Making the Grade

My colleague Jonathan Zimmerman (Making the Grade) takes an ironic and detached position on the Big Tests that are invading US schools. He suggests that the tests encourage cheating, and rote teaching; indeed they are Europe’s worst educational legacy. And he teases the policy-makers who scoff at European multi-lateralism, then mimic their school system, while abandoning American traditions of local control.

True. But the professorate can no longer remain just contemplative. The standards pretend to neutrality, but are consistenly partisan in content. High-stakes tests which are always twined to standards, are not honest efforts to improve education or society. Instead, they are systematic efforts to regulate what people know, and how they come to know it. In a nation trying to see beyond the fog of war propaganda, this is a vital concern. Honest relationships, fundamental to learning anything, are aborted by the tests.

The prime movers behind the regimentation of education are frequently those who profited most from the tax shifts over the last 25 years, financial maneuvers which were key in deepening inequality in the US, and they are also often those who will profit most from selling the textbooks, tests, training classes and manuals, that are always neatly attached to the exams. Their motives are not just suspect, they are contaminated.

The standards are designed to strip the minds of teachers, and shatter their relationships with individual students and parents, while the tests simply measure parental income and race.
The tests deepen the segregation of US society, and within our schools. We have recently witnessed the ugly paradox of the highest youth unemployment in recorded history, coupled with masses of students being driven out of schools by administrators desperate to raise test scores. 

Typically, the tests pit students against students, teachers against teachers, communities against communities, in mad scrambles for petty financial rewards, while the issue of the collapse of funding urban and rural education in the US goes unnoticed. The tests create an atmosphere of greed and fear which has nothing to do with learning, always a social act of making connections.

Perhaps worst of all, the tests and standards create a false veil of science which inveigles people who fail them, and even lucky winners, to believe that their humanity and intelligence has somehow been measured with razor-sharp precision, when really all that may have been measured is subservience or birthright.

Since the passage of proposition 13, about 25 years ago, the California public school system went from an internationally recognized beacon, to one of the worst in the US, by nearly any rating system. However, there is really no single US education system, but five or six, each one more or less producing the social class of the parents. Wealthy schools, as in LaJolla in San Diego, were able to preserve some semblance of academic freedom, and rigor, since the locals had the power to defend it. However, as we trail down the economic spectrum, we see the organized decay of good education at every level, until we reach schools which are really pre-prison programs.

Those who pretend to do school reform, but who resist social and economic reform in communities, seek to wash the air on one side of a screen door. It won’t work, and it isn’t meant to.  The tests are designed, not to change this form of Talibanization of knowledge in the US, but to facilitate it, under the guise of expert advice.

Many professional organizations, like the faculty association of the National Council of Social Studies, have urged direct action against the tests, ranging from critical research to boycotts. I stand on the side of the boycotters. The No Child Left Untested Act contains a section which denies parents the right to opt their kids out of the exams. This may be the final intrusion, as the school house door is also the door of the home, in this case. When testing is going on, closed schools are better than open schools. When coupled with some form of freedom schooling, boycotts might be the superior educational tool. Let the boycotts begin.

Dr Richard Gibson
San Diego State University
College of Education


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