Education Opinion

Testing for Social Justice

By Peter Greene — October 22, 2014 8 min read
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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 being successful.”

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 schools.

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 test data.”

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 that concern.”

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 standardized test?

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 political leverage.

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.

The opinions expressed in View From the Cheap Seats are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.