Standards and High Stakes Testing: 

the dark side of a generation of  

political, economic and social neglect  

of public education  

by Perry Marker

"In the generation that immediately followed World War II, California was widely regarded as both model and magnet for the nation - in its economic opportunities, social outlook, and high quality public services and institutions. With a nearly free and universally accessible system of higher education, a well supported public school system, and a wide array of social services, and human rights guarantees that had no parallel in any other state."  

-- Peter Schrag, Paradise Lost, Californiaís Experience, America's Future  

We blame teachers for the "failure" of the schools. We blame them on a lot of levels. We blame their professional education; we blame what they teach; we blame how they teach. The simplistic, and punitive reform efforts regarding standards and high stakes testing reflect the fact that teachers have been blamed for all that is wrong with education, and students are being punished for it. 

The passage of Proposition 13 (Jarvis-Gann) is a germane way of dividing the post World War II California, between that postwar exhilaration -- with its huge investment in the public infrastructure era and its strong commitment to the development of quality education systems and other services -- and a generation of declining confidence and shrinking public services (Schrag, pp. 10-11). The squeeze on public services that Proposition 13 brought about came at the time California was experiencing significant demographic change -- moving from a society that thought of itself (albeit incorrectly) mostly as white, middle class, to one in which whites would become another minority. Latinos, Asians, and African Americans now constitute a sizable majority of school enrollment and the use of public services.  

Because of the revolt against government taxation that Proposition 13 set in motion, which resulted in the increased use of the initiative process, initiatives-- once a bastion of "the people" and their power to influence public policy -- is now most often used by well organized political and economic entities, on the left and the right, and by incumbent politicians, from the government on down. But, it is still the people of California -- in all their diversity -- that vote on the initiatives that appear on the ballot. However, it is those interest groups backed by media consultants, direct mail specialists, pollsters and others, that usually finance the costly signature drives, running into the millions of dollars, to get measures on the ballot, and the advertising campaigns that drive the support for the initiative, or block the measures of its opponents (Schrag, 1998, p. 11). It is interesting to note that the further the initiative process proceeds, the more problematic effective citizenship becomes. Each initiative moves control, further from the public - from the legislature to special interests. The non-deliberative quality of the California style initiative is problematic -- no public hearings, no rules of procedure, no formal debates, no informed voice -- and fails to present downside arguments, to outline implications, to ask the cost, and to speak for minorities. Currently, some twenty four states have some form of initiative  or referendum in their constitutions. And, there is increasing pressure to use it as an agent of political reform. 

During the period of time since Proposition 13, initiatives have been passed that imposed specific spending formulas on schools, abolished affirmative action in public education, denied public schooling and public services to illegal immigrants, and eliminated bilingual education. Californiaís schools, which thirty years ago, had been among the best funded on the planet, are now in the bottom quarter among states in virtually every major indicator. California has an average class size of over 32, and in many cases, over 40 students in classrooms designed for 25. A vast majority of California's educational facilities are at least 20 years old, and many are over 40 years of age, and in various and dangerous states of disrepair. In California, we have chosen to spend less on education and more on prisons, and we are currently 41st out of 50 states in per capita educational spending. During the past twenty-five years, the best educational system in the world has been fundamentally and systematically dismantled.  

Lost in this reality of initiatives, budget cuts and decline of funding, is the fact that despite what politicians and the popular press would like us to believe, during the last decade standardized scores have been holding relatively steady; with modest increases in both math and reading scores (Berliner and Biddle, 1998). The most recent reading report on the National Assessment of Education Progress for tests administered in 1992, 1994, and 1998, reflect the steady state of reading scores. Scores from 1998 are equal to, or slightly above, 1992 scores for all tested grades (Berliner and Biddle, 1998).  
 In the most recent international comparison United States nine year olds were second only to Finland's nine year olds, and United States' fourteen year olds finished ninth, well above average and a few points from the top (Bracy, 1992). This despite the fact that more students are taking the tests than ever before whose first language is not English. Berliner and Biddle conclude that there is no support for the myth that American students fail in reading achievement, or any other subject. Simply put, schools are in better shape than we are led to believe. Teachers have done incredible work despite that fact that the educational system in California, and some other states, has been crumbling around them. 

Since teachers have become convenient scapegoats for all that is wrong with education, we also have turned our attention to students and punished them through the introduction of plethora of standards and high stakes testing proposals: a racist, one-size-fits-all approach that is designed to present a singular and simplistic view of knowledge, truth and learning which ignores the diverse needs of our children of color and those who live in poverty. These so called "reform" efforts in education are intended to blame teachers and punish students for the problems of education by mandating a focus on drill and practice, and "teaching to the test," instead of fostering students' critical thinking skills. With these efforts to blame teachers and punish students, we are relinquishing control of the classroom and curriculum solely to those who construct the tests. Martha Ruddell (in press) quotes Elliot Eisner who "reminds us that standards in education are not new; they are in fact a 'recapitulation' of behavioral objectives that so preoccupied us in the 1960's, and actually grew from the 'efficiency' movement in education of 1913-1930 that was based on an industrial model of high productivity." Ruddell goes on to further quote Eisner: 

"Uniformity in curriculum content is a virtue if oneís aim is to be able to compare students in one part of the country with students in others. Uniformity is a virtue when the aspiration is to compare the performance of American Students with students in Korea, Japan, and Germany. But why should we wish to make such comparisons?" (p.11) 

Susan Ohanian (in Ruddell, in press) notes that framers of standards regularly ignore the developmental reality of adolescence. She says: 

"Now you and I know that anyone who says high schoolers should read Moby Dick 1) doesnít know any fifteen year olds; 2) has never read Moby Dick or 3) has read Moby Dick , has a fifteen year old in the house, and wants to get even" (p. 12)  

Perhaps the most astounding thing about standards and high stakes tests is the there is no research evidence whatsoever that their use enhances student achievement and learning (Black and Wilam, 1998). Still, tests have become so all consuming that more than 20 million schools days were devoted to them in one year. The case for high stakes testing and standards is based on simplistic solutions designed to raise the self esteem of politicians and policy makers, and maintain a classist system of education where a small and select number of schools receive an embarrassment of riches. 

Our fixation on standards and high stakes testing was recently demonstrated when, the day after the tragic killings in Littleton, Colorado, high schools continued their scheduled standardized tests, rather than postpone them and discuss the incomprehensible events that shocked  students and adults alike. I wonder how high the scores will be on that day of testing? Will teachers be blamed, yet again? 

Things are bound to only get worse with standards and high stakes testing. Schools will be compared to one another regarding how well they do on the tests. Teachers may be subjected to disciplinary pressures, even firing, if their students donít score well on one test. Schools will lose funding or may even be closed. More importantly, students of color and children in poverty will get an education that doesnít even begin to compare to that received with wealthier, white students. And, this doesnít even consider the little mentioned fact that these tests cost big money. The National Commission on Testing and Public Policy (1990) says that as early as 1990 standardized testing in America consumed more than $900 million in one year. No doubt the price tag is currently much, much higher.  

The current wave of high stakes, standardized tests are punitive and neglect the notion that assessment should serve the primary purpose of improving student learning. We need be working with teachers to expand the idea of assessment; to provide different, yet rigorous, ways for students to demonstrate what they know. We can develop demanding and yet inclusive proficiency exit standards that combine student portfolios, and performance exams - not just one high stakes standardized test - to graduate.  

Assessments should serve to determine the success of a program, provide information to parents on their childís achievement, and hold schools accountable for how well taxpayersí money is being spent. It's time to demand that our school boards stop relying on a single, standardized, measure of student achievement and adopt a variety of student assessments that:  

are designed to provide feedback that improves student learning;  

involve parents, teachers and the community collaborating for improved student learning and better schools;  

allow a variety of measures that focus on individual student learning;  

do not limit the curriculum to a singular, standardized, assessment based on a high stakes approach.  

We need to stop blaming teachers and punishing students for the educational politics of neglect during the last two decades in California, and across the nation. If the last twenty five years are any indicator, politicians do not have the solutions to the education reform. Let's demand that those who are most invested in education -- families and teachers -- have a voice in determining the course of educational reform. Isnít the education of our children is far too important to reduce it to a high stakes game of testing roulette? 

California has been described as the nation's bellwether. The place where the future is on display. California and the nation faces the ultimate test of whether an increasingly diverse nation -- currently being transformed through the diversity that immigration brings with it -- can use diversity as a positive effect, or whether under such conditions, it can successfully remain, and govern itself, as a democratic republic.  

Whether or not it is agreed that any state or region is or should be a symbol of the future it is certain that -- if the last twenty five years are an indication -- California, has so far failed to combine assurances of economic and educational opportunity, and the ìgood lifeî for all of its diverse citizenry. The so called ìreformî efforts of standards and high stakes testing in education is an example of California's and the nationís failure, while tending to blame teachers and punish students for the short-sighted economic policies of the last two decades. It is the failure of the California leadership to invest in generation after generation of school children for over twenty five years that has brought us to the brink, not a failure of our teachers or students. 


Berliner, D. and Biddle, B. (1997). The Manufactured Crisis: Myths, Frauds and the Attack on Americaís Public Schools. Longman, USA.  

Bracy, G.W. (1992) International Comparisons and the Condition of American Education, Educational Researcher, 25(1), 5-11 

Black, P. and Wiliam, D. (1998) Inside the Black Box: raising standards through classroom assessment. Phi Delta Kappan, Bloomington Indiana, October.  

National Commission on Testing and Public Policy (1990). From gatekeeper to gateway: Transforming testing in America. Chestnut Hill, MA: Boston College. 

Ruddell, M.R. (in press). Teaching Content Reading and Writing, (3rd ed.) New York: John Wiley and Sons. 

Schrag, P. (1998) Paradise Lost: Californiaís Experience, Americaís Future  

The New Press: New York.  

Appendix I 

Propositions since 1978 That Have Passed Related to or Directly Impacting Education 

Propositions Since 1978 That Have Passed  Related to or Impacting Education 

Proposition 13 (1978) - Jarvis Gann - property tax limits 

Propostition 37 (1984) - California Lottery Initiative - funds from lottery directly to education 

Proposition 63 (1986) - English as Official Language - Made English the Stateís official language (never fully implemented) 

Proposition 98 (1988) - Minimum State Spending on Education - Guaranteed that 40% of stateís general fund each year be devoted to public schools and community colleges.  

Proposition 184 (1994) - Three Strikes Initiative - Mandatory 25-life sentences for anyone convicted of a third felony; led to massive discretionary funds for prisons and pitted prisons vs. higher education 

Proposition 187 (1994) - Save Our Schools - Barred illegal immigrants from public schools and all but emergency health serves; subsequently overturned in 1999.  

Proposition 209 (1996) - California Civil Rights Initiative - Prohibits all race and gender based preferences for, or discrimination against, individuals or groups in California public education, contracting and employment.  

Proposition 218 (1996) - The Right to Vote on Taxes Initiative - No local tax, no fee, or assessment -none- was permissible without a vote of the affected property owners, and property owners only; in some instances it required a vote of the general electorate. No charge of any sort that benefited certain properties (e.g. better lights, sidewalks, parks) could be levied without and engineers analysis indicating that the properties on which charges fell would actually benefit in proportion to the charges. The more valuable the property the more votes the owner has.  

Proposition 227 (1998) - English Language in Public Schools (Unz Initiative) - All instruction in public school must be in English 

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