Kevin D. Vinson
Published in "Progressive Perspectives" by the John Dewey project on
Progressive Education, University of Vermont, Kathleen Kesson Editor,
The recent movement toward high-stakes standardized testing as a means of school reform has captured the support of many local, state, and national educational "leaders," including President Clinton, members of Congress, and a majority of Governors, State Legislatures, and Boards of Education. What most clearly defines these groups and individuals is their pursuit of mandated content and testing regimes as a simplistic cure-all-an absolute panacea-to the variously perceived ills that "threaten" the fundamental "effectiveness" of contemporary American public education. And yet, as can be demonstrated, a great deal is known about the weaknesses and dangers, both implicit and explicit, of such efforts.
Against this perspective, the focus of our work here is fourfold. First, by drawing on the work of John Dewey (see, especially, 1902/1956, 1916/1966), we argue that testing-especially high-stakes, man- dated, standardized testing-represents little more than poor, and absurdly disconnected and uninspired, pedagogy. For instead of consider-ing those conditions that we know contribute to ineffectual and unjust schooling-inequity in funding, lack of teacher planning time, large class sizes, a focus on facts over meaning-it seeks instead to lay blame on teachers and students, to reward policy leaders for "action," and to redefine learning as scoring well on externally produced and graded evaluations. Second, by aiming to standardize and normalize knowledge such tests work to promote conformity and oppression, claiming as they and their advocates do that "legitimate" and "real" learning necessarily "shows up" in the scores. Unquestionably such thinking denies and/or ignores key differences in meaningful and experiential knowledge as well as in access to formalized academic and economic resources. Third, we argue that the current "liberal-conservative alliance" in favor of such test-ing ultimately works against vigorous struggles for profound and substantive school change, both politically and pedagogically. We do, however, take seriously and support the often courageous work of teachers, students, parents, and others involved in vari- ous grassroots undertakings (such as those in Michigan, Illinois, California, and New York, some of our country's largest school systems) as critical to the countermovement away from the eco-nomics of standards and toward the democratic tasks of justice, equality, fairness, and anti-op-pression. Fourth, and moreover, we challenge the extent to which testing meets the needs of all students, particularly those who speak English as a second language and those existing in traditionally marginalized settings.
In sum, as we hope to show, high-stakes standard-ized tests and test scores undermine high-quality education, genuine student/teacher motivation, and the benefits of diversity and inclusion. They simplify schooling to the point that it becomes nothing more than a capitalistic and competitive chase for acceptable numbers, a dedicated means by which to exclude-to rank and sort-the less powerful. Within such a system schooling itself, we believe, becomes little more that an alienating and undemocratic threat to educational authenticity.
Pedagogy and Democracy
John Dewey (1916/1966) long ago recognized the imperatives connecting a democratic society to a democratic system of schooling. In fact, he considered their relationships not only mutual but also necessary to virtually every aspect of a healthy and vital democracy. Throughout his work he consistently identified and presented the underlying principles that even today orient and define the characteristics of a meaningful and authentic pedagogy, one grounded in and consonant with the demands, values, and directions of an open, dynamic, and inclusive society. For by challenging the dominance of "traditional" schooling, Dewey (1902/1956) established the foundations for an instruction committed to reflective inquiry, cooperation, growth, association, and multiculturalism.
The current expansion of standardized testing fails pedagogically on a number of levels, including, perhaps most importantly, on several criteria initially proposed by Dewey himself. In The Child and the Curriculum, for example, Dewey (1902/1956) argued that education and educators must "get rid of the prejudicial notion that there is some gap in kind…between the child's experience and the various forms of subject-matter that make up the course of study" (p. 11). This, for Dewey, was the "problem" with traditional and dominant viewpoints. Moreover, it was a problem defined by two principal "sides":
From the side of the child, it [was] a question of seeing how his [or her] experience already contains within itself elements-facts and truths-of just the same sort as those entering into the formulated study; and, what is more important, of how it contains within itself the attitudes, the motives, and the interests which have operated in developing and organizing the subject-matter to the plane which it now occupies. From the side of the studies, it is a question of interpreting them as outgrowths of forces operating in the child's life, and of discovering the steps that intervene between the child's present experience and their richer maturity. (p. 11)As he continued:
Abandon the notion of subject-matter as something fixed and ready-made in itself, outside the child's experience; cease thinking of the child's experience as also something hard and fast; see it as something fluent, embryonic, vital; and we realize that the child and the curriculum are simply two limits which define a single process [italics added]. Just as two points define a straight line, so the present standpoint of the child and the facts and truths of studies define instruction. It is continuous reconstruction, moving from the child's present experience out into that represented by the organized bodies of truth that we call studies. (p. 11)
In terms of standardized testing, what Dewey's understanding implies are at least three significant points. First, it suggests an instructional state of affairs in which all important knowledge-even so-called "academic" or "disciplinary" knowledge-grows out of the multiple and experienced lives of the learners themselves. Second, it indicates an instruction that is fluid and dynamic, one in which neither the perceived and actualized experiences of the child nor the subject matter itself is constant or set in stone, that is "fixed and ready-made." Third, it maintains and asserts a certain and clear connectedness, one inherent in the act of instruction, that represents the motion and instability of the learner's association with a given mode of content. In sum, it challenges the extent to which content can be predetermined, objectified, established as permanent, legitimately cut-off from experience, and measured or moderated externally. And yet, these indeed are the conditions that at least partially describe the present commitment to standardized and high- stakes testing.
Accordingly, "It is the failure to keep in mind the double aspect of subject-matter which causes the curriculum and child to be set over against each other…" (Dewey, 1902/1956, p. 23), such that "[t]he [instructional] material is not translated into life-terms, but is directly offered as a substitute [italics added] for, or an external annex to, the child's present life" (p. 24). In fact, because of this failure, "[t]hree typical evils result: In the first place, the lack of any organic connection with what the child has already seen and felt and loved makes the material purely formal and symbolic" (p. 24). The material becomes, in effect, "not a reality, but just the sign of a reality which might be experienced if certain conditions were fulfilled…" (p. 25). The "realities" of classroom life, therefore, get replaced by the "symbols" of standardization. The fact that a school or school district has a system for delivering mandated tests and reporting their scores, and that it has in place therefore a means by which to control and dictate content and teaching method in a publicly visible way, replaces the realities of classroom life, substituting in their place an "image" or "mere representation" by which to judge and presume-to imagine or create-the supposed "(in)effectiveness" of teachers and schools.
"The second evil in this external presentation is lack of motivation. There are not only no facts or truths which have been previously felt as such with which to appropriate and assimilate the new, but there is no craving, no need, no demand" (Dewey, 1902/1956, p. 25). Content, within a technology of standardized testing, one that inevitably leads to standardized curriculum and instruction, disconnects schooling from the child's innate curiosity; it turns the learner off, so that classroom life becomes phony, senseless, and trivial within the bigger life picture. Speculatively, one cause for what those who support standardization see as a lack of knowledge on the part of today's young people might be simply that through schooling children are taught not to enjoy or long for or value learning for its own inherent consequences. Instead, students-children-learn because they are made to, and are scared into achieving vis- à-vis the perils of the threatened and threatening alternative consequences. Subsequently, they develop a viewpoint toward schooling as something negative and of little internal or substantive value, as something one does purely to pass and to succeed within the system; preparing for tests becomes equated with "real" work; passing tests becomes the indicator of success and the only legitimate definition of learning. As one Chicago sixth grader recently stated, "Normally I wouldn't pay much attention because I'd know I could pass without doing much work….It's not like that now. I know I've got to study harder and learn so that I can go on to the seventh grade-and life" (Steinberg, 1999, p. A25). (Note, though, that some Chicago students-the Organized Students of Chicago [OSC] have indeed had some success in challenging Chicago's Tests of Academic Proficiency [TAP] [see FairTest, 1999b].) As Dewey (1902/1956) noted, even "Unpleasant, because meaningless, activities may get agreeable if long enough persisted in. It is possible for the mind to develop interest in a routine or mechanical procedure if conditions are continually supplied which demand that mode of operation and preclude any other sort" (p. 28).
"The third evil is that even the most scientific matter, arranged in
most logical fashion, loses this quality, when presented in external, ready-made
fashion, by the time it gets to the child" (Dewey, 1902/1956, p. 6). That
It has to undergo some modification in order to shut out some phases
too hard to grasp, and to reduce some of the attendant difficulties. What
happens? Those things which are most significant to the scientific man
[sic], and most
valuable in the logic of actual inquiry and classification, drop out. The
really thought-provoking character is obscured, and the organizing function
disappears….[content] is presented as stuff only for "memory." This is
the contradiction: the child gets the advantage neither of the adult logical
formulation, nor of his [or her] own native competencies of apprehension
and response. (p. 26)
In effect, subject matter, in order to meet such demands as those presented by standardized testing-for example, "efficiency," "effectiveness," "objectivity," "validity," "reliability"-becomes hypersimplified, denatured to the point that it exists only as a collection of mere facts or rote ideas useful only for mechanized storage and retrieval, information to remain unproblematic /unproblematized and unassailable/unassailed, virtual data set to portray and symbolize an essentialized and absolute Truth.
Dewey's (1902/1956) answer-his solution-dwells within his notion of "psychologization," a process grounded in "the need of reinstating into experience the subject-matter of the studies, or branches of learning" (p. 22). Here content "must be restored to the experience from which it has been abstracted. It must be psychologized; turned over, translated into the immediate and individual experience within which it has its origin and significance" (p. 22). As against the "evils" associated with disconnecting subject matter from the lived experiences of the learner, Dewey argued that
The legitimate way out is to transform the material; to psychologize
it-that is, once more, to take it and to develop it within the range and
scope of the child's life. But it is easier and simpler to leave it as
it is, and then by trick of method to arouse interest, to make it interesting;
to cover it with sugar-coating; to conceal its barrenness by intermediate
and unrelated material; and finally, as it were, to get the child to swallow
and digest the unpalatable morsel while he is enjoying tasting something
quite different. (p. 30)
But in terms of high-stakes standardized testing, what does all this mean? Of what relevance is a concept such as psychologization? Dewey's assertion was that educators first must realize that subject matter itself be abstracted fundamentally from the experiences of the child. It must, moreover, be re- internalized-worked over-not left hanging lifelessly before the learner as a disconnected and externally created and determined intelligence. It must not be forced on students as something inherently worthwhile, regardless of its meaning. In the case of standardized testing, though, the opposite condition occurs. Content is selected with indifference to the multitude of learner experiences. It is, further, produced externally, in an identical way for everyone (dismissing, therefore, the potential importance of diversity of experiences). Meaning indeed is irrelevant, and understanding unimportant. Acquire the content for its own sake, and reproduce it on command, that is the "secret" message of mandated testing. Induce "achievement" by deceiving students (and parents and teachers?) into accepting the essential gravity and false attractiveness of the subject matter. Or, better yet, convince the public that meaning and motivation don't matter. Defraud them into "seeing" that individual effort rules, and that it can overcome even the most ridiculous of content selection approaches.
An alternative yet critical perspective, albeit one inextricably associated with the pedagogical implications explored above, rests on a mode of interpretation constructed directly out of and upon Dewey's (1916/1966) famed delineation of democracy and of democratic education. From this viewpoint, high-stakes standardized testing represents not only an inadequate method of pedagogy per se, but also a threat to democratic society-that is, a contradiction, an un- or antidemocratic means of preparing children for an engaged democratic social and political life.
In his monumental work Democracy and Education: An Introduction to the Philosophy of Education, Dewey (1916/1966), in some of the best known words in the entire history of Western educational philosophy, presented his construction of democracy. In pursuing "the democratic ideal," he wrote that:
The two elements in our criterion both point to democracy. The first signifies not only more numerous and more varied points of shared common interest, but greater reliance upon the recognition of mutual interests as a factor in social control. The second means not only freer interaction between social groups (once isolated so far as intention could keep up a separation) but change in social habit-its continuous readjustment through meeting the new situations produced by varied intercourse. And these two traits are precisely what characterize the democratically constituted society. (pp. 86-87)
And, most critically (here, Dewey is worth quoting at length):
Upon the educational side, we note first that the realization of a form of social life in which interests are mutually interpenetrating, and where progress, or readjustment, is an important consideration, makes a democratic community more interested than other communities have cause to be in deliberate and systematic education. The devotion of democracy to education is a familiar fact. The superficial explanation is that a government resting upon popular suffrage cannot be successful unless those who elect and who obey their governors are educated. Since a democratic society repudiates the principle of external authority, it must find a substitute in voluntary disposition and interest; these can be created only by education. But there is a deeper explanation. A democracy is more than a form of government; it is primarily a mode of associated living, of conjoint communicated experience [italics added]. The extension in space of the number of individuals who participate in an interest so that each has to refer his [or her] own action to that of others, and to consider the action of others to give point and direction to his [or her] own, is equivalent to the breaking down of those barriers of class, race, and national territory which kept men [sic] from perceiving the full import of their activity. These more numerous and more varied points of contact denote a greater diversity of stimuli to which an individual has to respond; they consequently put a premium on variation in his [or her] action [italics added]. They secure a liberation of powers which remain suppressed as long as incitations to action are partial, as they must be in a group which in its exclusiveness shuts out many interests. (p. 87)
With respect to mandated standardized testing, Dewey's understandings yield several critical insights. Whereas Dewey's democracy called for "more numerous and more varied points of shared common interest," mandated standardized testing in fact reduces and limits them, creating a system of "interests" organized around exclusion and not inclusion. Our potentially real, shared interests become artificial, determined by powerful and peripheral forces, with their interests established as "our" interests. What counts as shared and mutual extends no farther than that which is consistent with, or deemed proper with the context of, the normalized and dominant content.
Further, standardized testing (and educational standardization period) contradicts the democratic ideals of "freer interaction" and "varied intercourse." Standardized testing confines legitimate "interaction" to test-driven teaching and learning. It reduces meaningful "intercourse" to that which is officially and formally sanctioned.
Lastly, standardization directly challenges the principles of "greater diversity of stimuli" and "variation in action." Such dynamism and difference are destroyed as teachers are forced to follow scripts and teach to the test, and as students acquire the notion that learning means nothing more than achieving "desirable" scores. In effect, the stimuli are identical, and the actions strikingly the same. For in effect, the conditions and characteristics of standardized testing contradict those of democracy, leaving instead-in democracy's wake-an institutionalized mechanism of authoritarian-externally produced-social and intellectual conformity, a regime of "top-down" pedagogical control. They ignore or dismiss, moreover, the imperatives of such critical and limiting factors as time, money, and class size, promoting in the end a privileged individualism over a commitment to collectivity, community, and care.
Dewey's concerns with connectivity and meaning, his emphasis on experience and fluidity, his fundamental motivation vis-à-vis a strong and vibrant democratic society, echo throughout the writings of such well known and respected, yet divergent, contemporary educational thinkers as Alfie Kohn (e.g., 1999), Neil Postman (e.g., 1995), and Theodore Sizer (e.g., 1996). Their calls for deeper and more complex assessments, as well as their criticisms of national and standardized testing schemes, seek to refocus education and schooling toward that which is unrelentingly authentic and meaningful and away from that which is simplistic and robotic. As each implies, such a reorientation moves US public schooling closer to that which might legitimately be considered significant educational goals; that is, reconsidering standardized testing opens up the possibilities for a profound, rich, and reform-minded countermovement aimed at a more genuine and holistic, democratic and community-based, truly public education. As Kohn (1999) summarizes:
…I do know this: the issue of standardized testing is not reserved for bureaucrats and specialists. All of us with children need to make it our business to understand just how much harm these tests are doing. They are not an inevitable part of "life" or even a necessary part of school; they are a relatively recent invention that gets in the way of our kids' learning. Their impact is deep, direct, and personal. Every time we judge a school on the basis of a standardized test score-indeed, every time we permit our children to participate in these mass testing programs-we unwittingly help to make our schools just a little bit worse. (p. 73)
In Pedagogy of
the Oppressed, radical Brazilian educator and activist Paulo Freire
(1970) referred memorably to such standardization schemes as "banking"
education. Here, schooling turns [students] into "containers," into "receptacles"
to be "filled" by the teacher….The more completely [the teacher] fills
the receptacles, the better a teacher she [or he] is. The more meekly the
receptacles permit themselves to be filled, the better students they are
….Education [thus] becomes an act of depositing, in which the students
are the depositories and the teacher is the depositor…the scope of action
allowed to the students extends only as far as receiving, filing, and storing
the deposits. (p. 53)
Moreover, Freire (1970) identified such banking approaches with the fundamental conditions of oppression. As he wrote:
One of the basic elements of the relationship between oppressor and oppressed is prescription. Every prescription represents the imposition of one individual's choice upon another, transforming the consciousness of the person prescribed to into one that conforms with the prescriber's consciousness. Thus, the behavior of the oppressed is a prescribed behavior, following as it does the guidelines of the oppressor. (pp. 28-29)
Freire's (1970) critique applies neatly to the climate and functionality of current standardization- based pedagogies. With respect to banking, under such programs students and teachers are held "accountable" only to the extent that they conform to the dictates of high-stakes mandated tests, which, in turn, work to drive (if not outright determine) classroom behavior relative to aim or purpose, content, and teaching method (e.g., Hartocollis, 1999; Libit, 1999a; Steinberg, 1999).
Even more clearly, perhaps, is the degree to which standards and standards-based reforms represent a case of prescription. In fact, such systems mirror Freire's (1970) insights almost to the letter. Within any complex of educational standards (including standardized tests), some individual or group's decisions are imposed externally on the actual classroom lives of teachers and students. Over time, the "consciousness of the person prescribed to" merges or "conforms with the prescriber's consciousness" such that "the behavior of the oppressed is a prescribed behavior" indeed. The prescriber(s) choose/s for others, convinces them that the decision is consistent with the totality of all their interests, and then works to ensure (here, via testing) the strict compliance of the prescribed to's behavior with the initial, test-regulated decision.
A more recent yet equally significant framework was established by Iris Marion Young (1992) in her work on "The Five Faces of Oppression." Within this view, oppression moves beyond its traditional [grounding] in the exercise of tyranny by a ruling group [so as to include also its] new left…designat[ion of] the disadvantage and injustice some people suffer not because a tyrannical power intends to keep them down, but because of the everyday practices of a well-intentioned liberal society….[It] refers to systemic and structural phenomena that are not necessarily the result of the intentions of a tyrant [but are in fact] part of the basic fabric of a society, not a function of a few people's choices or policies….Oppression refers to structural phenomena that immobilize or reduce a group….To be in a…group is to share with others a way of life that defines a person's identity and by which other people identify him or her. (pp. 175-177)
For Young, oppression is more subtle yet actually no less dangerous than in the settings identified by Freire (1970). What is oppressive from this perspective are the everyday workings of "the system," the structure of public education itself, that which lies in the tendency of standards-based formats to develop or evolve a life of their own. Once in place, that is, such an organized arrangement, well-intentioned though it might be, works automatically if not absolutely to control the lives of the oppressed (e.g., groups such as teachers, students, and classroom communities), a state of affairs that yields a marginalization effect, a condition of injustice and disadvantage.
Young (1992) identifies five "faces" or "types" of oppression, recognizing that "each presents its own unique mode or class of oppression whether in the presence or absence of the others" (Vinson, in press). Specifically, these types or faces include: (1) exploitation, (2) marginalization, (3) powerlessness, (4) cultural imperialism, and (5) violence. To the extent that standardization and standardized-testing schemes rely on the use of classroom labor to benefit the (external) powerful (i.e., working teachers and students so that they take the blame for "failure" and various educational "leaders" claim the praise for "success"), there is exploitation. To the extent that test scores privilege some at the expense of others (e.g., based on relationships of power, race, ethnicity, language, gender, class, and so on), there is marginalization. To the extent that a majority of teachers and students (not to mention parents) play little if any genuine role in making decisions that significantly affect their lives, there is (undemocratic) powerlessness. To the extent that standardization fixes knowledge, and represents the experience of dominant groups as "normal" and/or "true," there is cultural imperialism. And, lastly, to the extent that testing and its media portrayals result in the reduction of freedom, the expansion of conformity, and the "unprovoked" or unwarranted attack on, or humiliation of, some (less powerful) individuals and groups (e.g., teachers, students, parents, members of less wealthy communities) at the hands of other (more powerful) individuals and groups (e.g., politicians, corporations, the media), there is, in effect, a well- entrenched order of violence. All in all, whether from a Freirean or a Youngian perspective, standardization and standardized testing are oppressive, and so must at once and forcefully be challenged.
The "Alliance" and School Reform
What makes the contemporary conditions favoring standardization and high-stakes testing so powerful, and therefore what makes them so difficult to counteract, is the existence of a dominating "liberal-conservative" alliance or consensus advocating vigorously on their behalf (Vinson, 1999). More precisely, the actuality is one in which widespread agreement among political and pedagogical "liberals" and "conservatives" sustains the extreme yet external authority of the standards movement (see such "diverse" sources as Hirsch, 1987, 1996; Nash, Crabtree, & Dunn, 1997; Ravitch, 1995; Ravitch & Finn, 1987; Tucker & Codding, 1998). In fact, too, there is at least some support for standardized tests within the official bureaucracy of the federal government and among many individuals within the general "public" (e.g., FairTest, 1999a; Johnson & [with] Duffett, 1999), although one must certainly take into account the near absolute and immediate, one-sided access to the media held by those powerful voices speaking in favor of standardized tests (e.g., politicians, state superintendents, corporate leaders, etc.).
On the one hand, political and pedagogical conservatives (i.e., "neoliberals" and "neoconservatives," including, among educators, perhaps most famously E. D. Hirsch, Jr. and Diane Ravitch) back standardization as a means by which to link the control of "American culture" with the ever- increasing domination of the global economy by US-based multinational corporations. Ostensibly, though, conservative standards supporters ground their views within the context of "efficient," "effective," and "necessary" school "reform." As indicated by Ravitch (1995), for example, the conservative agenda argues that:
1. Standards can improve achievement by clearly defining what is to be taught and what kind of performance is expected;
2. Standards (national, state, and local) are necessary for equality of opportunity;
3. National standards provide a valuable coordinating function [by providing coherence with respect to the various aspects of education];
4. There is no reason to have different standards in different states, especially in mathematics and science, when well-developed international standards have already been developed;
5. Standards and assessments provide consumer protection by supplying accurate information to students and parents; [and]
6. Standards and assessments serve as an important signaling device to students, parents, teachers, employers, and colleges. (pp. 25-27)
On the other hand, the liberal perspective, quite publicly presented in the recent debates over national history standards (e.g., Nash, Crabtree, & Dunn, 1997), argues simply that standards themselves can assure equal opportunity, diversity, and progressive modes of curricular and instructional practice. In addition, the effort among liberal educators to "stay ahead of the curve" seeks to preclude non-educators (e.g., politicians, corporate leaders) from taking control of US schooling. It is, from the liberal view, an opportunity to ward off right-wing ideologies and anachronistic pedagogies. As Nash, Crabtree, & Dunn (1997) suggest in their history of the national history standards project (in a quote representative of liberal initiatives):
...the simple fact [was] that the train was leaving the station. History
standards were clearly on the country's agenda....The matter boiled down
to who would write them. Those who were at first reluctant about the wisdom
of this enterprise soon decided that they might compromise their own best
interests if they failed to join in. If the cards were being dealt, why
would historians or social studies educators not want seats around the
big table? (p. 158)
All in all, the consensus pro-standards position is that:
national curriculum standards…[are] necessary for productive public school reform. They [liberals and conservatives] agree that today's students do not "know enough," that they possess too little knowledge (whether defined as facts, skills, understandings, or something else), and that curriculum [and instruction and testing] standards can promote wider and deeper levels of achievement and performance. Further, they concur that without such a system of standards American students and their schools will continue to "lag behind" those of other industrialized countries. Liberals and conservatives each envision a (potentially voluntary) structure built upon proactive federal leadership and guidance (and perhaps funding) but under the ultimate control of states and communities. Lastly, both champion…standards as conducive to and consistent with the advancement of equal educational opportunity. (Vinson, 1999, pp. 304-305)Of course, the pro-standards alliance has received a good bit of criticism, both from the political and pedagogical left and the political and pedagogical right. Among more radical educators such criticism has argued that by definition standardization systems are anti-democratic, oppressive, and disciplinary (e.g., Vinson, 1999). Yet significant criticism has come also from more mainstream and well known educators. As conservative standards supporter Diane Ravitch (1995) summarizes things, at least at the national level, these criticisms have included arguments such as:
1. National standards will be minimal, reduced to the lowest common denominator, especially if they are controlled by a federal agency;
2. The government might impose controversial values and opinions;
3. National standards based on traditional subject matter disciplines such as mathematics, science, and history will narrow the curriculum;
4. National testing will harm children and will distort priorities in the classroom;
5. National standards and national tests will do nothing to help poor inner-city schools;
6. National standards and assessments will not expand equality of opportunity;
7. National standards and assessments will not improve achievement because most teachers will ignore them and do what they have always done;
8. The failure of national standards and testing will undermine faith in public education and pave the way for privatization of education; [and]
9. National standards and assessments will accomplish little by themselves….(pp. 18-25)
Gittell (1998), a cautious liberal advocates of standards, writes that substantive criticism has indeed come from within the entire range of relevant political and pedagogical perspectives. As she notes, it has been offered by, among others, individuals who:
1. honor and cherish the tradition of local control of education, particularly at the school district level;
2. give priority to equity and equitable financing of education;
3. focus on the role of the states;
4. see American federalism as the most effective means of retaining a decentralized and democratic political system;
5. value and encourage diversity in all aspects of American society;
6. question the value of the extensive testing in American schools;
7. lead [local] school reform efforts;
8. do not think that foreign school systems are exemplary models of education; and/or
9. worked on the national history curriculum or the New York social studies proposal, and have faced the wrath of colleagues who disagree with their suggested standards. (pp. 143-144)
Overall, though, most existing mainstream critiques lack any commitment to challenging standards and standardization themselves. According to Vinson (1999):
What these viewpoints share are the understandings that opposition positions (1) represent the entire range of political and pedagogical perspectives (i.e., from the far Left to the far Right), (2) are at least somewhat legitimate and thus deserve to be taken seriously, and (3) can be addressed to their proponents' satisfaction. Both Ravitch and Gittell believe that these questions, doubts, and challenges can be worked out within the consensus framework. Neither indicates a real willingness to reconsider the essential position of…standards themselves. (p. 306).
What both supporters and critics agree on, that is, is the "fundamental" need for a standards-based system of school reform in which high-stakes testing influences the construction of classroom content and teaching method. Within such a system, critique is limited only to curriculum and instruction such that the "inherent correctness" of evaluation schemes cannot be challenged (e.g., Hartocollis, 1999). Criticism focuses on teachers, students, and curriculum workers and what they are doing "wrong"; no thought is given to any possible weaknesses in the testing or to potential flaws in the design and implementation of policy. (But when things go well, however-when test scores rise- praise is heaped by politicians, policymakers, and the media on politicians, policymakers, and the media, for their "dedication" and "hard work"-what they are doing "right.")
More significant, though, are the effects these mechanisms have on alternative, perhaps more promising, means of school reform. Since the tests themselves can't be criticized, they can't be "reformed" (see, e.g., these recent and consecutive front page headlines: "After six years of gains, pupils hit wall on tests"; "State tests still in favor: Md. Officials call for rededication in wake of MSPAP dip; Libit, 1999b, 1999c). If "poor performance" rests in the hands of teachers, students, and parents, then why take the conditions of class size, planning time, funding, and so forth more seriously? If "strong performance" resides in policy and policymakers, then why reform policy, or moreover, why pay attention to anything else? In essence, the liberal-conservative alliance solidifies its own powerful position by limiting meaningful access on the part of opposed-minded critics. By reducing the avenues of reform, they reduce the possibility that their own privileged positionalities can be challenged.
Educational Needs and Inclusion
By formalizing and fixing curriculum and instruction, high-stakes standardized testing dismisses several significant points of individual and cultural difference- privileging some yet punishing others. First, standards and standardized testing favor a proficiency in English over linguistic diversity even when scores are ostensibly based on "knowledge" of some subject matter discipline (e.g., math, history, etc.). Second, following Gardner (e.g., 1983), they reward the "linguistic" and "logico-mathematical" capacities or "intelligences" at the expense of the other intelligences such as "musical" and "intrapersonal." Third, they ignore differences in background and lived experiences. Lastly, and perhaps most damagingly, they maltreat and injure-quite disproportionately- US schoolchildren of color. As Kohn (1999) argues (responding to the comments of a certain school administrator whose children attended private schools):
…he seemed to think the traditional approach to education, including a heavy diet of standardized testing, is for other people's children-and, as it turns out, particularly children of color. Even apart from charges that some standardized tests are biased against minorities because of the content, such tests-with all the implications for teaching they carry-are more likely to be used and emphasized in schools with higher percentages of minority students. The result is that even people who are understandably desperate to improve inner-city schools wind up making the problem worse when they cause reform efforts to be framed in terms of improving standardized test scores. (p. 92)
When utilized within increasingly racist, anti-immigrant, and nationally-chauvinistic settings, such conditions become even more terribly unjust, if not pathetically tragic (e.g., Ross, 1999b).
Summary and Conclusions: Resistance and Authenticity
As we have argued, the current movement toward high-stakes, mandated, and standardized testing fails on a number of levels. Such testing, for example, implicates US schools in a system of antidemocratic and inauthentic pedagogy. It promotes a schematics of injustice, oppression, and inequality, privileging hyperindividualization at the expense of the community good. It impedes real reform, and ultimately pleases but the powerful few, laying blame on teachers and students (as well as parents), and praising the "dedication" of elites. At heart, in Kohn's (1999) memorable words, the widespread use of standardized tests "make[s] our schools just a little bit worse" (p. 73). And so we must face the question of what to do. From our perspective, the demands of a genuinely public education necessitate a renewed resistance to standardization and a drive for the more authentic.
In "Resisting Test Mania," E. Wayne Ross (1999a) indicates several modes and mechanisms by which such a revitalized resistance to standardization might work. As a starting point, or building block, he takes the position that standardization-"tougher" academic standards and formalized testing-"gets a number of things wrong" (p. 126). As he states:
[First], it gets student motivation wrong. The emphasis on testing in schools promotes anxiety and a preoccupation with test scores that often undermines students' interest in learning and desire to be challenged.And yet, as Ross (1999a) continues, in a number of states and local school districts standardization regimes have been successfully challenged or turned back by the efforts of engaged and concerned parents, students, educators, and community activists. But how?
Second, tests drive curriculum and instruction in ways that harm children. Time spent on test preparation and administration cuts into time for teaching and learning; and children internalize judgments as if tests were the final arbiter of one's potential or worth. On the basis of test scores, children are denied access to learning opportunities through tracking, retained in grade, and may be denied a diploma, regardless of what they know or can do in authentic life situations.
Third, standardized tests demand more standardization of curriculum-tighter control of what goes on in the classroom by people who are not there. Standards and tests are designed to promote a particular and singular view of truth, knowledge, and learning.
The bottom-line is that high-stakes testing is not effective in increasing achievement and higher test scores do not necessarily mean better schools [italics added]. (p. 126)
Ross (1999a) demonstrates the potential of an array of organized protests and demonstrations to counter the "successes" of standardization. These include:
"opting out" (a legal right in some states), a process by which, for example, children have refused participation in the Ohio Proficiency Tests;As Ross (1999a) concludes, however, such resistance is not without risks. They require both courage and support, as often participating teachers face threats of dismissal or lawsuit, students the pressures of failing grades, retention, and/or withheld diplomas, and community members the fear of harassment and/or costly legal action.
political and legal action (e.g., letter writing campaigns aimed at public officials, petitions, lawsuits, etc.);
student-led boycotts, as recently occurred among some high school students in response to the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System tests; [and]
student walk-outs and leafleting, engaged in, for example, by students protesting California's "STAR" exams. (p. 127)
In addition to organized resistance, though, anti- or counter-standardization demands making a commitment to an education that takes seriously the conditions of authenticity as well as the problematics of high-stakes testing. In the words of Sandra Mathison (1997), we must move away from "tests and measurements" and toward "assessment" (p. 213). For as she suggests, "Tests and measurements are created outside schools, edicts to be adopted by teachers and schools, an idea out of synch with the contemporary views of teaching as a profession, one which should rightly be controlled by teachers, not psychometricians" (p. 213). According to Mathison, "Assessment…is an activity that may use tests and measurement, but relies more on the idea of tests as a means of trying out, and it demands less faith in the exactitude of the measurement resulting from that test….These qualifications suggest that assessments involve an inexact measurement, but also include nonnumerical qualitative indicators" (p. 214). Further, "Assessment…implies a relationship between the assessor and the assessed…involve[s] the student in substantive ways, and [is] not [a] solitary act performed by them" (p. 214). Citing Wiggins, Mathison argues that assessment "is something we do 'with' and 'for' the student, not something we do 'to' the student" (p. 215).
For Mathison (1997), "authenticity" provides an important goal of meaningful assessment. Here authentic assessments are those which are based on "performances," and have both "meaning in school contexts [and] more general meaning or value, especially in lived experience contexts" (p. 218). Standardized testing, for example, displays what little meaning or value it may have only within the contexts of schooling itself. And yet, as Mathison notes, changing the dominant modes and mechanisms of evaluation in US schooling is not easy, and it requires that educators and interested community members face a range of serious dilemmas, including:
1. State/national versus local control;Mathison's critique, of course, applies and must be extended beyond simply a renunciation of "objective," forced-response (e.g., multiple choice) test items, and as she implies, must be understood within the current contextual emphasis on "performance- based assessments" and the rather behavioristic effort on the part of many educational leaders to standardize those as well (see, for example, the standards-based reform/performance-based system established vis-à-vis the Maryland School Performance Assessment Program, or MSPAP).
2. Adding on versus reformulation;
3. Limited resources versus accomplishing the ideal;
4. Disciplines/activities versus goals/objectives; [and]
5. Political versus technical solution[s]. (p. 224)
In many ways, the story of testing is still evolving, and remains in fact incomplete. A lot has been said recently about the potential promises and problematics of both standardized testing and more meaningful modes of assessment. While educators such as Monty Neill (1999) have warned against the misuse of tests, still others (e.g., Alleman & Brophy, 1999) have pointed out the "changing nature" of assessment and sought to explore its possible and nascent good. We applaud this renewed interest, yet recognize the need for further reflection and action. One starting point exists in the work of those who, like the members of the Whole Schooling Consortium (Peterson, Beloin, & Gibson, 1998), have promoted a more holistic and community-based reform that challenges the very heart of widespread efforts to standardize. In brief, the exemplar principles of whole-schooling, those upon which a counter-standardization movement might progress, aim to:
Empower citizens in a democracyIn the end, it comes down to a question about the purpose of public schooling and its role in a democratic society, about what we want for our children and their futures. Do we as citizens, as educators, parents, and caring members of society, value a strict and disciplinary conformity-an external control of knowledge-or do we instead accept the imperatives of freedom, equality, diversity, opportunity, and justice-do we take progress and difference seriously? Within the context of an evolving US society and system of public schools, we must come down on the side of authenticity and in favor of a resistance to the domination of our children, and the control of what counts as truth, by external wielders of cultural, economic, social, and political power. Do we, in the end, reinforce and reproduce the conditions of the status quo-hierarchical conditions of power and inequality-or do we seek to change them in a way consistent with the democratic ideals of justice, opportunity, and caring? Shall our children remain simply pawns in a game of coercion, or should they be treated as persons, learning to assume the rights and responsibilities of collective and broad-based democracy? The forces of standardization reign, yet are not the inevitable victors. For in many ways they stand poised in an ever- weakening and defensive position. We seek only to build on that snippet of possibility, on the hope and optimism that must in the end ground any effort toward a meaningful school reform, including the evolution of a truly public system of democratic and inclusive schools.
Teach and adapt for diversity
Build community and support learning [and]
[Induce] partnering (Peterson, Beloin, & Gibson, 1998, p. 3)
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