Are We Winning?

The Obama administration's new rhetoric on testing shows the tide may be turning against corporate education reformers.

Rhiannon Dame / Flickr

Last year, students in Washington DC sat for exactly 6,750 tests. The average American student takes approximately 112 tests between pre-K and twelfth grade (yes, pre-K, when one’s senses of space, self, and time are still developing).

Those figures are out this week from the DC-based Council of the Great City School (CGCS), which conducted a comprehensive two-year study documenting the types, uses, and frequency of the city’s standardized tests. Decades into a relentlessly ambitious program of testing and accountability for America’s school children, we finally have data on the data.

Produced by an organization whose corporate advisory group counts Apple and Pearson (hardly radical anti-testing voices) among its members, the report finds that state tests are redundant, with multiple tests being administered at the same time to evaluate the same things; that they “do not tell us everything that’s important about a child”; and that they are being used for purposes for which they were not designed.

In other words, the report confirms what parents and educators have been saying about standardized testing for decades.

The report’s authors recommend revising the US Department of Education’s policy of tying test scores to teacher evaluations and affirm the need to address racial, cultural, and linguistic bias in tests. For example, they suggest a one-year testing exemption for recently arrived English Language Learners, who are presently assessed during the first round of exams after entering school.

In anticipation of the report’s release, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan — a longtime cheerleader for standardized tests who made linking teacher evaluations to student performance a condition for receiving Race to the Top funds — asked Congress on Saturday to “reduce over-testing” and put a cap on test-taking time.

“I still have no question that we need to check at least once a year to make sure our kids are on track or identify areas where they need support,” Duncan said. “But I can’t tell you how many conversations I’m in with educators who are understandably stressed and concerned with an overemphasis on testing in some places and how much testing and test prep are taking from instruction.”

Duncan’s announcement should not be seen as a surrender, an about-face, or a dramatic policy shift from President Obama’s Department of Education, as some corporate reform opponents have hoped. Duncan has called for making tests more efficient and more effective before, all the while affirming the underlying values of choice, competition, and self-discipline that orient our public education system today.

Moreover, Duncan’s proposed cap — limiting testing time to 2 percent of instructional time — does not represent a significant decrease from the current level. The issue is not just the hours students spend physically taking exams, but the ethos that underpins it.

When high-stakes, hyper-competitive demonstrations of individual competence are the method of determining what and how teachers should teach — and assessing what students have learned — how likely is it that cooperative learning, problem-based teaching, and portfolio assessment will occur in the classroom?

On the first day of school this year, when I asked my classes of ten-year-olds what their aspirations were for the school year, many replied that they wanted to do well on state tests. Before giving the high-stakes exams, several colleagues warned me that kids might cry or vomit (as they did last year).

Even if the adults are not willing to be honest about the logic of testing, the children understand what’s at stake in a system where schools serve as an occupational sorting ground, separating the students supposedly destined for white-collar work from those with blue-collar work in their futures.

Still, Duncan’s call to cut back testing time is a far cry from telling elementary schoolers, as he did in 2009, that “we should be able to look every second grader in the eye and say, ‘You’re on track, you’re going to be able to go to a good college, or you’re not” — and it’s meaningful in the broader context of the struggle against corporate education reform, which is undeniably growing in strength, visibility, and cohesion.

So do Duncan’s comments over the weekend (subtly) mark the beginning of a long, slow turn away from Davis Guggenheim’s teary-eyed plea for charter schools, away from Michelle Rhee’s calls for discipline and accountability above all else, away from the privatization of our public schools and toward a future of equitable, progressive schooling for all? Are we winning?

Things have changed a lot over the last decade. This year, 20 percent of New York City families opted out of testing. Chicago’s Dyett hunger strike ended this fall when the district agreed to reopen the school in question, and Seattle teachers won guaranteed daily recess for all elementary school students — as well as an end to the use of test scores in evaluations — after striking in September. Mark Zuckerberg is no longer blindly throwing millions at Cory Booker in a failed attempt to transform Newark’s public schools, but investing them in his own private Palo Alto school that offers social services.

At the same time, America’s students and teachers still face a daily barrage of testing jargon and impossible-to-fulfill standards from administrators heeding the recommendations of education reformers, who favor making instructional decisions based on data analysis from standardized tests rather than developmentally appropriate practice. It permeates everything we do in school. And it hinders the education students receive. As the authors of the CGCS report remark: “We think it is worth noting that most tests that schools administer don’t actually assess students on any particular content knowledge.”

Every day, my sixth-grade social studies class begins with thirty-five kids reading on the board the “topic” and “skill” that will be taught in the lesson and copying it down in their notebooks. While these words (for example, “making inferences” or “finding textual evidence”) are mostly meaningless to students, they’re drawn from the Department of Education–approved Common Core standards and thus familiarize students with the language of standardized tests. Often mandated by the administration, this ritual is a common requirement in urban schools. It must be performed at the beginning of every forty-minute period, and twice during double periods.

High-stakes standardized tests, and the new curriculum they have spawned, urge teachers to avoid thinking deeply about the messages we’re sending to students, and to ignore whether kids should even be taking the tests we administer. The aim of testing is to provide demonstrable, measurable evidence that work is being produced — that teachers and students are not playing when they should be lecturing, memorizing, studying. The idea is that a teacher’s job is to get information into the heads of students, and a student’s job is to write it out, unchanged, on a test.

When we teach content and skills that will be on the state test instead of history and politics, language and literature, we neutralize the power of knowledge and undercut the possibility of building relationships with our students. By insisting that the structure of class remains unchanged day to day (and enforcing it through teacher observations and evaluation, as many urban school districts do), we lose the opportunity to be surprised by kids and to take a lesson in a completely unexpected direction.

This inevitably leads to teachers designing lessons in which they hold the answers and the kids guess — instead of thinking critically and creatively. Every day we rob kids of the excitement of engaging with the human conversation captured in books.

At the end of one class this year, a co-teacher who’s been working in New York City public schools for decades said to me, “It’s not like it used to be. You only get to be the teacher you want to be after school. That’s when you have time to talk to them.” The sense of not having enough time is pervasive in schools, where an alarm buzzes in forty-minute intervals all day, every day.

This September, the school where I teach switched assessment systems, so teachers had to manually input pretest data into Excel spreadsheets for all the students; our school’s math teacher calculated that each teacher pressed 2,500 keys to complete the task. I learned nothing about my students by typing “1” for a right answer and “0” for a wrong answer thousands of times, but I did provide evidence for my evaluation — and my assistant principal’s, and the district’s, all the way up to Duncan himself.

It all spirals out from here. Absurd standards build on absurd standards. Ridiculous data entry tasks build on ridiculous data entry tasks. The demands placed on teachers and students betray a skepticism that they can simply do their work. Even worse, these impositions are supposed to be fair and objective since everyone takes the same test, leading to the mistaken idea that if a student is failing, a lack of study skills or “grit” are to blame.

Positive transformation of schooling will require doing away with all of that. It will take a radical departure from the standards and accountability regime — a break that Duncan, despite his recent comments, is not likely to entertain. But we don’t need his permission. What we need is a united movement to articulate an alternative to the global project of corporate education reform.

As Richard Shaull wrote in a foreword to Paulo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed:

Education either functions as an instrument which is used to facilitate integration of the younger generation into the logic of the present system and bring about conformity or it becomes the practice of freedom, the means by which men and women deal critically and creatively with reality and discover how to participate in the transformation of their world.

We’re getting closer.