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.

Rick Smith – Smuggling Teachers Voices Through the Media Embargo

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I met Rick Smith for the first time in person this summer in Washington, D.C.

He had traveled to our nation’s capital to cover the Badass Teachers Association (BATs) Congress of which I was a member. Though I’d seen pictures and videos of him and even been on his daily radio show a handful of times, I was surprised to see him standing there in the lobby. He looked exactly like his pictures.

Often when you meet someone like that in the flesh, you get a glimpse behind the mask at how much the persona differs from the person. For example, when I was a journalist and interviewed Marvin Hamlisch, he was much more the cranky old man than the consummate showman.

But Rick was just… Rick. Faded denim, golf shirt, tousled hair under a ball cap.

He treated me to breakfast in the hotel restaurant and we talked about politics, activism and education. In a way it was like being on his show except there was no audience. Maybe he didn’t speak as loud and didn’t feel the need to explain the background of a subject for listeners at home, no station identification, but other than that it was pretty much the same.

He’s the real deal. What you see – or usually hear – is what you get.

I remember thanking him for trucking all the way from northern Pennsylvania to be here with us. He wasn’t getting anything extra for this. We certainly didn’t have any money to pay him. Rick was actually interested in hearing what teachers like me had to say.

We had congregated here in the capital to lobby our lawmakers and discuss among ourselves how to change our national education policy into something more student centered and less privatized, corporatized and standardized. And Rick wanted to showcase it on his show. He wanted to be there, to see what we were doing, ask us questions and put it all on the air for listeners across the country.

And – of course – he bought me breakfast.

As I was making my way through a waffle, Rick dropped the bomb on me.

He wanted to know if there was more to this story – if there was enough information for a weekly radio segment.

I carefully swallowed and told him that there was.

We’re living at a time when what’s best for school children isn’t decided by parents or educators. It’s decided by lawmakers, policy wonks, billionaire philanthropists and corporate CEOs with oodles of cash to bribe others to see things their way. Teachers, parents and students are taking to the streets to protest high stakes standardized tests, Common Core, value-added evaluations, charter schools, Teach for America and a host of other corporate education reform policies.

But few in the media seem to be listening.

In the last year, only nine percent of guests discussing education on evening cable news were educators. Yet tech millionaires attempts to dismantle teacher tenure are championed by the likes of Time Magazine. Former CNN anchor Campbell Brown creates a so-called “non-partisan” news site to cheerlead privatization and demonize teachers. At the Republican Presidential debates, candidates fall over each other for the chance to “punch teachers in the face,” while the Democratic Presidential candidates have zero to say about K-12 schools.

And here’s a guy with his own radio show and podcast who is actually interested in what educators think!

We shook hands, made plans and another trip to the buffet.

Now it’s been a little more than two months since the “BATs Radio – This Week in Education” segment premiered. Every week – usually airing Mondays at 5 p.m. Eastern – Rick has two guests chosen by the BATs. And wow! Have we had some amazing interviews!

When the National Education Association (NEA) made the controversial move to endorse Hillary Clinton despite a lack of member outreach, we had history teacher and NEA Board of Directors member Tripp Jeffers on the show. Before the vote, Tripp asked Clinton about her ties to corporate education reformers.

We had New York teacher and Co-Director of BATs Action Committee Michael Flanagan on to talk first hand about what a dismal job our new US Secretary of Education John King had done as Chancellor of New York State Education.

New Orleans parent Karran Harper Royal explained how the Obama administration’s privatization scheme has systematically destroyed public schools in the Big Easy. Wayne Au talked about what it was like to be one of the appellants in the Washington State Supreme Court Case that found charter schools to be unconstitutional. New York parent Karen Sprowal described how the Success Academy charter school had trampled her child’s rights. Jeanette Taylor-Ramann explained what pushed her and several other Chicago parents and teachers to go on a hunger strike to save their last neighborhood school. Puerto Rican teachers union president Mercedes Martinez informed us of the massive island revolt against privatizers in our US territory.

And more and more and more! And it’s only been 8 weeks!

I am so thankful to Rick for making this a reality. Teacher, parent and student voices are getting through the media embargo. We’re being heard. It’s unfiltered news! It’s what’s happening at street level.

This wouldn’t be getting out there so prominently if Rick weren’t interested, if he didn’t think it was something his listeners were interested in hearing. He gives up a significant chunk of his weekends to do it. He gives up time with his family, his children, to bring this to the public.

I can’t express how much that means to me and the more than 56,000 members of BATs.

I remember thanking Rick at the end of that first breakfast meeting and I’ll never forget what he said.

“This is what we do, Steven,” he said. “We’re activists first.”

That’s why Rick Smith is a true progressive hero.


NOTE:

You can hear the BATs Radio – This Week in Education segment most Mondays at 5 p.m. Eastern on the Rick Smith Show. The entire progressive talk show airs weekdays from 3 – 6 p.m. on several radio stations and on-line.

All BATs Radio interviews are archived here in case you missed them.

There are also a plethora of fascinating interviews from the BAT Congress on the Rick Smith Show Website.

This article also was published on the Badass Teachers Association blog.

If School Computer Use Reduces Standardized Test Scores, Doesn’t That Prove the Tests are Inadequate?

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Melvin’s hand is up.

He’s a 13-year-old African American with too much energy and not enough self-control.

He’s often angry and out of his seat. He’s usually in trouble. But today he’s sitting forward in his chair with his hand raised high and a look on his face like he’ll explode if I don’t pick him right this second.

So I do.

“Mr. Singer! Can I show my imovie now!?”

This is a first. He hasn’t turned in a lick of homework all month.

“Wow! You’re really excited about this, aren’t you?” I say.

“Yeah,” he responds. “I was up all night finishing it.”

I start to doubt this, but he does look awfully tired underneath that urgent need to share.

Airdrop it to me from your ipad,” I say, “and I’ll put it up on the SMART Board.”

This takes a few minutes.

Let’s face it.

We live in a world of high technology.

Our cell phones have more computing power than the Apollo missions to the moon.

The best, high paying jobs opening up on the world stage require increasing levels of computer literacy.

Yet according to a new study, America’s students don’t succeed as well academically if they have access to computers at school.

How can this be?

How can exposure to new technologies cause a nation of young people to fail at a system supposedly designed to prepare them for the jobs of the future?

Doesn’t real world experience usually make you better prepared?

A future chef would be helped by more time in the kitchen.

A future doctor would be helped by more access to dissection.

But a future computer-user is hurt by more time at a computer!?

Something is very wrong here.

But according to a new study by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), students who use computers more at school earn both lower reading and math scores on the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA).

The organization studied 15-year-olds across 31 nations and regions from 2012. The study just released in September even controlled for income and race.

Yet here in my classroom I see the exact opposite. Computer use increases my students test scores – on my teacher-created tests.

Melvin’s movie was ready. He had been tasked with explaining the differences between external and internal conflict. I pressed play.

High adrenaline music poured from the speakers. Pictures flashed across the screen of boxers and football players.

“This is external conflict,” came rushing forward followed by a brief definition. Then an image of Homer Simpson with an angel and devil on his shoulders. “This is internal conflict,” came zooming by our eyes.

The film might not win any Academy Awards, but it was pretty impressive work for 40 minutes of class time and however long Melvin decided to spend at home.

It’s the kind of thing my students never could have done before they each had ipads. And when they took my test, few of them got the questions wrong about conflict.

Yet according to the OECD, I was somehow hurting my students academically!?

Even in my high poverty district, students have always had access to technology. But the nature of that technology and how we use it has changed dramatically this school year.

I used to have eight computers in my classroom, but they were slowly becoming obsolete and inoperable. Some days they functioned best as extra illumination if we shut out the overhead light to show a movie.

Still, I tried to incorporate technology into my lessons. I used to have my students make their own Webpages, but reserving time in the computer lab became almost impossible. And even then, the district couldn’t afford to keep the devices in the lab updated enough to run anything but the most rudimentary software.

The one lab in the building that had new devices was reserved almost exclusively for a drill and kill test prep program we had received a state grant to operate. THIS was the apex of school technology – answering multiple choice look-a-like questions. It bored students to tears and didn’t even accomplish the stipulated goal of increasing standardized test scores. Yet we were blackmailed by the state government into initiating the program so we could gain additional funding to keep the school operational.

THIS is the kind of technology use you’ll find at most poor schools like mine. And it’s one of the reasons the authors of the OECD study came to their conclusion. It’s also one of the reasons why teachers like me have been skeptical of technological initiatives offered to impoverished districts.

However, the best use of technology is something quite different.

This year my district received a gift of ipads for all the students, and it’s changed everything. No longer do I have to beg and plead to get computer lab time for real high tech lessons. I don’t need it. The technology is already in the classroom in the palm of their hands.

But policymakers clutching their pearls because of this study have already began to make changes to international school curriculum. Schools in Asia have begun cutting back on student computer time. Should America follow suit?

Absolutely not.

The problem clearly is not computers. It’s the antiquated method we use to measure success.

Standardized testing has been around since 206 BC as an assessment for civil servants in ancient China. The same process spread to England in the 19th Century and then to the United States during WWI. Through all that time, the main process of rewarding rote learning through multiple choice questioning has remained the same.

But the world hasn’t. We’ve moved on a bit since the Han Dynasty. We no longer live in a medieval society of peasants and noblemen where the height of technology is an abacus. We live in an ever-changing interconnected global community where a simple search engine provides more information than could be stored in a thousand Libraries at Alexandria.

How can we possibly hope to rely on the same assessments as the ancients? Heck! Even as far back as 970 AD, standardized testing was criticized as being inadequate.

But a global multi-billion dollar industry relies on these primitive assessments. It’s the basis of an exceedingly lucrative business model.

So it shouldn’t be surprising that the same people who promise standardized testing and Common Core will best prepare students to be college and career ready are passing the blame.

They claim this report isn’t an indictment of their cash cow industry. It’s a warning against over-reliance on computers. And, yes, they’re right that technology is not a panacea. The mere presence of a computer won’t make a child smarter. Likewise, the mere presence of a book won’t make a person wiser. One must know how to use said computer and book.

But what I’m seeing in my classroom primarily is an opportunity – not a danger. Students like Melvin are more engaged and willing to take chances. They have greater freedom, intrinsic motivation and excitement about learning.

Many times when sharing Keynote presentations, after one or two, students ask to have their work back so they can improve them. That doesn’t happen with test prep.

They often elect to take ipad assignments to lunch and work on them between bites. That doesn’t happen with Pearson worksheets.

I’m not saying it’s easy. It’s up to me, my colleagues and administration to ensure technology is used to its full potential. Never should these devices be time fillers or babysitters. Nor can they ever replace the guidance of a thoughtful, creative educator to determine their best use. Teachers need to create and assign lessons that promote creativity and critical thinking skills.

Education professionals are constantly advised to individualize their lessons to meet the needs of diverse learners. Technology allows them a unique opportunity to do so. With district ipads I can talk to an English Language Learner in his own language. A struggling reader can have the device read test questions aloud. A student with poor motor control can type journal responses and have his writing be understood.

And these opportunities for enrichment don’t even need to be planned ahead of time. For instance, when discussing a short story about a character that was exceedingly proud, one of my students brought up the Seven Deadly Sins. She wasn’t exactly sure what they were or how exactly they related to pride, but one of her classmates quickly looked it up on her ipad. Then another found a medieval woodcarving to which someone else found a related manga text. The subsequent discussion was much deeper and relevant to these children’s lives than it would have been otherwise. And none of it was pre-packed, planned or standardized. It was individualized.

This is really no surprise. Administrators in charter or private schools aren’t asking themselves if they should close their computer labs and put their devices on ebay. They know the value technology can provide in the classroom, but they aren’t constrained by high stakes testing.

Even rich public schools don’t have to worry to the same degree because their students already score well on federally mandated assessments – after all, standardized tests are designed to favor children with wealthy parents over those from impoverished or minority backgrounds. It’s only in poor school districts where technology is either second hand or a charitable donation that administrators and school directors are being pressured to cut back.

As usual, best practices for the privileged become questionable when applied to the poor and minorities. You want technology? Prove it will boost your test scores!

It’s nonsense.

Think about it. Even the best use of computers won’t boost standardized scores. Computer skills aren’t on the tests.

Nor could these things ever be assessed effectively in this manner.

Yet such skills are exactly what education researchers tell us demonstrate the deepest levels of understanding and an ability to meet the demands of the best jobs of the future.

I wonder what Bill Gates thinks of this report. The Microsoft co-founder is also one of the biggest advocates for school standardization. If he had to pick between his two favorite children, which would he choose – laptops or Common Core tests? Maybe we needn’t wonder. His own children go to a private school with no standardization and a plethora of technology.

There comes a time when you have to admit the truth staring you in the face: standardized tests are poor measures of academic achievement. They are suitable only for turning our children into factory drones. They are for pawns, patsies and robots.

If we really want to prepare the next generation for the jobs of the future, we need to scrap high stakes testing. We need to invest in MORE technology, not less. We need to ensure technological lessons are being overseen by trained educators and the devices aren’t used as a babysitting tool. As such, we need to provide teachers with support and professional development so they can best take advantage of the technology they have.

America can prepare its children for the world’s high level management and administrative positions or we can prepare them to do only menial work that will soon by replaced by machines.

Computers do the former. Tests the latter.

Choose.


NOTE: This article also was published on the Badass Teachers Association blog.

 

You Can’t Win a Rigged Game – Standardized Tests as “Proof” of Failure

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One of my dearest high school friends was a bit of a doofus.

Who am I kidding? So was I!

One of our favorite things to do after school was plop on the coach and play shoot ‘em up video games. “Smash TV” was a particular favorite.

We’d bob and weave while clutching controllers and rapidly jamming our thumbs on the buttons.

And at such times, we‘d talk.

No great philosophical problems were solved during these mid-afternoon gaming sessions. We’d talk trash, dissing each other’s gaming skills, bragging about our own, and occasionally quizzing each other with trivia on a shared topic of interest.

We both loved movies, so my buddy used to shout out cinematic quotations and ask me to name where they came from.

“Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn.”

“Luke, I am your father!”

“Go ahead, punk. Make my day!”

None of these famous quotes made my buddy’s list. He preferred lines like these:

“Run!”

“Look out!”

“Holy S&*t!”

As you can imagine, I rarely got any of them right.

I’d laugh, punch him in the arm good-naturedly and go on shooting virtual enemies.

It was good dumb fun. But now – more than two decades later – my students are forced to take my buddy’s quiz – and if they don’t pass, the government is threatening to shut down their schools and fire me, their teacher.

No, learners don’t have to identify impossible movie quotes. Instead, they’re forced to answer impossibly bad multiple choice questions. But the results are pretty much the same.

In my home state, the Pennsylvania System of School Assessment (PSSA) and the Keystone Exams are high stakes versions of my buddy’s moronic quiz. The purpose isn’t to fairly assess: it’s to stump as many kids as possible.

And it’s working. For the fourth year in a row, student test scores have declined statewide. Previously, students had been doing relatively well. Why the change?

It began with budget cuts. The legislature slashed almost $1 billion every year in school funding. That means higher class sizes, less teachers, fewer electives, tutoring, nurses, services, etc. And districts like mine weren’t exactly drowning in money to begin with.

Students now have less resources, therefore they can’t prepare as well for the tests.

So what did the legislature do? Did our lawmakers fix the problem by putting back the money they had repurposed as gifts to the natural gas industry?

Heck no! They made the tests even more unnecessarily difficult.

As a result, the steady decline in test scores this year fell off a cliff!

After all, this was the first year in which the Commonwealth fully aligned every question of its mandatory testing with the Pennsylvania Core Standards – which are similar, but not identical to the Common Core standards adopted in other states.

Proficiency rates in grades 3 through 8 dropped by an average of 35.4 percent in math and 9.4 percent in English language arts on the PSSA. Nearly half of all seventh and eighth graders dropped an entire proficiency level in math in just one year.

If I made up a test like this in my own classroom, gave it to my students and got results like these, my first assumption would be that there was something horribly wrong with the test. I must have messed something up to fail so many students! Teachers are always on the lookout for unclear or bad questions on their self-created exams. The for-profit corporations that create our state-mandated tests? Not so much.

Though state Department of Education officials acknowledge the continued decline in scores, they insist problems will work themselves out in subsequent years – as if a 4-year trend is just an anomaly. Move along. Nothing to see here, folks.

My students used to make impressive gains on the tests. My principal stopped by today to give me the scores for my current students and those I taught last year. No surprise. Very few passed.

Are my students now lazier and less intelligent than those I taught four years ago? No. Students who scored well before the budget cuts, often score badly now.

Am I a worse teacher? Absolutely not. I have the same skills I did then. I spend the same amount of time at school – maybe more.

So what changed in my classroom? Lack of reconnaissance.

Teachers like myself used to know exactly what was expected of students on these assessments. We had plenty of materials with which to prepare them. Now the exams change every year – and I don’t mean just the individual questions, I mean what is tested!

Back in the day, when my buddy first shouted out, “Run!” and asked me which movie it came from, I had no idea. But after he did it long enough, I’d start to anticipate him. I’d learn that he was thinking of James Cameron’s “The Terminator.”

That’s how the PSSA’s used to be. Teachers knew how the test makers wanted kids to answer. And we could prepare them to do so. The tests didn’t accurately assess student learning even then. It was a game, but at least it was more fair.

Let’s be honest. These tests have never been particularly good. You can’t honestly expect to assess higher order thinking skills on a multiple choice test. Basic skills, maybe. But anything complex simply cannot be measured in this manner. We’ve known that for over a century!

It’s like my buddy’s movie quiz. I have little doubt that someone really did shout “Run!” in “The Terminator.” However, that same line probably appears in at least a dozen more action movies. There’s no way to determine a single correct answer. And shouting out a different quote instead like “Look out!” doesn’t help either.

So please stop the talk about “Rigor.” We’re not raising standards. We’re changing them. My buddy found a new bunch of movies from which to shout out impossible quotes. That’s all.

Anyone who wants to argue validity to these new test questions has to leap a host of hurdles to accomplish his goal.

First, one would have to prove PA Core – and by extension Common Core – Standards actually improve student learning. Good luck. It’s never been done and all the evidence is against you.

Second, one would have to gain access to an individual year’s worth of test questions. Again, good luck. They’re corporate property. The public is not allowed to see the questions. If a principal, student or teacher were to copy a question or snap a photo of a test, they could be subject to prosecution in a court of law.

Such a lack of transparency in government is a sure sign of malfeasance.

It’s almost impossible to avoid certain conclusions about this whole process. Standardized testing is designed to fail students – just like my buddy’s movie quiz was designed to stump me.

These tests constitute fake proof of inadequacy. They attempt to “prove” our public schools are failing and should, therefore, be replaced by private corporations – maybe even by subsidiaries of the same for-profit companies that make and grade these tests!

When my buddy unfairly stumped me, we both knew it was a joke. We’d laugh and play another video game.

But there’s nothing funny about this when it’s perpetrated by the state and federal government.

Pennsylvania’s standardized test scores are a farce just like the scores in every state and territory throughout the country. They’re lies told by corporations, permitted and supported by lawmakers, and swallowed whole by the media and far too much of the public.

We always seem on the verge of waking up. Tomorrow we will stop the state-sanctioned abuse of children by the testing industry. Tomorrow we’ll take responsibility for this sick system we allow.

But when will tomorrow come? I’m tired of waiting.


NOTE: This article also was quoted extensively on Diane Ravitch’s blog and published in full on the Badass Teachers Association blog.

Why Were So Many Education Reformers Bad Students?

 


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Bad students often hate school.

Not exactly shocking, I know.

But perhaps more surprising is the pattern of low, sloppy or inconsistent academic achievement by so many of those adults who consider themselves education reformers, particularly corporate school reformers.

Our ideas of school are certainly formed during our years in it. Those working so diligently to destroy the public school system and reshape it to resemble the business model are so often people who didn’t fit in. They earned low grades or only excelled in subjects they really liked. Perhaps school failed them or perhaps they failed school. There’s no way to know for sure since school records are almost always kept private. But details do trickle through and display a clear pattern – a pattern that certainly gives the appearance of an ulterior motive.

Are these former bad students more interested in fixing the perceived problems they see with the system? Or are they consciously or unconsciously seeking revenge against a system that found them to be inadequate?

Take Scott Walker.

The Wisconsin Governor-cum-Presidential candidate has been one of the most virulent enemies of public education and public school teachers in the past decade.

But when he was a lowly student, he wasn’t anywhere near the head of the class. His grade school years are mostly shrouded in mystery, but his college career is ablaze in controversy.

He claims to have been a solid C-student with a 2.59 grade point average. Contemporaries say it was closer to a 2.3.

“I had some classes I was more interested in than others, I suppose,” he admits.

In any case, college wasn’t for him. He attended Marquette University for almost four full years before dropping out. He only had a year or more to go before earning a bachelors degree.

Why did he quit? Numerous contemporaries allege he was expelled for cheating in student government. Walker says he simply accepted a full-time job and had to devote his time there.

The facts are these: Walker unsuccessfully ran for student body president with a tumultuous campaign. He was found guilty of campaigning a week early thereby losing campaign privileges at one facility and a day of campaigning at another.
When the student paper endorsed his opponent, the edition mysteriously vanished from the stands. Students reported seeing Walker staff taking almost all of the papers and replacing them with campaign literature against his opponent.

An investigation was conducted but the university refuses to release it saying the results are either private or have been destroyed.

However, the university denies that Walker was ever in bad standing or that he had been expelled.

The matter could easily be cleared up if Walker released his academic records to the public, but unlike most Presidential candidates of either major political party, he refuses to do so. (All while continuing to criticize President Barrack Obama for not releasing a birth certificate that the President clearly released to the public.)

Not exactly student of the year. Nor would the preacher’s son ever win “Most Ethical” in the student superlative section of his college yearbook.

It’s easy to see why someone who had such difficulty in college would spend so much time as Governor attacking that world.

He reduced state funding to Wisconsin colleges by 13% and then mandated they freeze tuition for 4 years. He recommending replacing University of Wisconsin leadership with a private authority governed by his own appointees. He proposed the university change its fundamental commitment from “a search for truth” to the goal of workforce readiness.

That’ll show ‘em, I guess.

But he didn’t just attack post-secondary education. He went after high, middle and elementary schools, too. He signed a law mandating high stakes reading testing begin in kindergarten. That’s right – kindergarten! Teachers and principals, of course, had to be evaluated based on these scores. Oh and don’t forget the massive school budget cuts.

He also presided over the largest roll back of collective bargaining rights in state history – and who make up the biggest unions? Teachers. Other working people are just more grist for the mill of his petty power trip.

If Walker had studied harder, spent less time on extra-curricular politics and finished his degree – I wonder if he wouldn’t have such animosity towards education. Maybe then he wouldn’t spend his days congratulating himself for hobbling colleges and public schools while trampling on workers rights.

Moving from politics to punditry, few people have devoted their careers to destroying the teaching profession as much as former anchorperson Campbell Brown.

Since being quietly let go from CNN when her news program was cancelled for low ratings, Brown has become an outspoken corporate education reformer. School choice, the destruction of teacher tenure and labor unions – there are few supply side education ideas she doesn’t support. Most notably, she serves on the board of directors for the infamous Success Academy Charter Schools – a system that uses student humiliation to ensure children swallow a curriculum consisting almost entirely of standardized test prep. Moreover, her husband, Dan Senor, is on the board of StudentsFirstNY, a corporate school reform organization affiliated with Michelle Rhee.

How anyone so personally invested in the factory schools model could possibly claim she was impartial enough to serve in a journalistic capacity on this matter is beyond belief. But that’s just what Brown does. This summer she even co-founded The Seventy Four – a news site dedicated to covering education. She claims it’s all “non-partisan” and “non-profit.” Ha! Her husband is a former adviser to the Romney campaign and spokesman for the Bush administration’s Coalition Provisional Authority in Iraq! Her “news” site is like Fox News for schools – which given the supply side bias of MOST news organizations is really saying something!

Is it any surprise that when Brown was in school, herself, she wasn’t exactly honor roll material?

She describes herself as a “terrible student” in Catholic school, but immediately justifies her academic performance by saying the teachers were awful, too. Since she had such a horrible parochial school experience, it’s a wonder she reserves her rancor for the public school system where she has little first hand knowledge. A child of privilege, Brown was a private school girl.

At Virginia’s elite Madeira School, she was kicked out for sneaking off campus for a party. She eventually earned a GED, and briefly attended Louisiana State University before waitressing in Colorado and enrolling in a Catholic college in Denver. It was there that a priest who taught political philosophy finally reached her. She eventually earned a B.S. in political science.

It was a long, difficult academic road for Brown. I wonder how she would have done at Success Academy where mostly poor Black and Hispanic students must sit with hands clasped and eyes following the speaker; where reading passages must be neatly annotated with a main idea; where her teachers would be inexperienced drones forced to work 11-hour days and face high turnover.

Something tells me as a student she’d find those teachers just “awful,” too. It’s a hard thing to take responsibility for one’s own actions especially as a child. If only the teacher had taught me better, if only I had gone to the good school, if only someone had done this or that. Poor little rich girl.

Now Brown is a professional at casting blame on our public school system in favor of unproven or disastrous education models. She’s come from the back of the class to the front – where she can criticize and wag her finger.

But to do the most damage to the school system, you need to be more than a politician or a pundit – you need to be an ideologue. And you need so much cash you don’t now what to do with it all.

No one has had a greater negative impact on public education than Bill Gates and his billions in so-called philanthropic contributions. As one of the richest men in the world, he has steered the course of education policy away from research-based policies to a business-minded approach favored by corporate raiders.

Common Core State Standards would not exist without his backing and financial bribery of federal and state governments. The man of ideas who instinctively understands the world of computers extends his hubris to encase all subjects. For clearly, what is true of a network of calculating machines must be true of young minds. Gates knows best, and where he is contradicted by one peer-reviewed study, he can pay for several independent ones to back up his pet ideas.

But whatever you say of Gates, he differs dramatically from Walker and Brown. Gates is clearly brilliant. He was a National Merit Scholar who scored a 1590 out of 1600 on his SATs. One would think his academic record must be impeccable. But one would be wrong.

While he excelled in subjects he cared about, he neglected others that weren’t immediately interesting. According to a college friend:

Gates was a typical freshman in many ways, thrown off pace by the new requirements and a higher level of competition. He skipped classes, spent days on end in the computer lab working on his own projects, played poker all night, and slept in a bed without sheets when he did go
 to bed. Other students recall that he often went without sleep for 18 to 36 hours.

Even at Harvard, Gates continued his pattern of 
getting good grades in the subjects he liked and disdaining those that were of little interest. His heart didn’t seem to be in his studies. Gates joined few college activities unless his friend Steve Ballmer dragged him off to a party.

School was of little interest to him. He dropped out of Harvard before getting a degree to start his computer software company.

Some tell it as a story of an eccentric’s unstoppable rise, but few tarry long enough to remark on the privilege from which Gates emerged. He didn’t have a public school education. He attended an elite preparatory school since he was 13. Once again someone with such little experience of public school is a self-appointed expert in reforming it.

His parents also instilled in him a peculiar marker for success. In his home, the family encouraged competition. One visitor reported, “it didn’t matter whether it was hearts or pickleball or swimming to the dock … there was always a reward for winning and there was always a penalty for losing.” How interesting that this same philosophy has become Gate’s vision for all school children! Schools must compete against each other for resources and the losers get shut down. Yet what irony that his own personal success relies on ignoring his weaknesses and focusing solely on his successes! We excuse the inconsistent grades and dropping out of college. But would Gates-backed education policies do the same for other children?

Gates, the student, easily might have wilted under the education policies of Gates, the edu-preneur. How hard it is to see oneself clearly. How hard to admit one has limitations. Especially when one is brilliant in one narrow field and has too much money and free time.

And so the enemies of America’s public education system gather round. Many of them may have axes to grind. Of course this doesn’t hold in every case. New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, for example, is no friend to schools. Yet by all accounts he personally had a relatively trouble free academic experience.

However, the case holds often enough to be instructive. An awful lot of C-students think corporate education reform is needed to fix our schools. Heck! Most of these policies come from No Child Left Behind legislation proposed by the most infamous C-student in American history – President George W. Bush!

These kinds of psychological conflicts of interest should give us pause. Do we really want to support such personal crusades? Should all the power of public policy really back the revenge of indifferent students?

Corporate education reform policies don’t work. They never have worked. They’re destroying our system of public education.

Doesn’t there come a time when you have to get over your personal childhood traumas and pay attention to the facts?


NOTE: This article also was mentioned on Diane Ravitch’s blog and published in the LA Progressive and the Badass Teachers Association blog.

The Democrats May Have Just Aligned Themselves With Test and Punish – We Are Doomed

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Almost every Democrat in the US Senate just voted to keep Test and Punish.

But Republicans defeated them.

I know. I feel like I just entered a parallel universe, too. But that’s what happened.

Some facts:

No Child Left Behind (NCLB) is a disaster.

It took the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) – a federal law designed to ensure all schools get equitable resources and funding – and turned it into a law about standardized testing and punishing schools that don’t measure up.

This was a Republican policy proposed by President George W. Bush.

But now that the ESEA is being rewritten, those pushing to keep the same horrendous Bush era policies are the Democrats.

Almost all of the Democrats!

That includes so-called far left Dems like Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren!

It comes down to the Murphy Amendment, a Democratically sponsored change to the ESEA.

This provision was an attempt to keep as many Test and Punish policies as possible in the Senate rewrite.

The amendment, “reads more like NCLB, with its detailed prescription for reporting on student test results, for ‘meaningfully differentiating among all public schools’ (i.e., grading schools), including publicly identifying the lowest five percent, and, among interventions, potentially firing staff and offering students the option to transfer to other schools and using part of the budget to pay for the transportation,” according to blogger Mercedes Schneider.

Education historian Diane Ravich adds, “This amendment would have enacted tough, federal-mandated accountability, akin to setting up an ‘achievement school district’ in every state.”

Thankfully it was voted down. The ESEA will probably not be affected. The rewrite was passed by both the House and Senate without these provisions. Once the two versions of the bill are combined, it is quite possible – maybe even probable – that we’ll have a slight improvement on NCLB. Sure there is plenty of crap in it and plenty of lost opportunities, but the ESEA rewrite looks to be a baby step in the right direction.

The problem is this: the failed Murphy Amendment shows the Democrats’ education vision. Almost all of them voted for it. Warren even co-sponsored it!

When it was defeated and the Senate approved the ESEA rewrite, Warren released a statement expressing her disapproval. But if you didn’t know about the Murphy Amendment, you could have read her criticisms quite differently.

She says the (ESEA rewrite) “eliminates basic, fundamental safeguards to ensure that federal dollars are actually used to improve both schools and educational outcomes for those students who are often ignored.”

That sounds good until you realize what she means. “Educational outcomes” mean test scores. She’s talking about test-based accountability. She is against the ESEA rewrite because it doesn’t necessarily put strings on schools’ funding based on standardized test scores like NCLB.

She continues, “Republicans have blocked every attempt to establish even minimum safeguards to ensure that money would be used effectively. I am deeply concerned that billions in taxpayer dollars will not actually reach those schools and students who need them the most…”

She is upset because Republicans repeatedly stripped away federal power to Test and Punish schools. The GOP gave that power to the states. So Warren is concerned that somewhere in this great nation there may be a state or two that decides NOT to take away funding if some of their schools have bad test scores! God forbid!

And Warren’s about as far left as they come!

What about liberal lion Bernie Sanders? I’d sure like an explanation for his vote.

It makes me wonder if when he promised to “end No Child Left Behind,” did he mean the policies in the bill or just the name!?

The Democrats seem to be committed to the notion that the only way to tell if a school is doing a good job is by reference to its test scores. High test scores – good school. Bad test scores – bad school.

This is baloney! Test scores show parental income, not academic achievement. Virtually every school with low test scores serves a majority of poor children. Virtually every school with high test scores serves rich kids.

Real school accountability would be something more akin to the original vision of the ESEA – making sure each district had what it needs to give kids the best education possible. This means at least equalizing funding to poverty schools so they have the same resources as wealthy ones. Even better would be ending our strange reliance on local property taxes to provide the majority of district monies.

But the Dems won’t hear it. The Murphy Amendment seems to show that they’re committed to punishing poor schools and rewarding rich ones.

I really hope I’m wrong about this. Please, anyone out there, talk me down!

Up until now I’ve always been with the Democrats because they had better – though still bad – education policies than the Republicans. I’m not sure I can say that anymore. In fact, it may be just the opposite.

Which party is most committed to ending Common Core? The Republicans!

Which party has championed reducing federal power over our schools and giving us a fighting chance at real education reforms? Republicans!

Which party more often champion’s parental rights over the state? Republicans!

Sure, most of them still love vouchers and charter schools. But increasingly so do the Democrats.

This vote has me rethinking everything.

Our country’s education voters may have just been abandoned by their longest ally.

Where do we go from here?


NOTE: This article also was published on Commondreams.org and on the Badass Teachers Association blog. It was also mentioned in the Washington Post.

The School-to-Prison Pipeline: Turning Kids into Cash

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For too many children, public school is just a “GO DIRECTLY TO JAIL” card.

Do not pass GO. Do not collect $200.

The institution that should be raising kids to the skies is chaining them to the ground.

It’s called the School-to-Prison Pipeline, and it disproportionately affects students of color and the poor.

School policy at the highest levels is designed to sort and rank students. Some go to the college track. Some go to the industrial track. And even more end up on the prison track.

We actually have procedures that prepare certain children for life behind bars.

Why? Because people make money from it.

Think about it. The United States represents only 4.4% of the world population but we house 22% of the world’s prisoners. We’re the number one jailor!

It’s not that our citizens are out of control. It’s not a rise in violent crime. In fact, the crime rate has decreased to 1970s levels.

But instead someone has found a way to convert prisoners into cash.

Since the 1980s, we’ve been handing over our prison system to private companies to run for a profit.

The number of inmates in privatized prisons has increased by 44% in the last decade alone, according to a 2013 Bloomberg report.

This creates a market. Without a steady stream of prisoners, these institutions would go bankrupt. And corporations such as Corrections Corporation of America and The GEO Group spend tons of cash lobbying our government to ensure just that.

It’s no accident that our national education policy meets the needs of the for-profit prison industry.

Look at the so-called education reforms of the last decade: increasing standardization, efforts to close schools serving poor and minority children, cutting school budgets and narrowing the curriculum. All of these serve to push kids out of school and into the streets where they are more likely to engage in criminal activity and enter the criminal justice system.

Federal education policy – whether it be No Child Left Behind or Race to the Top – continually doubles down on privatization and standardization. These policies consistently have failed to produce academic gains but are offered as the only possible solution in school reform initiatives.

Question: Why do we keep enacting the same failed policies?

Answer: Because they are not MEANT to succeed. They are meant to fail a certain percentage, race and economic bracket.

If we had effective education procedures that increased academic success, we wouldn’t have enough prisoners to feed our for-profit prisons. Lawmakers would loose valuable lobbying revenue.

Call it what you will – misplaced priorities, profiteering or an outright scam. But the reform-to-profit cycle is advocated, perpetrated and championed by the most prominent figures in the so-called education reform movement.

Take Bill Gates – the monetary force behind Common Core State Standards (CCSS), one of the leading policies in education.

The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation also is an investor in The GEO Group – one of the biggest for-profit prison providers in the country. It’s most recent tax filing (2013) shows a more than $2 million investment.

Nominally a philanthropic organization, the Gates Foundation refuses to admit if it still backs the industry or by how much. Sure Gates underwriting is just a drop in the bucket, but it proves how the organization’s interest is economic and not charitable. It is one of a herd of Trojan horses stampeding over the cries of critics under a banner of largesse.

Likewise, Common Core essentially isn’t concerned with increasing the quality of children’s education. CCSS has never been proven to be effective and is – in fact – developmentally inappropriate. But it’s touted as a panacea to a host of ills when its real concern is to continue fortifying the prison machine.

We live in a country where more than half of the children attending public school live below the poverty line. They need proper nutrition, social assistance, tutoring, counseling and a host of wrap around services. But instead they get so-called “higher” academic standards and standardized tests.

It’s like a sporting goods store withholding wheelchairs to the Special Olympics and instead donating extra hurdles – all the while claiming it was trying to help participants become better hoppers!

Even worse, these standards aren’t actually better. They’re just confusing, ignorant and ill-conceived. After all, they weren’t developed by educators. They were made by ideologues who admit they were unqualified for the task.

Was this a huge mistake? No. These standards and the associated bubble tests that drive them do exactly what they were meant to do.

They increase the numbers of failing students. They push more kids out of school and into the waiting arms of the prison industry.

And when kids have difficulty sitting through the hours, days, and months of test prep that are increasingly replacing a well-rounded curriculum, they face unfair discipline practices.

We treat misbehaving kids like little criminals.

Can’t sit still in class? Can’t keep quiet? Can’t control your frustration?

Out you go! Detentions, suspensions, expulsions!

We have zero tolerance for your childish behavior – even if you are still a child.

And unsurprisingly the majority of the children who are crushed by the hammer of discipline have dark skin.

Let me be clear. I’m not saying that misbehaving children shouldn’t be disciplined. Far from it.

But we need to stop criminalizing their misbehavior.

If we can’t provide them with schools that teach in a developmentally appropriate manner – it’s not the children who are misbehaving. It’s us! The school system!

Moreover, when a child has a problem conforming to the norm, our first reaction shouldn’t be punishment. It should be understanding. The goal should be to find ways to change the negative behavior, not weed the kid out of the system.

But this means treating children as ends not means.

We have to care about their well-being. They have to be more than just piggy banks for big business.

Otherwise, it is our sick society that really deserves to be sent to jail.


NOTE: This article also appeared in the LA Progressive, ConversationED and the Badass Teachers Association blog.