Originally posted at View from the Cheap Seats
The CCSSO-CGCS announcement heralding High Stakes Tests 2.0 (More
Better Less Testing) included plenty of Not New Things. Cerberus, the
three-headed reformsters spokesperson, delivered a backhanded acknowledgment that the glut of testing
that is clogging our nation's schools has a serious PR problem. At the
same time, they held tightly to the notion that high-stakes standardized
tests are actually a fine and dandy foundation for every major decision
made in the education world. So really, just a variation on that
classic top 40 reformster hit, "It's Just the Implementation."
So the chiefs announced that testing needed some tweakage, but was
still super-duper essential to education. Arne Duncan chimed in to say "Me, too!" and also "Wouldn't you all like to share responsibility for
the policies that I waivered into sort-of-law?" Nothing new to see here.
Except for this.
In the midst of this golden oldie, there was a new note struck. It
was a subtle note, a quiet note, a note that didn't even make it into
some of the initial coverage. I found this in the Cleveland Plain Dealer's coverage:
"For far too long, too many kids were left out of the opportunity
to have access to a high quality education," Minnich said. "These
assessments shine a light on that situation."
John White, state superintendent of Louisiana, took that argument
further, calling state testing "an absolutely essential element of
assuring the civil rights of children in America."
White said broad testing is the only way to know which students
are learning and which are not. Testing, he said, is the only way to
know the truth of the "serious injustice" to low-income, minority or
handicapped children that do not received a good education.
We can find this talking point shaded a few different ways. Here's Minnesota 2014 Teacher of the Year Tom Rademacher on the MinnCAN test cheerleading site:
"However, the populations that most need more from our schools are
often invisible or dismissible in the rooms of decision makers. Without
the data we get, it would be too easy to keep ignoring the voices that
demand better than the status quo. With better tests and better testing,
we can continue to identify where we are struggling and where we are
And here's reformy cheerleader Chris Stewart, on the reformster rapid response PR site Education Post:
"As a black parent, and a black community member who observes history
and demands liberation, I need objective data about how my government
and my people are doing to address the old struggle for racial justice
and social parity. We have learned by experience what double standards
can do to create social strife. We know that we have gaps in employment,
wealth, law and health. We should be clear about the cause of those
gaps. They are born out of the gaps in educational attainment. And, how
do we know these gaps exist? We know because we have data that comes
from audits, assessments and, yes, testing."
So we have a new addition to the list of Reasons We Must Have High
Stakes Standardized Tests: because otherwise, we would never know that
there are pockets of poverty and low achievement in this country's
Ouroboros Rears His Head
If this argument seems a little wonky, that's because we've now come full circle.
When we were sold the Common Core Standards, part of the argument was
that we needed to have high standards for the places of low
achievement. We would fight the soft racism of low expectations. We knew
where these places were, and by raising the bar for students trapped in
zip codes filled with poverty and crumbling schools, we would create a
world where every single person went to college and made big bucks.
The point is-- we knew where these places were. At what point did we
become in danger of losing them? "Hey, these particular schools are
terrible," was how we started down this reformy road. How can it be that
we have to travel further down the road to find that spot again?
But there are bigger reasons that recasting high stakes standardized tests as instrunments of social justice is bogus.
Are We Still Not Asking Parents?
It's funny that we're so concerned about finding these schools that
are failing these children, these pockets where it's such a struggle,
because I will bet you dollars to dingleberries that in every afflicted
school district, there has been a long-running river of parental
information. I will bet you there have been parents calling, writing,
complaining, begging, pleading for school leaders to Do Something about
their childrens' school. And yet, somehow, their voices don't register
(unless those voices fit the reformsters agenda). From Philly to Newark
to Detroit, you can still find parents expressing loud and clear what
they want and need from their schools.
And yet reformsters sit hunched over computers and spreadsheets
saying, "Sorry, I won't know what your district needs until I read the
If social justice is your aim, here is step one—go and listen to the
people who are crying for it. Do not act as if you don't need to talk to
them, as if you just need to look at the test results.
And after we find these pockets of need ... ?
We must have these tests so that the "invisible" students can be
found. Let's pause a moment to register that our stated objective is to
find the students who are failing the test and trumpet their failure to
the world. Congratulations, small children—we will make your school famous for sucking.
So we've found them, and exposed them. Now we will ... what?
I'd like to believe that the answer is, "Get them the resources and
funding and support that they need." But we already know where the
underfunded under-resourced schools are, and we have been mighty slow to
send those resources. I suspect the actual answer is, "We will dispatch
some charter entrepreneurs to their neighborhood."
Are you pitching standardized tests as a form of needs assessment, or
is it market research? If the test is a fire alarm, is it wired to a
fire station or a contractor's office?
Let's Reverse Engineer
What would happen if we started with the problem we want to solve,
instead of the solution we want to rationalize? Imagine we put a group
of people—committed, interested, involved, invested people—in
a room, and we said to them, "We are afraid that because of some
factors of social injustice, there are children out there who are not
getting the education they need and deserve. We need a plan to address
Do we imagine that the first, best plan that anyone would suggest would be—"Let's give every child in the country a high stakes standardized test!"
I mean, was it some sort of oversight that not one of the civil
rights leaders of the sixties said, "What our children need are high
stake standardized tests!"
We will put the resources of a nation at your disposal to root out
and address social injustice. Will your best idea be a high stakes
Let's Measure What We Need to Measure
Chris Stewart says we can't solve the achievement gap by erasing the
evidence. But the achievement gap is a concept that is just shorthand
for an education and opportunity gap, which we pretend to measure with
high stakes standardized tests. The standardized tests don't measure the
quality of a student's education or the quality of a school.
Standardized tests just measure the student's ability to take a
standardized test. And we already know that correlates pretty directly
with poverty level.
So while in thery "achievement gap" may be intended to encompass a
whole host of social ills, the actual achievement gap is simply the test
score gap between students of different backgrounds. (It is in itself a
nifty rhetorical construct. An "opportunity" gap would imply the cause
was those who didn't provide an opportunity, but an "achievement" gap
throws the blame back on those who have failed to achieve.)
Look. Let's notice that rich, successful people wear nicer shoes than
poor, unsuccessful people. So we'll call it the Shoe Gap. We'll then
try to wipe out the Shoe Gap with a National Shoe Intervention Program,
and soon we'll put a pair of nice shoes on every person's feet. Do we
have any reason to believe that everyone will then be rich and
successful? (Hint: No)
We have poverty gaps, opportunity gaps, justice gaps, support gaps—many real gaps. The achievement gap is just a gap in the ability to score well on standardized tests.
Who Opposes Social Justice?
This rhetorical buttressing of high stakes testing is supposed to
make people like me easily dismissable. Someone should be able to swoop
into the comments and ask why, exactly, I'm opposed to social justice.
Just so we're absoutely clear, I am not.
Too many people in our country are denied resources, quality
education, decent jobs, non-crumbling schools and neighborhoods, and the
right to live their lives without harrassment and brutality (just to
list a few social injustices). This is wrong. We should end it.
But it is positively, bizarrely Kafkaesque to declare we can fix
social injustice by giving all children standardized tests so that we
can begin the process of raising those test scores. This is worse than
deck chair shuffling, more callous than fiddling during the fire time.
Rademacher's quote hints at one possible non-baloney use of the test results—to
create political pressure on the politicians and bureaucrats who have
failed to act. But I doubt that the damage inflicted by a
punishment-based testing regimen on young students is worth the possible
If you do not know, right now, where at least a few centers of social
injustice are in this country, you're an idiot. If you need
standardized test results to find those places, I do not trust you to do
anything useful once you find them.