Standardized Testing: Playing into the Privatizers' Hands

By Pamela Grundy

The scene: a Board of Education meeting in Charlotte, North Carolina

The situation: Board members are considering a motion to roll back an testing program that mandates high-stakes standardized tests for every child in every subject in every grade – a program that has sparked anger from teachers and parents across the district.

“Coach” Joe White, a lifelong educator and the board’s longest-serving member, addresses the audience in a gravelly, passionate voice.

These are dangerous times, he warns his listeners. Public education is besieged by powerful enemies. It has to change or die.

Because of this threat, he concludes, he will vote to move forward with the tests and with the pay-for-performance system they will serve. A few minutes later, the move to stop the testing fails, 5-4.

Coach White is absolutely right about the enemies of public education, the people who seek to blast a crucial public institution into privately owned and operated fragments. But the vote to expand standardized testing played right into those enemies’ hands.

Neither parents nor teachers want more high-stakes standardized tests. They know the damage that high-stakes tests have done to public schools – narrowing the curriculum, promoting teaching to the test, driving teachers and families out of public education.

A number of thoughtful observers have charted the negative effects of the test-driven education created by the No Child Left Behind Act, effects most starkly evident in high-poverty schools.

Natalie Hopkins offers a vivid description in “The McEducation of the Negro,” observing that “education – for those ‘failing’ urban kids, anyway – is about learning the rules and following directions. Not critical thinking. Not creativity. It’s about how to correctly eliminate three out of four bubbles.”

In “How School Reform Damages Poor Children,” Alfie Kohn points out that this kind of education stands in sharp contrast to that favored at better-off schools, places where education focuses on “inquiry and choices” and students spend far more time on debate, analysis and creative projects. Kohn then quotes a teacher at a high-poverty school: “If there were middle-class white children here, the parents would rebel at this curriculum and stop it cold.”

This is exactly the reaction the expansion of standardized testing has provoked in Charlotte. As we have organized to fight high-stakes tests and the teaching-to-the-test mentality they bring with them, our strongest support has come from our district’s wealthiest schools, where standardized testing clashes sharply with the kind of education parents know their children need to face a challenging, competitive world.

But if parent protests do not stop this movement cold, and multiplying pressures for “accountability” continue to expand test-based McEducation across the country, a new wave of public school families and teachers will swell the already growing ranks of charters and private schools. The privatizers against whom Coach White so passionately cautioned will win.

This country needs to stop its rush toward test-driven “accountability,” and think again.

McEducation is not good for any child. Instead of increasing standardized testing, we need to take a hard look at how we are educating our children in all our schools, regardless of background.

What our country most desperately needs is ways to ensure that teachers at every school go beyond basic material and teach crucial skills that can never be measured by a choice between a, b, c or d. We need ways to nurture creative thought and skilled debate, as well as the ability to construct an argument, to consider different points of view, to grapple with questions that don’t have single answers.

These are qualities needed by citizens of a twenty-first century democracy. None can be reduced to a precise number, and none can be graded by a machine.

Assuring that these qualities are being taught and learned requires hands-on care and judgment. No one will make any money doing it. But it is this kind of assessment, and not the false “accountability” of standardized testing, that will ensure our public schools are places where any parent would be proud to send a child. This is how we can beat back the privatizers, and move our children and our nation forward.

For more on Charlotte’s testing program, see: “Testing Madness: Charlotte Today, Your Schools Tomorrow.”

Posted on by pagrundy Posted in News & Updates

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