about it: are we really supposed
to believe that a teacher comes home at the end of the day and
says to her husband—"Honey, it’s been an unbelievable day at
school; our reading scores just shot up 2 percent over last year."
The real truth is that educators are made from a complex
confl uence of personal factors, and principal among them are
a love of learning and a kind of reverence for making a difference
in the lives of youngsters. By subverting that, by elevating
merely routine performance to the front of what makes for education,
we are actively undermining the very rationale for why
good teachers want to teach.56 And slowly, over the course of a
generation, if we lose enough truly inspiring educators, we will
lose their students too—the ones who see no particular reason to
want to go into teaching themselves.
12. We are undermining essential American values.
Last, but not least, and perhaps most insidiously, highstakes
standardized exams support a very dangerous world-view.
Jim Cummins, the intrepid advocate for literacy and second language
acquisition, calls the NCLB mindset "an ideology."57 It is
one that believes there is a single measure of human excellence,
that conformity to the designs of those in authority is mandatory
and that deviating in any way from the norm is wrong and
to be punished Had it been our principal educational impulse
since America’s inception, I believe there would not have been
developments like Jazz and women’s suffrage, or fi gures like
Anne Sullivan, Frederick Douglass, Susan B. Anthony or Franklin
Delano Roosevelt—that we would be today a much less confi
dent, innovative and resilient people.
At its core, the high-stakes standardized testing movement
is asking students not only to not think for themselves, but
to passively accept that all knowledge is controlled by authority.
That you exist only as an individual, not as part of some larger
social whole, and that you will be successful or fail based upon
your individual ability to do exactly what others expect you to.
If you step outside of that and try to do something based upon
conviction, creativity or critical insight, your academic record
along with a raft of social opportunities will be damaged. In
fully embracing a high-stakes standardized testing regime, we
are subverting a substantial part of what makes America unique
and productive: our ingenuity, our self-reliance, our faith that
we make a better tomorrow through creativity and collaboration,
not conforming to others’ ideas about what we ought to know or
be able to do. Instead, we are being asked to stay passively in
our chair and make a selection from answers provided, obey all
commands and regulations—no matter how punitive, ridiculous
or restrictive—blithely accept the accuracy, fairness and lack
of transparency surrounding the exams, and voice not a single
word in opposition to the entire noxious enterprise.
Even by the very terms of standardization, validity, reliability, transparency, relevance, many psychometricians and educational academics agree that the current binge of standardized testing is next to useless at measuring or producing improved learning outcomes, or fostering innovative instructional practice.
If nothing else, if you go blankly through this day and do nothing more than reduce available oxygen on the planet, remember this quote:
The vast majority of standardized tests, upon which we have based the future of America's human capital, feature poor validity, low reliability, zero transparency and absolutely no relevance or meaning for young people saddled with having to take them. Nor are they predictive, definitive or even useful in terms of calibrating instructional practice.
Our educational establishment has spent little time, money or energy actually improving teaching, educational capacity or re-organizing schools' institutional culture. How exactly does this equate to anything other than "America's great leap backwards" in educational history?
The second resource is a study just produced by ETS, The Family: America's Smallest School, that's right the Educational Testing Service. You may think that with their production of 50 million standardized tests every year, they might not be a great source of unbiased information about testing and its inherent limitations.
Yet, shockingly, they have produced a detailed study which shows, as many professional educators have always maintained, that it is not where a student "ends up" on a standardized test that identifies the effectiveness of their school education---not to mention the likelihood of their success---it's where they "started out" in terms of their level of affluence.
The E.T.S. researchers took four variables that are beyond the control of schools: The percentage of children living with one parent; the percentage of eighth graders absent from school at least three times a month; the percentage of children 5 or younger whose parents read to them daily, and the percentage of eighth graders who watch five or more hours of TV a day. Using just those four variables, the researchers were able to predict each state’s results on the federal eighth-grade reading test with impressive accuracy.
"Together, these four factors account for about two-thirds of the large differences among states," the report said. In other words, the states that had the lowest test scores tended to be those that had the highest percentages of children from single-parent families, eighth graders watching lots of TV and eighth graders absent a lot, and the lowest percentages of young children being read to regularly, regardless of what was going on in their schools.
Which gets to the heart of the report: by the time these children start school at age 5, they are far behind, and tend to stay behind all through high school. There is no evidence that the gap is being closed.
In other words, as a country we have set school finish lines out there in terms of graduation and meeting "standards". But, as test results' correlations show over and over, some students begin well over half way to the finish line, exceptionally well-prepared to jog in to college acceptance, while other students, without shoes, or training, or breakfast, or encouragement, hear a starter's pistol somewhere in the fog and are crabbed at and told to run, hurry and climb over each other---that learning means following orders and directions and doing very unpleasant things, and that they better get to the finish line or be labeled a failure for life. Run, dammit. And don't even pause to think about why
Is it any wonder that dropout rates for students of color approach 50%? Without crucial relationships, without personal connection or meaning for what they study, without decent facilities, high quality staff or enlightened leadership, without safe neighborhoods or communities around their school, and (often) without a coherent family structure or system to reinforce their efforts, many students opt for other--less savory--options.
Consider the inequities: we have a growing disparity between rich and poor. We know how that impacts students' ability to learn in multiple ways. We know there are certain communities where these needs and deficits completely overwhelm the system's ability to respond effectively. Yet, instead of addressing this at a policy level, we systematically defund schools with large percentages of poor and minority students and tell them they have failed based on test scores.
And, remember: the learning process is so distorted and limited by the necessity of achieving high test scores that school itself has become a form of misery for both students and staff alike.
Why would we be doing this?
Partly it could be genuine fear. Fear of the younger generation goes way back to antiquity. Here is Socrates himself:
Our youth now love luxury. They have bad manners, contempt for authority; they show disrespect for their elders and love chatter in the place of exercize, they no longer rise when elders enter the room; they contradict their parents, chatter before company gobble up their food and tyrranize teachers
Partly it could be a vestige of a racist need to "control" people of color: increasingly, immigrants and people of color are becoming a majority in our inner-city schools.
Partly it could be a growing faith in rationalizing public funding around measurable outcomes, much like we see in trying to identify effective practices in health care.
But, most likely, it is partly each of these and a whole lot of this: a systematic campaign by powerful corporate and political elites to move public education onto a new footing: private school competition. It means using the media to systematically plant the meme that schools are not "measuring up" based on standardized test scores.
Why would they do this?
One, because there are hundreds of billions of dollars spent every year on K-12 education across the United States. There's good money to be made at a time when there are not a lot of economic frontiers opening up for investment capital.
Two, there are true believers who genuinely think that society uniformly gets better results when individual consumers make choices in a marketplace filled with competition--the subprime debacle, rising income inequality, Enron and global climate change notwithstanding. This is classic neo-liberalism (sic).
Three, some business leaders and conservative politicians see in public education, the sole viable threat to their power and control over America's market and public opinion. In other words, young people taught to think and ask important questions are viewed as a threat to the profits and hegemony that certain companies currently enjoy, and happily exploit.
That may sound extreme, even a bit paranoid--as if there is a "vast right wing conspiracy" out to get public education. But, it doesn't have to be a conspiracy. It can simply be a campaign which employs a coherent strategy and has been unfolding over a series of decades. After all, if elements in our society have already shown levels of desperation great enough to invade a country which posed no legitimate threat to our security, why would they blanch at taking out public education?
What are school report cards meant to achieve? Is it really to inform parents about their choice as consumers of education? (As if parents with money have no idea where to educate their children.) Or, is it to identify a few laggards, schools whose scores don't measure up because of poverty and reality---then push them over the cliff of restructuring or privatization?
Has this ever been the purpose of report cards--to compare in order to identify losers and then penalize them?
But that's exactly what standardized testing is about. In and of themselves, an occasional standard exam is just an exercise that provides feedback for teachers or parents or schools about some limited aspect of a child's ability spectrum (or at least for the students who actually tried on that particular instrument). But, in no way, have they ever, or should they ever, become the very basis and rationale for education itself.
The only worthy goal of education is excellence: to allow every learner to find and develop their full potential in whatever field or area of learning they feel most challenged and fulfilled.
And, right now, the only children accorded that privilege attend high quality private and public institutions in which a massive social, economic and structural advantage awaits them. For the rest, public education has been reduced to a numbers chase, in which existing inequities are frozen in place by a need to pursue a kind of learning that limits them to minimum competency exams. Just what jobs will be there for high school graduates, able or unable to master the zen of filling in test bubbles?
People, No Child Left Behind is a product of two decades of moving American education more and more toward standardization and dumbed-down student outcomes, using the sturdy accomplices of "measurable accountability", "high stakes testing" and "high standards." But what would we expect from an administration that lauds the "blue skies initiative" for coal plants, "healthy forests" logging policy and "enhanced interrogation" torture techniques?
It is high time that the memes around education, particularly our misguided faith in standardized test numbers, be revealed for what they are: a salacious but coordinated attempt to undermine American public education, replacing it with something unknown, untried and unplanned---but much more profitable for wealthy and well-connected corporations.
Whatever happens next in federal education policy, the core issue is whether we continue to outsource and empower corporate test providers, or whether we return to providing quality education---which means people, training and programming---capable of addressing actual issues facing each of our many school communities.