Who Benefits from Standardized Testing? Not Students.
A reader posted this comment about the debate over testing [on DR’s blog]:
The narrative of students as “product” does none of us activists any good, because truly it’s a reformer red herring–whether offensive or not–and it seems to me we should ditch it fast. Children are not the “products” in reformers efforts to change education. Children are the consumers. Reformers aren’t working to “improve” children, their brains, or their prospects. They’re working to SELL them stuff. If reformers cared about the quality of learning American children receive, standardized testing would be the last thing they’d subject them to, because it’s the last thing they subject their own children to. They know it’s a colossal waste of their own kids’ valuable learning time and it does nothing to help them or their teachers.
Reformers do care about whether–actually how many–children will form their latest target audience in the Race to the Top of the education “market,” and standardization is the key to quantity in that biz. The testing, charter, and tech industries live and die by test scores. Without scores, specifically standardized scores in quantity, they’d have a much harder time justifying their existence or creating a market worth the investment. Every industry has its labor issues–must cut costs!–and how can you fire teachers in bulk if you don’t have a single digit number by which to “evaluate” a year’s worth of work? What if you have to rely on messy realities, such as what goes on in real classrooms, to understand the nuanced relationship between mentor and mentee? Forget the extenuations of family, nutrition, opportunity, oh never mind. What’s more, reformers simply cannot reduce overhead by firing the small percent of teachers who are phoning it in. That’s why 2/3rd of New York children HAD to fail the state’s standardized tests and why Cuomo and Tisch aren’t satisfied with the junk VAM they originally okayed that returned only 1% of teachers as ineffective. How can you take over neighborhood schools with charters, and raise millions from financial services execs, if you can’t brag about “higher” test scores in the Wall Street Journal? How can you replace entire urban school districts with a warren of administratively redundant and cookie-cutter charters, if you can’t scream “failing” while whacking at a colorful bar graph? How can you sell booklets and applications and assessments on a big enough scale if the whole school year isn’t building up to a single test that the entire nation of children takes, preferably on a computer? Worse, what if teachers and kids actually read good books together, took field trips, created performances, conducted hands-on experiments in classrooms–using old stuff like recycled soda bottles, eggs, and baking soda of course? Invest in Arm & Hammer stock now!
Reformers will trot out every argument–any argument–to keep standardized testing to vindicate the “business” of education, rooted fundamentally in the need for change on a grand scale. The latest, I see, is the “civil rights issue of our time” argument again–that without annual, universal standardized tests, we wouldn’t “know” that children in high-poverty neighborhood (therefore schools) do not score as well on standardized tests as children in middle and upper class neighborhoods. REALLY? What rock do they live under? Seems to me, folks with a shred of sympathy have understood for decades–centuries?–not only this disparity but the far more serious one that poor children have too slim a chance of moving out of poverty. Anti-poverty organizations have been working to change things all along, but with precious little support from the government OR party-going philanthropists. Sampling and the NAEP would provide, has provided, more than enough data for reformers to glean this nugget. Anyway, NOW THEY KNOW. And what happened? This testing revelation has resulted in the worst atrocities of curriculum-trimming, test-prep, and educational “disruption” being visited upon only the poorest schools and districts. The dawning revelation of social inequity makes a convenient defense when what you’re really trying to do is transforms schools into the next strip malls of America.
Standardized testing has nothing to do with improving education–not for wealthy suburbanites in Westchester and not for needy children in the Bronx. It’s all about scale, and propping up a vast and growing “education industry” that’s only worth the trouble (money) of the likes of Gates, Murdoch, the Waltons, and the Bushes, and, sadly, Obama and Duncan, if it’s standardized and millions of customers–I mean children–are buying.