Test-Based Accountability – Smokescreen for Cowardly Politicians and Unscrupulous Corporations

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There is no single education policy more harmful than test-based accountability.

 

The idea goes like this: We need to make sure public schools actually teach children, and the best way to do that is with high stakes standardized testing.

 

It starts from the assumption that the problems with our school system are all service-based. Individual schools or districts are not providing quality services. Teachers and administrators are either screwing up or don’t care enough to do the job.

 

But this is untrue. In reality, most of our problems are resource-based. From the get-go, schools and districts get inequitable resources with which to work.

 

This is not a guess. This is not a theory. It is demonstrable. It has been demonstrated. It is a fact.

 

No one even disputes it.

 

What is in question is its importance.

 

However, any lack of intention or ability on the part of schools to actually teach is, in fact, pure conjecture. It is a presumption, an excuse by those responsible for allocating resources (i.e. lawmakers) from doing their jobs.

 

Any time you hear senators or representatives at the state or federal level talking about test-based accountability, they are ignoring their own duties to properly provide for our public school children and pushing everything onto the schools, themselves.

 

That is the foundation of the concept. It’s hard to imagine more unstable ground from which to base national education policy.

 

But it gets worse.

 

With our eyes closed and this assumption swallowed like a poison pill, we are asked to accept further toxic premises.

 

Next comes the concept of trustworthiness.

 

We are being asked to question the trustworthiness of teachers. Instead, we are pushed to trust corporations – corporations that manufacture standardized tests.

 

I have no idea why anyone would think that big business is inherently moral or ethical. The history of the world demonstrates this lie. Nor do I understand why anyone would start from the proposition that teachers are inherently untrustworthy. Like any other group of human beings, educators include individuals that are more or less honest, but the profession is not motivated by a creed that specifically prescribes lying if it maximizes profit.

 

Business is.

 

Test manufacturers are motivated by profit. They will do that which maximizes the corporate bottom line. And student failure does just that.

 

Most of these companies don’t just manufacturer tests. They also provide the books, workbooks, software and other materials schools use to get students ready to take the tests. They produce the remediation materials for students who fail the tests. And they provide and grade the tests in the first place.

 

When students fail their tests, it means more money for the corporation. More money to give and grade the retests. More money to provide additional remediation materials. And it justifies the need for tests to begin with.

 

Is it any wonder then that so many kids fail? That’s what’s profitable.

 

There was a time when classroom teachers were not so motivated.

 

They were not paid based on how many of their students passed the test. Their evaluations were not based on student test scores. Their effectiveness used to be judged based on what they actually did in the classroom. If they could demonstrate to their administrators that they were actually making good faith efforts to teach kids, they were considered effective. If not, they were ineffective. It was a system that was both empirical and fair – and one to which we should return.

 

In fact, it was so fair that it demonstrated the partisanship of the corporations. Laws were changed to bring teacher motivation more in line with those of big business. Their evaluations became based on student test scores. Their salaries were increasingly tied to student success on these tests. And when some teachers inevitably felt the pressure to cheat on the tests, they were scapegoated and fired. There is no mechanism available to even determine if testing corporations cheat less than penalties for it.

 

After all, what is cheating for a testing corporation when they determine the cut score for passing and failing?

 

Yet this is a major premise behind test-based accountability – the untrustworthiness of teachers compared to the dependable, credibility of corporations.

 

Next, come the scores, themselves.

 

Time-after-time, standardized test scores show a striking correspondence: poor and minority students often do badly while middle class and wealthy white students do well.

 

Why is that?

 

Well, it could mean, as we’ve already mentioned, that poor and minority students aren’t receiving the proper resources. Or it could mean that teachers are neglecting these children.

 

There is a mountain of evidenceundisputed evidence – to support the former. There is nothing to support the later.

 

I’m not saying that there aren’t individual teachers out there who may be doing a bad job educating poor and minority children. There certainly are some. But there is no evidence of a systemic conspiracy by teachers to educate the rich white kids and ignore all others. However, there IS an unquestionable, proven system of disinvestment in these exact same kids by lawmakers.

 

If we used standardized tests to shine a light on the funding inequalities of the system, perhaps they would be doing some good. But this is not how we interpret the data.

 

Finally comes the evidence of history.

 

Standardized testing is not new. It is a practice with a past that is entirely uncomplimentary.

 

These kinds of assessments are poor indicators of understanding complex processes. Answering multiple choice questions is not the best way to determine comprehension.

 

Moreover, this process is tainted by the eugenicist movement from which it originates. Standardized testing is a product of the belief that some races are better than others. It is a product of white supremacy. It was designed by racist psychologists who used it to justify the social structure of past generations and roundly praised and emulated by literal Nazis.

 

It is therefore not surprising that test scores show privileged white kids as superior to underprivileged students of color. That is how the system was designed.

 

Why any educated person would unquestionably accept these scores as valid assessments of student learning is beyond me.

 

Yet these are the assumptions and premises upon which the house of test-based accountability is built.

 

It is a smokescreen to protect politicians from having to provide adequate, equitable, sustainable resources for all children. It likewise protects unscrupulous business people so they can continue to cash in on the school system without providing any real value for students.

 

We must no longer allow policymakers to hide behind this blatant and immoral lie.

 

Not only should voters refrain from re-electing any lawmakers whose constituents children are receiving inequitable school resources, they should not be eligible for re-election.

 

Not only should corporations not be trusted more than teachers, they should be barred from determining success or failure while also profiting off of that same failure.

 

In short, we need to stop worshipping at the altar of test-based accountability.

 

Schools can and should be held accountable. But it cannot be done with standardized tests.

 

Moreover, we must stop ignoring the role of policymakers and business in this system. They must also be responsible. We are allowing them to get away with murder.

 

It’s time to wake up and make them answer for what they’ve done to our nation’s children.

Standardizing Whiteness: the Essential Racism of Standardized Testing

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“As a method of social production, as well as social reproduction, standardized testing has had serious cultural implications, not the least of which has been the eternal question of American identity. Consistent with notions of American identity, standardized testing, as an opposition to a cultural other, represents the normalization of whiteness, richness, and maleness.”
-Andrew Hartman

“In this country American means white. Everybody else has to hyphenate.”
-Toni Morrison

We talk about standardized testing as if we don’t really understand what it is.

We say we want No child left behind!

And then we pass a law named after that very sentiment that ensures some students MUST be left behind.

We say we want Every student to succeed!

And then we pass a law named after that very sentiment that ensures every student will NOT succeed.

It would be absurd if not for the millions of children being forced to endure the harsh reality behind our pretty words.

It’s not these ideals that are the problem. It’s standardized testing.

Researchers, statisticians, and academics of every stripe have called for an end to high stakes testing in education policy. Parents, students and teachers have written letters, testified before congressional committees, protested in the streets, even refused to take or give the tests. All to deaf ears.

The federal government still requires all students in 3-8th grade and once in high school to take standardized tests.

But these assessments are graded on a curve. A certain amount of students are at the bottom, a certain amount are at the top, and most are clustered in the middle. This would be true if you were testing all geniuses or all people with traumatic brain injuries.

It doesn’t matter how smart your test takers are. There will always be this bell curve distribution. That’s how the tests are designed. So to talk about raising test scores is nonsensical. You can raise scores at school A or School B, but the total set of all test takers will always be the same. And some students will always fail.

But that isn’t even the worst part.

Standardization, itself, has certain consequences. We seem to have forgotten what the term even means. It’s defined as the act of evaluating someone or something by reference to a standard.

This socket wrench is a good socket wrench because it most closely resembles some ideal socket wrench. This McDonald’s Big Mac is good because it resembles the ideal McDonald’s Big Mac.

That’s what we’re doing to people – children in fact. We’re evaluating them based on their resemblance to some ideal definition of what a child should know and what a child should be.

But children are not socket wrenches nor are they Big Macs. It is not so easy to reduce them to their component parts and say this is good and that is bad.

When you try to abstract them to that point, it is impossible to remove various essential factors of their identity – race, gender, socio-economic status, etc. Nor would it be admirable if you could, because you would have abstracted to the point where the individual is no longer visible or valued. A child raised in poverty is simply not the same as a child from a privileged upbringing. A child from a culture that values cooperation is not the same as a child from a culture that values individual achievement. And that’s often a good thing.

But when you define a standard, an ideal, you make certain choices – you privilege some attributes and denigrate others. Since the people creating the tests are almost exclusively upper middle class white people, it should come as no surprise that that is the measure by which they assess success.

Is it any wonder then that poor kids and children of color don’t score as well on these tests? Is it any wonder that upper middle class white kids score so well?

We’ve known this for almost a century. Standardized tests do a poor job of assessing intelligence or knowledge. Those things are too complex and the tests are too simple. If you’re evaluating something equally simple like basic addition and subtraction, these tests can work alright. But if you’re trying to get at something complex like critical thinking or creativity, they end up doing little more than prizing the way some people think and not others. In short, they elevate the thought processes most associated with rich white kids.

It doesn’t mean poor and/or black children are any less intelligent. It just means rich white kids have the things for which the test designers are looking. Some of this is due to economic factors like greater access to private tutoring, books in the home, parents with more time to read to their kids, coming to school healthy and more focused. However, a large portion is due to the very act of taking tests that are created to reflect white upper class values and norms.

Think about it. Almost all the questions are field tested before they become a permanent part of the exam. Students are given a question that doesn’t count to their final score, but test makers tabulate how many kids get it right or wrong. So when most white kids answer a field tested question correctly and most black kids get it wrong, it still becomes a permanent test question because there are so few blacks relative to whites. Maybe it’s a question that references sun tan lotion, something with which darker skinned people don’t have as much experience. Imagine if a question referencing the hair care practices of  black people became a test item. White people would have difficulty with it because they can’t easily relate. But the field testing process doesn’t allow that because it normalizes whiteness.

So black kids stumble while white kids have an easier time. We even have a name for it: the racial proficiency gap.

Many well-intentioned progressive voices have bemoaned this problem and wondered how to solve it. But it’s not the scores that are the problem. It’s the assessments. They are doing exactly what they were designed to do.

That’s right. You cannot have such obvious, historical problems perpetuated year-after-year, decade-after-decade, and still think they are mere unintended consequences.

This is how the system was designed to work. This is how it’s always been designed to work.

If you were going to create a racist and classist school system from scratch, what would you do? How would you go about it?

You’d need the lower classes to have SOME mediocre education so they are able to do the menial work that keeps society running. But only so much. Education as a social ladder is all well and good as propaganda. But you don’t want that ladder to lead out of the basement for more than a few.

You need something that will create a hierarchy with people of color at the bottom and poor whites only slightly better off so they can feel ennobled compared to their darker subordinates.

You need a biased sorting mechanism – something that allows you to put students into privileged and unprivileged categories but that will look to all the world like it was doing so fairly. It would have to appear like you were choosing students based on merit.

You’d need something like standardized test scores.

This is how these assessments have functioned from their very beginnings.

When Carl Brigham and Robert Yerkes, U.S. Army psychologists during WWI, designed the alpha and beta intelligence tests to determine which soldiers deserved to be officers, they were creating a pseudoscientific justification for white privilege. They used biased and unfair assessments to “prove” that rich white folks were best suited to give orders, and the rest of us belonged in the trenches.

Brigham and Yerkes were drawing upon eugenics, also called “racial hygiene” or “scientific racism.” This was a radical misreading of Gregor Mendel and Charles Darwin. Eugenicists thought positive traits such as intelligence were widespread in Northwestern European races and almost nonexistent in others. Moreover, negative traits such as laziness and criminality were common in nonwhites and almost absent in those same Northwestern Europeans.

“We should not work primarily for the exclusion of intellectual defectives but rather for the classification of men in order that they may be properly placed,” wrote Yerkes.

THIS is the basis of standardized testing.

After the war, Brigham took the same principles to create the Scholastic Aptitude Test or S.A.T. – in principle the same exam still taken by 2.1 million teenagers every year to ensure they get into their chosen college.

The test was further refined by fellow eugenicist Lewis Terman, Professor of Education at Stanford University and originator of the Stanford-Binet intelligence test. Together these three men created the foundations for the modern field of standardized testing. And make no mistake – its axiomatic principle is still that some races are genetically superior and others are inferior.

Or as Terman put it:

“A low level of intelligence is very common among Spanish-Indian and Mexican families of the Southwest and also among Negroes. Their dullness seems to be racial, or at least inherent in the family stocks from which they come… They constitute a grave problem because of their unusually prolific breeding.”

After WWII, the eugenicist brand suffered from comparison to the Nazis who had been inspired by the findings of Brigham, Yerkes and Terman among others. In the post war years, we’ve discarded the overtly racist language but kept the assessments. Yet they still function the same way – sorting out blacks and the poor while prizing the rich and white.

This information is not secret. It is not kept under lock and key in some hidden military base somewhere. It’s accessible to anyone with Internet access or a library card.
We ignore it, because otherwise it would destabilize the current power structure – the corporate education policies that drive school practices in our country. We close our eyes and pretend it isn’t happening.

But it is.

“Standardized tests are the last form of legalized discrimination in the US,” said Education and Psychology Prof. Phil Harris.

With them you can give rich and middle class whites every advantage while withholding the same from students of color. And we don’t call it racism or classism because we pretend the whites earned their privileges by their test scores.

“We are using the testocracy as a proxy for privilege,” said civil rights theorist Lanni Guinier. Test scores are the excuse for prejudicial and unjust practices that would be impossible without them.

For instance, if you really wanted to help someone who’s struggling, you might offer extra help. But low test scores are used as the reason for withholding that help. We actually use these invalid scores as a means of demeaning and firing poor black kids’ teachers – as if anything they could do could completely overcome biased assessments and poverty. In this way, we not only remove those already in place to help these kids, we ensure few people will volunteer to take their place.

And when you have a teacher shortage in these poor urban neighborhoods, you can use that to justify further deprivations. Instead of teachers with 4-year education degrees, you can hire lightly trained Teach for America temps – college grads who’ve taken no coursework in education beyond a six weeks cram session.

And if the parents of these children complain, you can open charter schools to pull a quick bait and switch. Make them feel like they have a choice when really you’re pulling the rug out from under them. You provide them with a school with none of the safeguards of a traditional public institution – no elected school board, no transparency on how tax dollars are spent, little oversight, a right to refuse any student they wish, etc. And when the school goes belly up, these kids will be pushed back to their former traditional public school that has had to make due with less funding and now can provide even fewer  services than it could before students jumped ship.

Using standardized test scores to judge not just students but whole schools, you can destabilize the entire system of public education. Charter schools and traditional public schools fight over ever-dwindling funding, one required to prove everything it does, the other able to do whatever it wants until it closes with little to no consequences for charter operators who take the money and run.

The US Supreme Court ruled in Brown vs Board that we can’t have “separate but equal” schools because when they’re separate, they’re rarely equal. But somehow that doesn’t apply to charter schools.

Somehow we’ve stopped caring about integration – one of the central victories of the Civil Rights movement! This plays right into the hands of the corporate education reformers. They have done everything they can to increase segregation because it makes it so much easier to privilege rich white kids and crush poor black ones.

They don’t want an equal mix of black and white, rich and poor in our schools. That would make it much harder to select against one class of student while boosting another.

They need to keep the races and classes as separate as possible. Charter schools help in this regard, but they would be insufficient without the help from many white families who flee from these “other” darker complected kids. It’s just another way to send more funding to white kids and less to poor black kids. They say it’s based on local property taxes. That way they can pretend it’s all fair and above board. Rich folks have a right to be able to give their kids the best, and if poor folks can’t afford to do the same, who do you expect to pick up the tab?

Oh! And let’s not forget setting “high academic standards” while all this is going on. They throw out everything that’s been working and come up with a Common Core of knowledge that all kids need to learn. Don’t include black and brown history, culture or the arts – just the stuff the business community thinks is valuable because they know so much about what’s really important in life. And have the whole thing written up by non-educators and non-psychologists and don’t bother testing it out to make sure it works.

Your rich white kids will have no problem jumping through these hoops. But your poor black and brown kids will stumble and fall – just as planned.

This is what has become of our public schools.

This is corporate education reform.

This is our racist, classist school system.

And it’s all based on standardized testing – a perfectly legal system of normalizing rich whiteness.

Fighting for Public Schools Means Fighting Against Systemic Racism – United Opt Out Education and Civil Rights Summit

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What do you do when you hold a civil rights summit and none of the big names show up?

That’s what happened last weekend when United Opt Out (UOO) held its Education and Civil Rights Summit in Houston, Texas.

We invited everybody.

We invited the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). We invited the National Council of La Raza “The People,” the League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC), the Urban League and several others.

None came.

But instead we were host to many of these organizations individual members.
Just how many people came to the Lone Star State for the summit? Thousands? Hundreds?

More like dozens.

Not only did the major civil rights groups neglect to send their leadership, but the bulk of our nation’s education activists also stayed away.

United Opt Out had just gone through a major reorganization on philosophical grounds. Only three of its long-time board members remain – Denisha Jones, Ruth Rodriguez and Ceresta Smith. They have since been joined by five new directors – Gus Morales, Zakary Rodriguez, Erika Strauss Chavarria, Deborah Anderson and Steven Singer (me).

The directors that left the group did so for various reasons, but some of them split along ideological lines. Some thought United Opt Out shouldn’t work with labor leaders or civil rights groups that weren’t perfectly aligned with all of UOO’s goals. So they left. Those who stayed are committed to working with almost anyone to push forward the cause, piece-by-piece if necessary.

As a result, this organization that had been growing by leaps and bounds, finds itself starting afresh. While last year’s conference in Philadelphia drew progressive luminaries like Chris Hedges, Jill Stein and Bill Ayers, this year’s gathering was more low key.

But it was far from somber. In fact, the board’s vision was vindicated in the most amazing way during the summit.

As Jesse “The Walking Man” Turner discussed the importance of reframing school policy to include students basic humanity, Gus looked up from his phone and announced, “The NAACP just ratified its moratorium on charter schools!”

We all stopped what we were doing and went to our phones and computers for verification. Denisha found it first and read the resolution in full.

We cheered, laughed and hugged each other.

This was exactly the kind of change we’ve been talking about! In fact, Julian Vasquez Heilig, education chair of the California and Hawaiian NAACP chapter, had originally been scheduled at the summit as a keynote speaker. When the resolution that he had been instrumental in crafting came up for a vote at the national NAACP meeting, he understandably had to cancel with us. Clearly he was needed elsewhere.

And now one of the largest civil rights organizations in the country has taken a strong stance on charter schools. Not only does the NAACP oppose charters as a solution to inequities experienced by children of color, they’ve now gone beyond mere ideology. They’re calling for action – no new charter schools.

It is a tremendous victory for parents, children and teachers everywhere. And a much needed win for civil rights and education activists. The civil rights community (including the Black Lives Matter movement) is starting to acknowledge that Brown vs. Board is right – we cannot have “separate but equal” school systems because when they’re separate, they’re rarely equal.

Let me be clear – UOO did not achieve this triumph alone. It took many people, some of whom probably have never heard of us. However, activists supporting our movement such as Julian were strongly involved.

And if we had listened to the naysayers who proposed only working with perfectly like-minded groups, this might never have happened.

As a national organization, the NAACP still supports standardized testing as necessary to hold schools accountable for teaching all students. But this was not always the case.

In October of 2014, there were 11 civil rights groups including the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund (LDF) who wrote a letter to President Barack Obama asking him to reduce standardized testing.

Then in January of 2015, a full 19 Civil Rights organizations including the NAACP wrote to Congress asking lawmakers to preserve annual testing.

What changed in those three months?

All of these organizations accept huge donations from the corporate education reform industry including some of the richest people in the world like Bill Gates. While none of us were present at these decision making sessions, it seems clear that fear of losing their funding may have forced them to make hard compromises.

Should we then as education activists wipe our hands of them? Should we refuse to work with them on some issues because we disagree on others?

United Opt Out says no. We’ll work with almost anyone where we can, when we can. And the results were on display with the NAACP resolution calling for a charter school moratorium.

Perhaps now that we’ve found that common ground on school privatization, we can do the same with standardized testing. Perhaps we can help educate them about the history of this practice, how it was a product of the eugenics movement and has always been used to support white supremacy and keep people of color and the poor in their place.

If we can make that argument, think of the potential. Perhaps leadership at these big civil rights groups would be less willing to compromise if they understood that standardized testing was used to justify mass sterilizations of American citizens and it was greatly admired by the Nazis. Perhaps if they understood that our modern standardized assessments are little better and create a racial proficiency gap by their very design – maybe then threats from rich white philanthropists won’t seem as important. Perhaps if they understood that schools can best be held accountable by reference to the adequacy of the funding they receive and a detailed accounting of what they do with it, these organizations might be less inclined to rely on multiple choice testing.

In fact, this is why we were there together in Houston in the first place. We wanted to make our case to these same civil rights organizations.

They may not have sent their leaders, but their members were already here. And we spent the time working together to find ways to make our case.

It was really quite amazing.

Audrey Amerin-Breadsley, professor and author of the blog Vamboolzed, gave us an incredibly accessible and informative keynote on value-added measures (VAM), the practice of using students test scores as a way to evaluate their teachers. For instance, did you know this common practice was originally based on a model for the cattle industry? It’s junk science and has little relation to education, teachers and students. All it does is pit students and teachers against each other creating a culture of fear where educators can be unfairly fired at any time – not the best environment for learning. Yet ignorant, lazy and/or corrupt bureaucrats still champion it across the country as a solution to improving schools.

Sam Abrams, Director of the National Center for the Study of Privatization in Education (NCSPE) and an instructor at Columbia University, explained in minute detail how corporate education reform relies on bad statistics and is bad business. He explained how academics blinded by economics and unencumbered by any real-life experience of public schools came up with this scheme, which has been disproven by the facts again-and-again. Not only do the highest achieving countries such as Finland go a different route, but those that follow this market driven model find student achievement suffering. In short, our current education policies are really faith-based initiatives, a faith in the invisible hand of the market, and an ignorance of reality.

But perhaps most heartening was the series of talks given by the locals. Houston Federation of Teachers is one of the few labor unions to pass a resolution supporting parents rights to opt their children out of standardized testing. In fact, teachers and parents even run a free Opt Out Academy for children not taking the tests so that their education continues while their peers suffer through these useless assessments. We got to meet parent zero, the first parent to refuse testing in the district. We heard the community’s painstaking process of spreading the movement one family at a time. This was in effect an opt out cookbook, a how-to for anyone wishing to bring this social justice action to their own neighborhoods.

It was a weekend to give anyone hope.

We were small but we were powerful. Given a few years to rebuild, UOO could well be much stronger than we once were. Meanwhile parents across the country continue to refuse these tests for their children at an exponential rate.

There are many struggles ahead. But we have made real progress toward our goal of providing an excellent education for all children.

No longer can our governments be allowed to keep discriminating against them based on the color of their skin, their parents bank accounts and other factors. We’re standing for all students, because we don’t see them as consumers or data points. We see them as children, as human beings. And we stand together to protect and preserve that shared humanity.

What better way to spend a weekend?

Shouldn’t Our Schools At Least be as Logical as Dental Floss?

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All my life I assumed flossing was essential to dental health.

 

It was safe, it was sound, it was normal.

 

Every day after brushing, I would stand before the bathroom mirror and carefully thread a mint-flavored filament through my teeth – like a chump.

 

And when I got to the dentist, I’d comfort myself that I had done the best I could to prevent cavities.

 

The hygienist would remove plaque and germs while scraping and sawing at my teeth with a specialized hook, and all the while I’d think, “At least I flossed every day!”

 

Yet now the federal government tells us that flossing is ineffective at best!

 

What!? After all these years!?

 

It turns out, there just is no evidence that flossing actually helps – never has been. So this summer for the first time in decades the good folks who compile federal dietary guidelines decided not to recommend the practice.

 

 

A total of 25 studies have concluded that the evidence for flossing is “weak, very unreliable,” of “very low” quality, and carries “a moderate to large potential for bias,” according to the Associated Press.

 

“The majority of available studies fail to demonstrate that flossing is generally effective in plaque removal,” said one review conducted just last year. Another 2015 review cites “inconsistent/weak evidence” for flossing and a “lack of efficacy.”

 

So flossing is out.

 

It’s not evidence-based.

 

It’s actually kind of shocking to see the federal government acting so logically.

 

Where’s the politics? Why aren’t Republicans taking one side and Democrats the other? Why isn’t the dental floss lobby making massive contributions to our lawmakers to influence the decision?

 

But we get none of that in this instance. Instead, here’s the evidence. It doesn’t support this policy. So let’s discontinue that policy.

 

I wonder what the world would look like if every government stance was as susceptible to argument, cause and effect, and rationality.

 

As a public school teacher, I’ve become inured to our lawmakers doing exactly the opposite. They look at the evidence, see it DOESN’T support an education scheme and then… they proudly give it their full support.

 

As a result, education policy is full of unfounded, fallacious and unproven practices.

 

Our schools are struggling under the burden of illogical laws. Our teachers are pulling out their hair at a series of half-baked mandates that go counter to everything they’ve learned about childhood development. And our students suffer from procedures that don’t help them learn and in fact actually do much to prevent them from doing so.

 

Take standardized testing, Common Core and school choice.

 

Our legislators think standardized testing is the best way to measure learning. Are you freaking kidding me!? In colleges and universities across the country where this has been studied in-depth for centuries, it’s been disproven, ridiculed and considered an antiquated way of thinking about learning. It went out with phrenology and eugenics!

 

Multiple choice tests like these have consistently been shown to correlate more closely with socioeconomic status than intelligence, retention or understanding. Put simply: if you’re rich, you do well. If you’re poor, you don’t.

 

Standardized tests as we know them were developed in the Victorian Age to “prove” that wealthy people were just smarter than poor people. They were created to show the innate inferiority of black and brown people and the natural superiority of the white race.

 

Yet these kinds of assessments still are the backbone of the public school system.

 

Another fallacious policy championed by many lawmakers is Common Core State Standards. But like The Four Temperments, the Geocentric Universe, and the Flat Earth Theory, they aren’t backed up by evidence. In fact, each of these disproven scientific hypotheses has MORE EVIDENCE behind it than Common Core! Each of these ancient models was based on evidence but later refuted. By contrast, Common Core was never empirically based. In fact, it has never even been studied. Someone just pulled it out of their butt!

 

Let me say that again: there has never been any proof that Common Core will help children learn. In fact, far from showing any improvement, since its adoption, student outcomes have plummeted. But in many states it’s the law of the land.

 

In truth, Common Core is a series of academic standards developed by the testing and publishing industry as a way to sell more standardized tests and remediation materials. They were only adopted because state officials were blackmailed to accept them. Otherwise, they wouldn’t have enough money to continue running their state schools. In many cases, the standards weren’t even voted on by state legislators but instead by appointed boards of education.

 

Yet today these standards (or very similar ones) are required in public schools across 42 states.

 

 

Finally, we have the political darling, school choice. Many Republicans and Democrats champion some form of choice and competition in our schools. They all think it will help, despite the fact that there’s more evidence for UFOs, Bigfoot and the Loch Ness Monster!

 

Very few countries try to help students by increasing their choices without also trying to increase the quality of those choices. Nowhere has it ever been shown that having more schools to choose from is better than less schools to choose from – if you don’t improve the quality of those schools. Simply having more options and having those options compete doesn’t make them better. As John Oliver pointed out recently, the town with the most pizzerias doesn’t necessarily have the best pizza.

 

In fact, in countries that have initiated school choice policies, they’ve seen educational quality drop – not rise. Yet billionaires all across the US push for us to adopt these policies all the while investing in schemes to enrich themselves if such a policy shift occurred.

 

It makes no sense. These are misguided, unfounded, and downright insidious ideas.

 

Yet everyday pundits, policy-makers and politicians still advocate for them – somehow with a straight face. And when someone who actually works in the schools like me points to the evidence – or lack thereof – I’m ignored.

 

In the words of Frank Zappa, “Modern Americans behave as if intelligence were some sort of hideous deformity.” And our education policies are doing nothing to fix it.

 

The problem is the very banality of corporate school reform. After almost two decades of these strategies pushed on both sides of the aisle, they’ve become the status quo. It’s just the way we do things.

 

They’re as common as… well… dental floss.

 

The federal government saw through the vapidity of that practice. Isn’t it time the administration does the same for corporate school reform?

Whiteness: The Lie Made True

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“The discovery of a personal whiteness among the world’s peoples is a very modern thing,—a nineteenth and twentieth century matter, indeed.” – W. E. B. Du Bois

 

 

What color is your skin?

 

You don’t have to look. You know. It’s a bedrock fact of your existence like your name, religion or nationality.

 

But go ahead and take a look. Hold out your hand and take a good, long stare.

 

What do you see?

 

White? Black? Brown?

 

More than likely, you don’t see any of those colors.

 

You see some gradation, a hue somewhere in the middle, but in the back of your mind you label it black, white, brown, etc.

 

When I look, I see light peach with splotches of pink. But I know that I’m white, White, WHITE.

 

So where did this idea come from? If my skin isn’t actually white – it’s not the same white I’d find in a tube of paint, or on a piece of paper – why am I labeled white?

 

The answer isn’t scientific, cultural or economic.

 

It’s legal.

 

Yes, here in America we have a legal definition of whiteness.

 

It developed over time, but the earliest mention in our laws comes from the Naturalization Act of 1790.

 

Only 14 years after our Declaration of Independence proclaimed all people were created equal, we passed this law to define who exactly has the right to call him-or-herself an American citizen. It restricted citizenship to persons who resided in the United States for two years, who could establish their good character in court, and who were white – whatever that meant.

 

In 1896 this idea gained even more strength in the infamous U.S. Supreme Court decision Plessy v Ferguson. The case is known for setting the legal precedent justifying segregation as “separate but equal.” However, the particulars of the case revolve around the definition of whiteness.

 

Homer Plessy was kicked off the white section of a train car, and he sued – not because he thought there was anything wrong with segregation, but because he claimed he was actually white. The U.S. Supreme Court was asked to define what that means.

 

Notably the court took this charge very seriously, admitting how important it is to be able to distinguish between white and non-white. Justices claimed whiteness as a kind of property – very valuable property – the denial of which could incur legal sanction.

 

In it’s decision, the court said, “if he be a white man, and be assigned to the color coach, he may have his action for damages from the company, for being deprived of his so-called property. If he be a colored man and be so assigned, he has been deprived of no property, since he is not lawfully entitled to the reputation of being a white man.”

 

Plessy wasn’t the only one to seek legal action over this. Native Americans were going to court claiming that they, too, were white and should be treated as such. Much has been written about the struggle of various ethnic groups – Irish, Slovak, Polish, etc. – to be accepted under this term. No matter how you define it, most groups wanted it to include them and theirs.

 

However, it wasn’t until 1921 when a strong definition of white was written in the “Emergency Quota and Immigration Acts.” It states:

 

“A White person has been held to include an Armenian born in Asiatic Turkey, a person of but one-sixteenth Indian blood, and a Syrian, but not to include Afghans, American Indians, Chinese, Filipinos, Hawaiians, Hindus, Japanese, Koreans, negroes; nor does white person include a person having one fourth of African blood, a person in whom Malay blood predominates, a person whose father was a German and whose mother was a Japanese, a person whose father was a white Canadian and whose mother was an Indian woman, or a person whose mother was a Chinese and whose father was the son of a Portuguese father and a Chinese mother.”

 

So there you have it – whiteness – legally defined and enforceable as a property value.

 

It’s not a character trait. It’s certainly not a product of the color wheel. It’s a legal definition, something we made up. THIS is the norm. THAT is not.

 

 

Admitting that leads to the temptation to disregard whiteness, to deny its hold on society. But doing so would be to ignore an important facet of the social order. As Brian Jones writes, the artificiality of whiteness doesn’t make it any less real:

 

“It’s very real. It’s real in the same way that Wednesday is real. But it’s also made up in the same way that Wednesday is made up.”

 

You couldn’t go around saying, “I don’t believe in Wednesdays.” You wouldn’t be able to function in society. You could try to change the name, you could try to change the way we conceptualize the week, but you couldn’t ignore the way it is now.

 

 

And whiteness is still a prominent feature of America’s social structure.

 

 

Think about it. A range of skin colors have become the dominant identifier here in America. We don’t like to talk about it, but the shade of your epidermis still means an awful lot.

 

 

It often determines the ease with which you can get a good job, a bank loan or buy a house in a prosperous neighborhood. It determines the ease with which you can go to a well-resourced school, a district democratically controlled by the community and your access to advanced placement classes. And it determines the degree of safety you have when being confronted by the police.

 

 

But to have whiteness as a signifier of the good, the privileged, we must imply an opposite. It’s not a term disassociated from others. Whiteness implies blackness.

 

 

It’s no accident. Just as the concept of whiteness was invented to give certain people an advantage, the concept of blackness was invented to subjugate others. However, this idea goes back a bit further. We had a delineated idea of blackness long before we legalized its opposite.

 

 

The concept of blackness began in the Virginia colonies in the 1600s. European settlers were looking to get rich quick through growing tobacco. But that’s a labor-intensive process and before mechanization it frankly cost too much in salaries for landowners to make enough of a profit to ensure great wealth. Moreover, settlers weren’t looking to grow a modest amount of tobacco for use only in the colonies. They wanted to produce enough to supply the global market. That required mass production and a disregard for humanity.

 

So tobacco planters decided to reduce labor costs through slavery. They tried enslaving the indigenous population, but Native Americans knew the land too well and would escape quicker than they could be replaced.

 

Planters also tried using indentured servants – people who defaulted on their debts and had to sell themselves into slavery for a limited time. However, this caused a lot of bad feeling in communities. When husbands, sons and relations were forced into servitude while their friends and neighbors remained free, bosses faced social and economic recriminations from the general population. Moreover, when an indentured servant’s time was up, if he could raise the capital, he now had all the knowledge and experience to start his own tobacco plantation and compete with his former boss.

 

No. planters needed a more permanent solution. That’s where the idea came from to kidnap Africans and bring them to Virginia as slaves. This was generational servitude, no time limits, no competition, low cost.

 

It’s important to note that it took time for this kind of slavery to take root in the colonies. Part of this is due to various ideas about the nature of Africans. People at the time didn’t all have our modern prejudices. Also it took time for the price of importing human beings from another continent to became less than that of buying indentured servants.

 

The turning point was Bacon’s Rebellion in 1676. Hundreds of slaves and indentured servants came together and deposed the governor of Virginia, burned down plantations and defended themselves against planter militias for months afterwards. The significance of this event was not lost on the landowners of the time. What we now call “white” people and “black” people had banded together against the landowners. If things like this were to become more frequent, the tobacco industry would be ruined, or at very least much less profitable for the planters.

 

After the rebellion was put down, the landed gentry had to find a way to stop such large groups of people from ever joining in common cause again. The answer was the racial caste system we experience today.

 

The exact meaning of “white” and “black” (or “colored”) was mostly implied, but each group’s social mobility was rigidly defined for the first time. Laws were put in place to categorize people and provide benefits for some and deprivations for others. So white people were then allowed to own property, own guns, participate in juries, serve on militias, and do all kinds of things that were to be forever off-limits to black people. It’s important to understand that black people were not systematically barred from these things before.

 

Just imagine how effective this arrangement was. It gave white people a permanent, unearned social position above black people. No matter how hard things could get for impoverished whites, they could never sink below this level. They would always enjoy these privileges and by extension enjoy the deprivation of blacks as proof of their own white superiority. Not only did it stop whites from joining together with blacks in common cause, it gave whites a reason to support the status quo. Sound familiar? It should.

 

However, for black people the arrangement was devastating.

 

As Brian Jones puts it:

 

“For the first time in human history, the color of one’s skin had a political significance. It never had a political significance before. Now there was a reason to assign a political significance to dark skin — it’s an ingenious way to brand someone as a slave. It’s a brand that they can never wash off, that they can never erase, that they can never run away from. There’s no way out. That’s the ingeniousness of using skin color as a mark of degradation, as a mark of slavery.”

 

All that based on pigmentation.

 

Our political and social institutions have made this difference in appearance paramount in the social structure, but what causes it? What is the essential difference between white people and black people and can it in any way justify these social distinctions, privileges and deprivations?

 

Science tells us why human skin comes in different shades. It’s based on the amount of melanin we possess, a pigment that not only gives color but blocks the body from absorbing harmful ultraviolet radiation from the sun. Everyone has some melanin. Fair skinned people can even temporarily increase the amount they have by additional solar exposure – tanning.

 

If the body absorbs too many UV rays, it can cause cancers or produce birth defects in the next generation. That’s why groups of people who historically lived closer to the equator possess more melanin than those further from it. This provided an evolutionary advantage.

 

However, the human body needs vitamin D, which often comes from sunlight. Having a greater degree of melanin can stop the body from absorbing the necessary Vitamin D and – if another source isn’t found -health problems like Sickle-cell anemia can occur.

 

That’s why people living further from the equator developed lighter skin over time. Humanity originated in Africa, but as peoples migrated north they didn’t need the extra melanin since they received less direct sunlight. Likewise, they benefited from less melanin and therefore easier absorption of Vitamin D from the sunlight they did receive.

 

Map_of_Indigenous_Skin_Colors

 

That’s the major difference between people of different colors.

 

Contrary to the persistent beliefs of many Americans, skin color doesn’t determine work ethic, intelligence, honesty, strength, or any other character trait.

In the 19th through the 20th Centuries, we created a whole field of science called eugenics to prove otherwise. We tried to show that each race had dominant traits and some races were better than others.

 

However, modern science has disproven every scrap of it. Eugenics is now considered a pseudoscience. Everywhere in public we loudly proclaim that judgments like these based on race are unacceptable. Yet the pattern of positive consequences for light skinned people and negative consequences for dark skinned people persists. And few of us want to identify, discuss or – God forbid – confront it.

 

And that’s where we are today.

 

We in America live in a society that still subscribes to the essentially nonsensical definitions of the past. Both white and black people have been kept in their place because of them.

 

In each socio-economic bracket people have common cause that goes beyond skin color. But the ruling class has used a racial caste system to stop us from joining together against them.

 

This is obvious to most black people because they deal with the negative consequences of it every day. White people, however, are constantly bombarded by tiny benefits without noticing they’re present at all. White people take it as their due – this is what all people deserve. And, yes, it IS what all people deserve, but it is not what all people are receiving!

 

We are faced with a difficult task. We must somehow both understand that our ideas about race are man-made while taking arms against them. We must accept that whiteness and blackness are bogus terms and yet they dramatically affect our lives. We must preserve all that makes us who we are while fighting for the common humanity of all.

 

And we can’t do that by simply ignoring skin color. That kind of colorblindness only helps perpetuate the status quo. Instead, we must pay attention to inequalities based on the racial divide and actively work to counteract them.

 

In short, there are no white people and black people. There are only racists and anti-racists.

 

Which will you be?

Standardized Tests Have Always Been About Keeping People in Their Place

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There are some things that can’t be unseen.

 

America’s history of standardized testing is one of them.

 

Today, critics from all sides of the political spectrum decry the overuse of high stakes tests while paradoxically championing them for accountability purposes – especially for schools serving minority students.

 

Civil rights organizations that last year opposed testing have suddenly come to demand itnot because testing ensures racial equity but for fear of losing wealthy donors tied to the assessment industry.

 

Yet one look at where these tests come from and how they have been used in the past shows their essentially classist and racist natures.

 

Make no mistake – standardized testing has been a tool of social control for the last century. And it remains one today.

 

Twisted statistics, made up math, nonexistent or biased research – these are the “scientific” supports for standardized testing. It has never been demonstrated that these kinds of tests can accurately assess either intelligence or knowledge, especially as that knowledge gets more complex. But there is an unspoken agreement in political circles to pretend that testing is rock solid and produces scores that can be relied on to make decisions that will have tremendous effects on the lives of students, teachers, parents and communities.

 

Our modern assessments are holdovers from the 1910s and ‘20s, an age when psychologists thought they could isolate the racial markers for intelligence and then improve human beings through selective breeding like you might with dogs or cats.

 

I’m not kidding.

 

It was called eugenics.

 

Psychologists like Carl Brigham, Robert Yerkes, and Lewis Terman were trying to find a way to justify the social order. Why is it that certain people are at the top and others at the bottom? What is the best way to decide who belongs where?

 

To answer these questions they appealed to a radical misreading of Gregor Mendel and Charles Darwin. They thought they had discovered something new about the human brain. Positive traits such as intelligence were widespread in Northwestern European races and almost nonexistent in others. Moreover, negative traits such as laziness and criminality were common in nonwhites and almost absent in those same Northwestern Europeans.

 

It was really just the same kind of racial prejudices that have been prevalent throughout Europe for centuries, but now American pseudoscientists had found a justification for believing them. In fact, they argued that these deductions weren’t prejudices at all. They were facts based on evidence. It was “science.”

 

To make such conclusions they had to blind themselves to the effects of wealth and social class. The rich tend to be more well-behaved and educated than the poor. These psychologists took this to mean that the rich were somehow genetically superior. And since the rich were mostly of Northwestern European ancestry, they concluded their genes produced a racially superior type of human. They ignored the fact that a privileged upbringing bestows certain benefits while an impoverished one inflicts life-altering wounds. Ultimately, their “science” was simply a justification for their prejudices.

 

They came to many of these “discoveries” during the First World War. Yerkes developed the U.S. Army Alpha and Beta Intelligence tests that were given to almost all American soldiers. Ostensibly, the assessments were used to determine where soldiers were best suited – support services, the trenches, the officer core, etc.

 

The rational was to ensure these assignments were being given more fairly and objectively. Before these tests, soldiers were assigned based on wealth and class. Now soldiers were assigned based on tests – that supported the exact same assignments based on wealth and class.

 

Until this point, I.Q. tests had to be given by one highly trained proctor to one person at a time. Yerkes’ advancement was to put it all on paper so that multiple people could take the tests at once.

 

However, the tests were deeply flawed. Yerkes claimed they showed a person’s natural intelligence. But the questions were clearly assessing knowledge of facts like a 1900s version of trivial pursuit.

 

For instance, here is Question 18 of the Alpha Test:
“Velvet Joe appears in advertisements of … (tooth powder)(dry goods)(tobacco)(soap).” The answer is tobacco. How you could know that without having seen period advertisements is beyond me. In any case, it gave good cover for positioning white, affluent men as officers while mostly darker complected and working class soldiers populated the trenches.

 

After the armistice, Yerkes and Brigham used the wartime test results to continue sorting and ranking Americans. They claimed that their assessments had shown a terrible danger for the human race: nearly half of the white draft (47.3%) was feeble-mind. The cause? Not enough exposure to print advertising? No. They were interbreeding with members of inferior genetic strains.

 

“No citizen can afford to ignore the menace of race deterioration,” wrote Yerkes in 1922 in the introduction to Brigham’s “A Study of American Intelligence”.

 

In that same book, one of Brigham’s most seminal, the author was even more specific:

 

“American education is declining and will proceed… with an accelerating rate as the racial mixture becomes more and more extensive.”

 

Something had to be done. Pure whites needed to be segregated from mongrel races. But how to do it without being accused of prejudice or bias? How to make it seem like science? Once again, the answer was standardized testing.

 

Brigham created a civilian test of intelligence that could be used to sort and rank students just as the Army Alpha and Beta tests had been used to sort soldiers. He called it the Scholastic Aptitude Test or S.A.T.

 

Yes, THAT SAT.

 

Though the test has been revised multiple times since Brigham created it, the purpose has remained the same – to distinguish the wheat from the chaff, to hold some students up as worthy of further educational investment and to keep others out. Moreover, the means by which the SAT makes this distinction was and remains culturally and economically biased. Researchers have been pointing out since Brigham’s day that the test favors students from wealthy, white backgrounds over those from poor minority homes. Yet today 2.1 million teenagers every year still must take the test to get into the college of their choice.

 

And so eugenics became education policy throughout the country from primary to post-secondary school.

 

Terman, who created the Stanford-Binet Intelligence Test to identify “slow” children for special education programs, went on to champion rigid academic tracking for all students in public schools based on standardized testing. The idea was to give the racially pure students extra resources and keep the mixed or lower races in classes more suited to their lower intellects and eventual menial stations in life.

 

It is sad that many of these ideas persist in our present-day schools. Even today, economically disadvantaged and minority students still make up the majority of remedial and academic classes while the children of the middle class and the wealthy (most of whom incidentally are white) disproportionately populate the honors classes. Today we write that off as merely accidental if we think about it at all. However, a peek at history shows quite clearly that it is exactly how the system has been designed to work.

 

From there eugenics became the dominant American policy of social organization. It was a required course of study for all education majors at colleges and universities. It was the justification for our isolationist foreign policy allowing thousands of immigrants to be turned away for fear of watering down the U.S. gene pool. Even inside our own borders, tens of thousands of Americans were subjected to mandatory sterilization to ensure degenerate genes were eradicated. In fact, it wasn’t until the end of WWII and the Nuremberg Trials when the eugenicist star began to fade.

 

We come to a difficult and painful chapter in American history. The word “Nazi” has become an overenthusiastic and easy pejorative for anything that critics wish to vilify. Godwin’s Law states that almost any argument on the Internet will eventually degrade to one side calling the other Adolph Hitler.

 

He has a point. We should be careful. Too often we wield the sledgehammer of Nazism to smash anything we don’t like. But we can’t let it silence the truth. Sometimes a policy really is Nazism. And if eugenics isn’t, I don’t know what is.

 

Here it is from Hitler’s Mein Kampf:
“There is today one state in which at least weak beginnings toward a better conception [of immigration] are noticeable. Of course, it is not our model German Republic, but the United States.”

 

Hitler proudly told his comrades just how closely he followed the progress of the American eugenics movement. “I have studied with great interest,” he told a fellow Nazi, “the laws of several American states concerning prevention of reproduction by people whose progeny would, in all probability, be of no value or be injurious to the racial stock.”

 

Hitler even wrote a fan letter to American eugenic leader Madison Grant calling his race-based eugenics book, The Passing of the Great Race his “bible.”

 

And lest we forget the U.S. based Rockefeller Foundation helped found the eugenics program in Germany and even funded the section that Josef Mengele worked in before he went to Auschwitz. By 1926, Rockefeller had donated some $410,000 – almost $4 million in 21st-Century money – to hundreds of German researchers. Without American funds, these programs could not have gotten off the ground.

 

Nazis even looked to the US Supreme Court for inspiration.
In 1927, the court decided in Buck v. Bell that mandatory sterilization of feeble-minded individuals was, in fact, Constitutional. The ruling, which has never been explicitly overturned, resulted in the forced sterilization of between 60,000 and 70,000 Americans.

 

Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes wrote, “It is better for all the world, if instead of waiting to execute degenerate offspring for crime, or to let them starve for their imbecility, society can prevent those who are manifestly unfit from continuing their kind…. Three generations of imbeciles are enough.”

 

The Nazis at the Nuremberg Trials repeatedly quoted Holmes’s words in their own defense.

 

This is what finally tainted the eugenics brand beyond repair. Psychologists and policymakers didn’t want to be associated with the horrors of the war. They didn’t want any of the blame though they clearly deserved a portion of it. They inspired it.

 

It took almost two additional decades for these ideas to largely dissipate. It wasn’t until the 1960s and the Civil Rights movement when Americans began to question the social order and the educational system that helped preserve it.

 

Schools changed. Students were increasingly desegregated both racially and academically. Less emphasis was put on testing and sorting and more on experimentation and self-discovery. Creativity and original thinking were prized above all else. Things weren’t perfect, but we had entered a new era that refused to put children into rigid boxes. They were all unique and valuable and should be treated as such. But it couldn’t last.

 

Flash forward to 1983. President Ronald Reagan’s National Commission on Excellence in Education put out a report called “A Nation at Risk.” Like the eugenicist work of the ‘10s and ‘20s, it purported to “prove” that our public schools were failing. Something must be done.

 

The answer was the same as that of the eugenicists. We needed more standardized tests. We needed to return to the practices of sorting and ranking students followed by rigid tracking.

 

It didn’t matter that “A Nation at Risk” was just as flawed and biased as Brigham’s WWI data.  It didn’t matter that this same policy hadn’t yielded superior academic results in the 1920s, ‘30s. and 40s. It didn’t matter that since we’d put an emphasis on desegregation and creativity, American education was producing unprecedented racial and economic equity. Politically, the only thing to do was return to testing and tracking.

 

And that’s what we did. It took time. There was opposition. But eventually, we passed No Child Left Behind, which changed the federal role in education from one of ensuring equity to one of rewards and punishment all based on a new generation of flawed and biased standardized testing.

 

It was a brave new world where all the evils of the past were revisited on our children. And it succeeded – and continues to succeed – because we don’t remember our history. We let policymakers rename the errors of our progenitors and never question their true purpose.

 

Both Republicans and Democrats have been in control. Both sides blame the other, but left and right wing are both complicit in what remains our national policy.

 

It is just as racist as that perpetrated by the eugenicists. The major difference is emphasis. In the 1920s, Terman would talk candidly about the racial order. Today, no one mentions it – not openly.

 

Instead, we get talk about the “racial proficiency gap.” Undeniably poor minority students don’t score as well on standardized tests. Instead of wondering if the problem is the assessments, themselves, we’re pushed to question what teachers and schools are doing wrong.

 

We wonder why schools serving impoverished students (who are disproportionately brown and black) apparently don’t teach kids as well as schools serving wealthier populations. And anyone who mentions the difference in resources between these schools is quickly silenced. Anyone who mentions the impact of an impoverished upbringing and environment is quickly escorted from the room.

 

Instead of doing anything to actually help these students, our policy is to close their schools and/or turn them into fly-by-night charter schools.

 

“We’ve been able to do things – for example, close schools for academic failure. It is hugely difficult, it’s hugely controversial and it’s absolutely the right thing to do,” said former US Education Secretary Arne Duncan.

 

Imagine if instead of “academic failure” he had said “racial and economic failure.” Because that is what it comes down to. Duncan was decrying low test scores. That’s why these schools were closed. But the test scores aren’t the root cause. That’s poverty. And it disproportionately affects minority students. But you can only see that if you admit the tests are inaccurate assessments of students’ abilities – as countless peer-reviewed academic studies continue to prove.

 

“I think the best thing that happened to the education system in New Orleans was Hurricane Katrina,” Duncan famously said.

 

Our highest education official in the country actually praised a natural disaster that killed between 1,200 and 1,800 people (mostly minorities) for destroying their public schools so they could be rebuilt as charters. Did it actually improve children’s academic outcomes? No.

 

This whole charter school push is another element of our modern educational pseudoscience. These types of schools have never been proven to help kids learn. In fact, the research shows they either do no better or often much worse than traditional public schools. It is an article of faith with our modern education policymakers that schools serving poor minority children should be run by private corporations and schools serving wealthy white students can be allowed to be run by the community.

 

None of this could happen without the false objectivity of standardized testing.

 

A hundred years ago, the eugenicists used their test scores to explain away a racist and classist social order. Today we use similarly flawed test scores to justify a similarly prejudicial social order.

 

Testing remains a way of keeping you in your place.

 

People are starting to notice. Hence the quick move by the testing industry to co-opt the largest and most well-funded Civil Rights organizations. Hence appointing John King to succeed Duncan as U.S. Secretary of Education – a brown face to silence racial complaints.

 

Are the people championing standardization and privatization racist? Honestly, I don’t know. I can’t see into their hearts. But it is undeniable that the results of their policies disproportionately hurt our black and brown children. Judging by effect – not necessarily intention – they are racist as well as classist.

 

Some may be true believers who actually think these policies will help children learn. I’m sure many of the eugenicists of the past felt the same way. Keeping “racially inferior” children in the slow class was purported to be for their own benefit, just as closing poor black schools is said to help them learn.

 

That’s why I’ve written this and other articles. It is essential that we understand the terrors and errors of past education policy.

 

If we hadn’t forgotten this dark page of American history, perhaps our children wouldn’t be forced to repeat it.

 

Blinded by Pseudoscience: Standardized Testing is Modern Day Eugenics

 

eugenics-testing.jpg

 

 

Adolph Hitler was a big fan of standardized testing.

 

It helped justify much of the horrors of the Nazi regime.

 

National Socialism is nothing but applied biology,” he said.

 

In other words, it’s just science, people. Some races are simply inferior to others. Black people, Jews, Gypsies, Hispanics – they just can’t hold a candle to the superior races of Northwestern Europe.

 

And Hitler based much of this on the “science” of Eugenics, especially the work done in America in the 1910s and ‘20s.

 

Eugenicists used a flawed and biased interpretation of Gregor Mendel’s laws on heredity to argue that lawlessness, intelligence, and even economic success are passed down in families due to dominant or recessive genes. Moreover, the negative traits are widespread in certain races and the positive ones in others.

 

Practitioners like Carl Brigham used IQ tests to PROVE white people were just the best and everyone else, well, maybe they should just stop breeding. (In fact, laws were passed in the U.S. imposing mandatory sterilization on thousands based on the conclusions of these “scientists.”)

 

Brigham was a U.S. Army psychologist who used WWI data to declare that whites (especially those born inside the United States) were the most intelligent of all peoples and that immigrants were genetically inferior. He went on to refine his work into an even better indicator of intelligence the he called the Scholastic Aptitude Test or S.A.T.

 

Perhaps you’ve heard of it.

 

In his seminal work, A Study of American Intelligence, Brigham concluded that American education is declining and “will proceed with an accelerating rate as the racial mixture becomes more and more extensive.”

 

 

To combat this mixture, eugenicist education reformers encouraged schools to rigidly track students into low, middle and high level classes – similar to the way many of our schools are organized today.

 

 

Lewis Terman, Professor of Education at Stanford University and originator of the Stanford-Binet intelligence test, expressed these views in his textbook, The Measurement of Intelligence (1916). He wrote:

 

“Among laboring men and servant girls there are thousands like them [feebleminded individuals]. They are the world’s “hewers of wood and drawers of water.” And yet, as far as intelligence is concerned, the tests have told the truth. … No amount of school instruction will ever make them intelligent voters or capable voters in the true sense of the word.

 

… The fact that one meets this type with such frequency among Indians, Mexicans, and negroes suggests quite forcibly that the whole question of racial differences in mental traits will have to be taken up anew and by experimental methods.

 

Children of this group should be segregated in special classes and be given instruction which is concrete and practical. They cannot master, but they can often be made efficient workers, able to look out for themselves. There is no possibility at present of convincing society that they should not be allowed to reproduce, although from a eugenic point of view they constitute a grave problem because of their unusually prolific breeding” (91-92).

 

This was the original justification for academic tracking. Terman and other educational psychologists convinced many schools to use high-stakes and culturally-biased tests to place “slow” students into special classes or separate schools while placing more advanced students of European ancestry into the college preparatory courses.

 

 

Compare that ideal to the increasingly segregated American schools of today. We have schools for the rich and schools for the poor. We have schools for black and brown kids and schools for whites.

 

 

Terman would have been in heaven!

 

 

It was the work of patriots like Brigham and Terman that the Nazis relied on heavily to justify their forced sterilization programs and ultimately the Holocaust, itself.

 

 

Does that sound extreme? It isn’t.

 

 

At the Nuremberg Trials, Nazi scientists repeatedly praised the work of American eugenicists, who uncoincidentally also created the standardized test model of education favored by corporate education reformers today.

 

 

It’s easy to follow their logic. If certain races can be scientifically proven to be inferior, it is a small step to thinking that they should be stopped from breeding or eradicated from the face of the planet altogether.

 

 

And the pseudo-scientific justification for this scheme was standardized testing. The IQ test – which has since been shown to be incredibly biased – was used to justify mass murder. And then Brigham refined that same test into our most popular current standardized assessment – the SAT. In fact, all standardized tests that students are forced to take today owe a huge debt to the SAT and other standardized assessments used by Terman and other eugenicist educators.

 

 

The resemblance between testing in the 1910s and the 2010s is obvious to those who will but look.

 

 

Similar to the IQ test, modern standardized exams like the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC) repeatedly have been shown to be biased in favor of affluent and white test takers. Supporters bemoan the “racial proficiency gap,” but that’s just a nice way of wondering why the same folks Hitler thought were “inferior” don’t do well on our modern tests.

 

 

This is no accident. It’s how the assessments are designed.

 

 

The IQ test is supposed to demonstrate an innate intelligence. However, modern psychologists have become increasingly skeptical that intelligence is fixed. So standardized assessments like the SAT are supposed to somehow show BOTH what students have learned AND their innate intelligence. That’s the justification behind the high stakes. You have to pass the SAT to show you’re smart enough to do well in college.

 

Such outright racism would not be tolerated today, so it becomes cloaked in doublespeak. It’s good that poor black students don’t score well on standardized tests because that shows us they need extra help. And then, instead of providing any help, we close their schools or turn them over to fly-by-night charter operators.

 

Once again, standardized tests are used as the justification for doing something obviously racist. If anyone said, “We’re going to close and privatize all the schools serving minorities and the poor,” people would revolt. However, when you say we’re doing it because of standardized tests – because of “science” – people just shrug and say, “You can’t argue with that!”

 

The same goes for Common Core State Standards. States were bribed to enact them so that the reasons for attacking public schools would be uniform across the country. This provides another level of pseudo-scientific justification.

 

They are supposed to ensure every student who graduates high school will be “college and career ready.” However, now that Common Core has been adopted in 46 states and their tests have become aligned with the standards, we’ve seen student scores take a nosedive. Only our rich white kids apparently are ready for college.

 

So what will we do with those who fall below the mark? We’re sending no additional resources to help them increase their achievement. We’ll just close their schools and/or privatize. And to make sure none of them escape, we’ll make passing the Common Core tests a graduation requirement.

 

This does not level the playing field. This does not – as some corporate education reformers claim – ensure the sanctity of students Civil Rights. It extensively violates them!

 

The education model of Test and Punish is a modern eugenics movement. We’re shellacking over class divides so that those below a certain point have no possibility of ever rising to the white place. And I do mean “white.”

 

Standardized testing is not a ladder of social mobility. It is a means of keeping certain people in their proper place.

 

Some try to deny the racial component by pointing to the intersection with class. Testing impacts poor white children as it does poor black ones.

 

To a degree this is true, but remember our eugenic forerunners saw everything in purely racial terms. For instance, today, few people would claim Judaism is a race. It is a religion. It is essentially a belief system, not a set of shared genes even though some adherents do share genetic characteristics after centuries of segregation. But the Nazis considered them a race and, thus, systematically murdered 6 million of them.

 

The same goes for the poor. Brigham and his Nazi admirers thought that people were poor mainly because of their genes. They are genetically predisposed to being lazy and good for nothing, so they can’t keep a job or advance themselves. Therefore, they’re poor. Pause for a moment to consider the large numbers of people in America today who would agree with them.

 

Standardized testing treats the poor the same way it does minorities. In fact, it is just the lack of opportunities that come with poverty that cause the very scores that are being used to denigrate these people. Lack of proper nutrition, food insecurity, lack of prenatal care, early childcare, fewer books in the home, exposure to violence – all of these and more combine to result in lower academic outcomes.

 

But standardized testing puts the blame on the victim. Students score badly because they aren’t working hard enough, corporate reformers say. These kids don’t have enough “rigor.”

 

To make sure few people actually volunteer to help, we blame their teachers, as well. We make the education profession as unattractive as possible, indicting teachers for all societies ills knowing full well that this will result – as it has – in a nationwide teacher shortage. Then we can deprofessionalize the field and replace educators who have four-year-degrees with lightly trained Teach for America temps.

 

These kinds of shenanigans didn’t fool the anti-racists of the past.

 

The great African American scholar W. E. B. Du Bois remarked in 1940, “It was not until I was long out of school and indeed after the [First] World War that there came the hurried use of the new technique of psychological tests, which were quickly adjusted so as to put black folk absolutely beyond the possibility of civilization.”

 

He could be talking about No Child Left Behind.

 

In “Intelligence Tests and Propaganda,” scholar Horace Mann Bond issued a warning about the misuse of IQ tests:

 

“But so long as any group of men attempts to use these tests as funds of information for the approximation of crude and inaccurate generalizations, so long must we continue to cry “Hold!” To compare the crowded millions of New York’s East Side with the children of Morningside Heights [an upper class neighborhood at the time] indeed involves a great contradiction; and to claim that the results of the tests given to such diverse groups, drawn from such varying strata of the social complex, are in any wise accurate, is to expose a fatuous sense of unfairness and lack of appreciation of the great environmental factors of modern urban life.”

 

He could be talking about Race to the Top.

 

Karen Lewis, a present-day Chicago teacher and president of her union, says this:

 

“What many people do not know is that the use of standardized tests has its origins in the Eugenics movement …we have to be clear about the original purpose of standardized tests.

 

In a society fascinated by statistics, we are often compelled to reduce everything to a single number. Those of us who work with children know that there are so many characteristics that cannot be quantified.

 

Ask yourselves whether you want to be part of a legacy born of the unholy alliance between the concept of  “natural inequality” and the drudgery that has been imposed on many of our classrooms.”

 

Make no mistake. Corporate Education Reform is modern day eugenics. It pretends to justify increasing standardization and privatization of public schools through flawed and biased assessments. Its claims that any of this is actually supported by research are spurious. At heart, these are articles of faith – not science. Neither Common Core nor high stakes testing nor charterizing impoverished schools nor putting districts into receivership nor evaluating teachers based on student test scores – none of it has ever been shown in peer-reviewed studies to help students learn.

 

Corporate Education Reformers are asking all of us to have faith in a racial and economic social order that benefits those already at the top and keeps the rest of us in our place.

 

And for anyone who questions it, we are continually blinded by their pseudoscientific justifications.