Creativity, not Eugenics; Authentic Assessment, not Control

5 Feb

Here is a great interview with Wayne Au from Rethinking Schools about the Seattle MAP test boycott and its impact nationally.

Au points out how standardized testing has its roots in old IQ tests, which, in turn, have their roots in a climate of eugenics and racist pseudo-science:

THE TESTS actually originate way back with the first IQ tests. And let me be clear, these tests were developed by a French psychologist, whose last name was Binet, and he developed this test simply to determine if young children were developmentally disabled or not. He had no intent of doing a fixed version of IQ–he didn’t see intelligence as innate. It was purely an assessment tool to see how to best work with young children.

Psychologists in the United States–Lewis Termin, for instance–took the basic ideas of Binet’s test and built off to start trying to measure the IQ–intelligence quotient–of adults. Then they started to come to all sorts of conclusions based on the results of these very biased tests. They basically found, through what they thought was objective science at the time, that poor people and nonwhite people and immigrants were literally dumber than U.S.-born white men.

My parents are both special education teachers, and they often warn me that ideas of eugenics are re-emerging under the guise of education reform. They point out the discriminatory, ableist effects this is having on students with disabilities.  If someone’s learning does not correspond to the standards set by a culturally biased, high-stakes test, they are often deemed unable to work after graduation.  In a capitalist society,  those who are deemed unfit to work are treated as less than human, and are made to feel expendable.  Jomo analyzed this in her essay Caring: A Labor on Stolen Time, where she reflected on her experiences caring for people with disabilities in a nursing home:

 Capitalist society has so many hang ups about the value of “work,” judging peoples’ worth by how much they are willing to subjugate themselves to workplace coercion, their willingness to be exploited, that makes them more, or less, deserving of a livelihood.  It is the focus on “productivity” that allows most people to accept the authoritarian discipline of the workplace and see the subjugation of creativity and free will as acceptable norms.

This same framework of judging one’s worthiness to live by one’s ability to work at a job is also the backbone of the nursing home industry.  The awful conditions in such a form of institutionalized living are deemed unworthy for someone who is mobile, independent, and able to work.  However, they are seen as acceptable for the elderly and people with disabilities because they can no longer work.

 Standardized testing and nursing homes are two examples of the shame this society inflicts on those who are not deemed able to work  according to official, standardized conceptions of ability.  From the bubble sheets of the MAP test to the bed-sheets of the nursing home, we are ranked and sorted according to our abilities, according to inaccurate, biased standards set by those in power.  Those who fail the test are given less power, less freedom, and less respect.

Proponents of standardized testing would likely respond by saying that the public school system is already discriminatory, and that lack of accountability leads to drastic differences in the quality of teaching, which can mean that students with disabilities, students of color, and other marginalized groups are not given equal access to the upward mobility that public education is supposed to create.  Wayne Au points out that these same arguments were made in favor of the original IQ and SAT tests – they were supposed to open up spots in the ruling class to those with ability, not simply a blue-blood inheritance.  The problem is, the tests are highly inaccurate, so they don’t measure ability, they simply reproduce the biases and inequalities they claim to overcome.

This is a good point, but it doesn’t address the reason why so many communities end up supporting standardized testing as a lesser evil: the lack of accountable and quality education in so many public schools.  As John Garvey points out in his essay Once Again on Education: Beyond Ordinary Leftism, teachers can’t simply put the blame on the corporate education deformers.  We can’t simply rally around the banner “Defend Public Education” when public eduction itself is so flawed.   We need to take direct responsibility for solving the problems in our schools.  More specifically, we need to challenge each other to teach well, break the rules that prevent us from doing that, and get each others’ backs when we face retaliation for it.  In this sense, the Seattle teachers boycotting the MAP test are pointing the way forward.

Groups like Rethinking Schools help with this process by opening up space for teachers, family, students to share best practices with each other, without hedge fund billionaires or astroturf “ed deform” groups stacking the meeting to push a corporate agenda.  This  begins to create the possibility of horizontal, working class accountability.  Rethinking Schools is also promising because it links discussions of quality teaching and curriculum development with discussions around collective struggle and organizing.

In his interview, Wayne Au also provides a great response to a question we have been hearing a lot as we organize to expand this boycott: “what will we do instead of standardized tests?”  Some people have read the slogan “creativity not control” as a call to avoid accountability, or to allow bad teaching to happen under the excuse of “creativity.”  What if a teacher is doing something that he thinks is creative, but students are disengaged and bored by it, to the point where they aren’t learning?  What if a teacher is doing something she thinks is creative, but only the white students are responding to it because it is culturally biased?

 We need assessment to make sure that all students are actually learning, and if they are not, we need to change our teaching so that they have the opportunity to learn.  Instead of standardized assessment, Au  suggests authentic portfolio assessments, linked to public presentations.  This is the kind of assessment I’m implementing in my own classroom, and I’m finding it motivates students to put in more effort because they are excited about the possibility of sharing their work with peers, family, and their community.  Au points out how this approach is consistent with contemporary research:

Because we also know from research that that kind of metacognitive reflection is the highest level of learning–thinking about your thinking. So being able to demonstrate that through something like a portfolio, or some sort of public defense of your work, is a much more authentic way of measuring student learning.

Through this process, working class and oppressed communities can develop our own high standards for our children’s growth and education, demanding and supporting teaching that fosters creativity and growth in every child.  Parents, teachers, and students can hold each other accountable to meet these goals through events such as public presentations of students’ portfolios.

If the choice is between an ableist and racist eugenics program of standardized testing on the one hand, and a series of unaccountable, ableist, and racist public schools on the other hand, many people will choose the standardized testing.  But if we practice authentic teaching and authentic assessment accountable to our communities, then we can stop the testing agenda and  replace it with collective creativity.


5 Responses to “Creativity, not Eugenics; Authentic Assessment, not Control”

  1. shadesofsilence206 February 5, 2013 at 2:52 am #

    Reblogged this on Shades of Silence.

  2. this2shallchange February 5, 2013 at 3:50 am #

    Nicely written article. One thing I’d add is this: While portfolio work as a form of assessment is much preferred to standardized testing, I think we need to be careful to not rely too heavily on this as an assessment tool. One can easily argue that way too much focus is placed on thinking about how one is doing, rather than being engaged in the actual doing. Portfolio work can favor some students, those who are more extroverted and motivated to share, and those who think more about demonstrating how they are doing, in other words, those who fit into the culture’s bias toward constant evaluation and assessment. Yes, it’s important for teachers and parents/guardians to know how their students are doing, but I’ve always found that solid teachers know how their students are doing simply by observation that’s possible when genuine relationships exist. Same with parents. When parents have the time to observe and listen to their kids, every day provides information about how their children are doing. A culture that provides the space for teachers and parents to observe should be the goal.

    • mamos206 February 5, 2013 at 9:34 pm #

      Thanks. That’s a good point about portfolio assessment. The reason why I emphasize public presentations of work isn’t so much because I want to emphasize attitudes of extroversion and public self-reflection. It’s more becuase I want students to have the opportunity to write and read with an authentic audeince in mind for the texts and intepretations they create. In other words, it’s not about the final asessment – it is about the learning activities done throughout the year, and the depth they can acheive when a final goal is in mind. In most classes, the teacher is the final audience for student’s writing – this gives the teacher too much power, it warps conceptions of what is considered good writing and reading, and it is not as motivating to students. It would be like a philosopher writing with only philosophy professors in mind, or an artist creating art only for art critics. A public portfolio presentation can help with this by making the community the final audience.

      Ultimatley though, this search for an authenic audience is a result of the alienation cuased when the classroom is separated from the rest of society, and when learning is separated from life, and sequesterd as childhood preparation for a life of work. To develop fully authentic learning epxeriences, learning would have to be part of the fabric of the community as a whole and would have to be an ongoing process of co-creation. We can imagine what that might look like, and struggle to implement it as a part of a possible future after capitalism.

      While we do that, I am for portfolio asessment as a flawed but necessary learning process. I agree, we don’t want to marginalize students that are less extroverted. There should be a vareity of ways to share work, not just public readings in front of a crowd. As with all learning expereinces, this should be differentiated and should be accessible to students with a variety of abilities.

      I do worry that the metacognitive awareness invovled in portfolio asessments could be coopted into a new management strategy. There is something about contemporary capitalism that requires people to constantly, publicly reflect on our performance, as part of crafting and re-crafting an identity in a fragmented, rapidly changing world. From twitter and facebook updates to letters of reccomendation and job interviews, we are expected to present an image of “having it all together”, of having a stable identity even when the context around us is not that stable. How are we supposed to know who we are when this society doesn’t even know where it’s going – when everyone we know seems to be running into 100 different directions at once?

      I believe that portfoio asessments and metacognition could be authentic tools that students can use to develop a mindful, almost contemplative awareness of their own thought processes, something that is a powerful part of any act of human creativity. But under these postmodern conditions of nonstop meta-processing, I worry that metacogntion could we warped into a new kind of hyper-anxiety and self consciousness, something that can then be leveraged to sell students products to fill the void they are constnatly reminding themselves exists in their thinking.

      The cultural critic Slavoj Zizek talks about this. He said that American society can atually be worse than “Totalitarianism”. In a totalitarian society you are not free to do as you want, but you at least know inside that you don’t consent to the system. You think the rulers are fools but you simply go along with it anyway out of fear of punishmenet. You can retain an inner life of refusal, rebellion, and sarcastic mocking of the values the system imposes. In American society today, you are told that you can do whatever you want – so if you are not happy it is your own fault. This message is drilled into students heads’ throughout school. So when your life is not fulfilling becuase all society has in store for you is a dead end job or prison, you blame yourself, not society. You become hyper aware of your lack of satisfaction, and of your inner responses to it, but you do not become aware of the external, institutional causes that limit your freedom and your happiness. This may be why there hasn’t yet been more of a rebellion against capitalism since the economic crisis broke out. Most people are downwardly mobile now, but instead of blaming capitalism we are still blaming ourselves and asking whether we are just not good enough to suceed.

      If metacognition is used to promote these cyles of self-abuse and internalized oppression, then it will simply become a more effective replacement of standardized tests. We will replace bubble sheets with a classroom that feels like staring awkwardly into a million private mirrors – or instagram photos.

      Ultimately, then, the kind of metacognition we teach matters. Is it the metacognition of anxiety, status updates, and self-help books, or is it the metacogntion of meditation and revolution? Is it frantic self consciousness and self-assessment? Or is it the contemplatative awareness of all of the fragmented social realities that make up our consciousess? How can we discover their toxic sources so we can uproot them and change them, as we engage in collective social activity to uproot the insituttions which produce them?

  3. this2shallchange February 6, 2013 at 9:07 pm #

    I agree with your points and also questions raised at the end. Sometimes I’ve seen the ideas of “Totalitarianism” vs current American Society raised by the goings-on in our Seattle schools. Schools self identifying as democratic while frequently demonstrating a corrupt kind of democracy seem to leave students confused and then apathetic (and why not? — this is so much a microcosm of the larger society in which we find ourselves). This happens while at other schools identifying as more traditional or conventional, with much greater obvious hierarchical control, students seem to feel free to rise up and rebel.

    • mamos206 February 7, 2013 at 4:04 am #


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