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.