Saturday, July 18, 2015

Standardized Testing: A Civil Right?

Standardized Testing: A Civil Right?

For the last decade or so testing and accountability advocates have promoted among the halls of power that
standardized curriculum,
standardized tests,
and a parallel system of “choice” schools (not held to the same standards and tests)
are the most effective means to creating the “best” school systems.  This reform platform has been a popular theme promoted heavily in the mainstream media and among policy makers via hand placed reportage paired with ad money and donations to key non-profits since before Bush’s No Child Left Behind.

When middle-class neighborhoods grew rebellious about the intrusive, punishing, and destructive effects of these policies on their schools, promoters needed an ace in the hole to trump all arguments, so they utilized the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights  (a single umbrella group whose members are civil rights organizations) to mount a campaign promoting Testing as a Civil Right, thus making it impossible for politicians to vote against testing and standardization  without being labeled anti-minority and anti-civil rights.

Game. Point. Match.

There’s only 4 problems with this scenario.
First, Standardization has never been possible with children.  Standardization to the detailed and minutiae level proposed by reform advocates has never worked with children, or for that matter any humans, because there are too many variables at play in the human developmental, motivational, and learning systems to come up with a “one size fits all” set of expectations and  methods. This dilemma has been the bane of social scientists since the beginning of the field.  Standardization in the face of infinite variables (even with google’s and facebook’s algorithms) is virtually impossible, especially in this age of inter-ethnic neighborhoods and multi-cultural communities.

Secondly, Standardized tests do not work to measure the effectiveness of learning.  From the beginning of standardized testing, experts have known that even the best standardized tests:

  • do not measure many of the most important aspects of learning, (problem-solving, inter-personal skills, and self-management to name a few)
  • at best give a really grainy black and white snapshot of test taking skills on single day, unless you had the flu or people next door were arguing loudly all night.
  • do not predict success in higher education or life, (see Einstein who flunked his math entrance exam)  and are both minority and class biased, creating a false failure read we would find completely unacceptable in any other field of endeavor, such as medicine or engineering.

-And that is the old-fashioned Good ones.  Current, quickly thrown together and unvalidated, S-tests which are created in secrecy, implemented in secrecy, and scored by untrained craigs-list subscribers, without research, quality controls, or peer review are no better than throwing chicken bones in a dirt yard, and those who have had even a basic course in educational assessment or statistics know it.

Thirdly, achievement gaps on a collective scale (when measured by multiple variables, not just S-tests) are almost invariably traceable to the failures of economics. Schools are funded predominantly by local dollars drawn from local tax bases, which make schools in poor neighborhoods unable to provide the same resources for children in those neighborhoods. Coupled with the inherent deprivations children in poor households experience (fewer books, just to name one); lack of money creates a double whammy of deprivation for schools in poorer communities that cannot be answered within the schools, but must be solved by equitable resources.  Unfortunately, our state and federal government have not taken seriously the effect this is having on the fabric of our nation’s “life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness.” Their failure to address these economic inequities is a much more effective place to look for solutions than in the quality of a particular neighborhood school.  

Lastly, minority communities were the first to be targeted with this standardization and accountability model- in New Orleans, New York, Newark,  Memphis, Atlanta, Chicago and DC.  And in all those places the results of the test and punish strategies have been disastrous for the communities where they have been implemented.   Among the results have been:

  • No real increase in the meaningless scores so sought after (most score increases have been created via manipulated cut scores or secretly changed formulas)
  • A flood of displaced or retiring minority teachers, stripping their schools of both the content and cultural knowledge bases to make improvements if given resources, and replacing them with predominantly preppie, untrained two-year Teach For America recruits.
  • Further labeling of poor neighborhoods, clearing the way for gentrification and displacement of working class and minority citizens for more affluent and less diverse populations.
  • Cheating scandals as school managers and teachers threatened with closing or complete takeover of their communities unless their children pass a test set up to be as unpassable as a 50’s voter registration test, have resorted to trying to beat a system stacked against their students and themselves. 
  • A  rash outbreak of fraudulent “choice” schools (both pseudo-public and private) which have stolen money, offered inferior educational environments, closed mid-year, and in general defrauded communities and disrupted the lives of children in those neighborhoods.
As we move into the reconciliation of ECAA (ESEA re-write) and into the 2016 Presidential elections, it is important that individual candidates, policy makers, and civil rights leaders understand what is at stake.  The inequity and problems in our education systems are real, and we must find a way to provide equal opportunity for all our children, on that we should all agree.  

What we cannot accept is an elitist driven group of solutions that propose changing minority teachers for younger white ones, offers profiteers yet another opportunity to make a buck off poor communities, and assumes only the 1% know what’s best.