Our federal testing law, No Child Left Behind, passed under President Bush, and the programs of the Obama Administration that have amplified its dire consequences in poor communities of color—Race to the Top, School Improvement Grants, No Child Left Behind waivers, and college and career-ready standards and accompanying tests (that are taking the form of the Common Core in most states)—all rest on a foundation of high-stakes, standardized testing. These days standardized tests determine who can be promoted to fourth grade, who can graduate from high school, which teachers get a raise, which teachers are terminated, which schools are ranked as “excellent” or A, which schools are “failing” or F, which schools will be closed, and which schools will be turned into charter schools.
While the majority of parents view the tsunami of standardized testing through the lens of their children’s experiences at school, the implications are more complex than too much test prep, too much practice testing, and too many weeks of learning set aside for the administration of tests. The editorial in the new, spring 2014 issue of Rethinking Schools addresses the complex ramifications of test-based accountability in American public schools and makes the plea for advocates to become more inclusive as they organize to pressure policy makers to reduce testing.
While the majority of parents opting their children out of testing have been white and middle class, the editors caution us to recognize other kinds of protest—against rampant school closures in big cities, for example—as facets of the anti-testing movement. “And yet, for this movement to truly fulfill its potential, it needs a deeper understanding of how different communities are being affected by these tests. If the power of solidarity is going to reclaim our schools, more affluent, predominantly white activists will need to develop an anti-racist understanding of the movement against standardized testing and the barrier that communities of color face to joining—including the very real fear from parents of color that their children’s schools will be shut down if they don’t encourage them to score well on the tests. In some instances, parents of color have expressed support for standardized tests as a way to hold school systems accountable for the education of their children who have far too often been systematically neglected, disproportionately disciplined, and left to cope in the most under-resourced schools.”
Rethinking Schools‘ editors continue: “Because the stakes attached to these tests are different for different communities, this new movement against standardized testing would do well to embrace a multifaceted approach. Opting out and boycotting tests can be exemplary individual acts of resistance. But this tactic becomes most powerful when it grows beyond individual to collective action and becomes part of a mass movement of resistance and protest that includes many entry points and expressions.” Parents will benefit by allying with teachers. For example, the Chicago Teachers Union has been organizing with groups across the city and Karen Lewis, CTU’s president, has launched the “Let Us Teach!” campaign. “A multiracial fightback against the testing industrial complex—one that is explicitly anti-racist and takes up issues of class inequality—has the potential to change the terms of the education reform debate….”
In Ohio, my state, I feel personally hurt every time our state’s school rating system (based entirely on standardized test scores) is trotted out—something that happens routinely in newspaper reports and comments by politicians. In the fall of 2014, Ohio will go to an A-F school rating system, but for years the press and even public education advocates have often just accepted without question that our schools and school districts fit into a system that classifies them as Excellent (Some are even Excellent with Distinction.), Effective, Continuous Improvement, Academic Watch, and Academic Emergency. People will tell you their school district is “Excellent with Distinction” without adding that it is 99 percent white and 100 percent affluent as an outer-ring suburb. This system feeds the belief that teachers in the wealthiest suburbs know how to teach and “produce excellent results” while city school teachers and teachers in Appalachian rural areas don’t know how to “produce results.” In Ohio’s metropolitan areas this system has been feeding white flight to outer suburbs for several years now, and it also feeds the stereotype that poor children and children of color cannot learn.
My own personal experience with test-based rating and ranking of schools—and their teachers—and their children—makes me especially gratified to see the following analysis in the Rethinking Schools editorial:
“The United States has a long history of using intelligence tests to support white supremacy and class stratification. Standardized tests first entered the public schools in the 1920s, pushed by eugenicists…. High-stakes standardized tests have disguised class and race privilege as merit ever since. The consistent use of test scores to demonstrate first a ‘mental ability’ gap and now an ‘achievement’ gap exposes the intrinsic nature of these tests: They are built to maintain inequality, not to serve as an antidote to educational disparities.”