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The Impact of High Stakes Testing

Publication Date: 2006-02-20

Kathy Emery is my co-author on Why Is Corporate America Bashing Our Public Schools? She explains why critics of high stakes testing are so easily painted into a corner.


A presentation at a conference of guidance counsellors at San Diego State University on Dec 10, 2004.

I grew up in Concord, New Hampshire and went to public school there from grades 2-12. The first time I remember meeting a school guidance counsellor was the spring of my seventh grade year? that was back in 1968. I was meeting with him to go over my choices for next year. Everything was going smoothly until we came to my choice of foreign language ? the choice was between Latin or French. Since my father is French Canadian, and we drove up to visit our French speaking cousins in Montreal at least once a year, I wanted to learn French. Besides, the last I heard, Latin was a dead language. But the counsellor started arguing with me that I should take Latin. I didn?t understand any of his arguments?none of them made sense to me. Being stubborn by nature and having supportive parents, I was successful in insisting that I take French the following year.

During that summer, I quickly forgot the unpleasant and confusing meeting with the guidance counsellor. That is, until my first French class that fall. I still remember walking into the classroom and being shocked that I didn?t know any of the students. I think I was having the same reaction that the first class passengers on the Titanic had when the gates to the steerage compartments were finally opened to allow the lower class passengers to look for life boats on the sinking ship. Where did all these people come from? And why were they dressed in old and shabby clothes.

My first shock was not the last. Every time the teacher turned her back to write on the blackboard, students would throw a spit ball, pass a note, or throw a paper airplane. I had never seen such behavior in class. Part of me was horrified, but part of me was fascinated. I stayed in the class but ended up learning very little French during the next five years of secondary school. My understanding of how the world works, however, became much more sophisticated. I was given a great deal to think about in French class while successive French teachers fended off various and strategic aerial bombardments.

As most of you have figured out already, the guidance counsellor, by insisting I take Latin was trying to keep me in my college preparatory track without ever saying that that was what he was doing. French class made me really look at the students I was passing in the hallways between classes. I realized that we weren?t all the same and that the few dozen students I had always taken classes with were in fact a very small minority of the total student population. This epiphany led me to ask many questions that adults would not answer. And that led to even more questions.

I begin with this story, because I want to make sure that I don?t give the impression that using standardized tests to track students by class and race is new. It has been going on for just over a hundred years and the only difference today is that high stakes have been attached to these tests. This is important to keep in mind because while the role of tests to sort is not new, what is new is the categories into which students are sorted. The old tracking system of working class kids funnelled into vocational education and middle class kids guided into college prep courses is NOW being replaced by a new tracking system?college prep and dropouts. This is just one indication that we are in the midst of the second fundamental transformation of the public school system in US history

This morning I want to offer an explanation as to why this is happening, and what needs to be done if we want to alter the course of the current, corporate created, standards based high stakes testing juggernaut.

I believe that one of the things we have in common among us today is a grave concern about the impact of high stakes testing on the lives of the students we work with or make policy for. What has always been an unacceptably high dropout rate has become even higher. Student anxiety and alienation has increased dramatically, not just in the weeks during which students are tested but throughout the year as the curriculum, especially in low performing schools, is becoming more scripted and regimented. For poor and minority students, physical education, the arts, libraries, science, social studies, school nurses and even recess are being cut to make way for more reading and math drills?drills that do NOT prepare students for college because they rely on rote learning while inhibiting analysis and reflection. Veteran staff are resigning in disgust and many new teachers are in shock. As the need for supportive services is increasing, school counsellors, however, are being transformed into attendance monitors or other kinds of number crunchers.

Meanwhile, the proponents of high stakes testing argue that state standards, enforced by state tests, whose scores are publicly reported by race and ethnicity, are finally forcing schools to close the achievement gap and generate greater numbers of high school graduates who qualify for college. This is happening, according to their argument, because teachers are no longer able to indulge in the soft bigotry of low expectations. Every student must take a college preparatory course of study, and teachers are forced to teach all students equally. If students don?t succeed under the new regime, then it is clearly the fault of the teachers.

This argument, like all propaganda and myth-making, has an element of truth in it. The system that the current standards based reform effort is replacing, a system that has been in place for over a hundred years (and which my opening anecdote was an attempt to illustrate), this system has never been one of equity and excellence. This is why critics of high stakes testing are so easily painted into a corner ? if you oppose the new systemic reforms, then you must be defending the old status quo, which has failed poor students of color. If you oppose high stakes testing then you necessarily oppose high standards for all, you oppose equity and excellence?in short, you are racist. By seizing the rhetorical high ground, by controlling the framing of the debate, high stakes testing advocates paint all opponents to their cause as defending a class and race based tracking system that has so frustrated poor and minority parents and students for generations, thus widening the historical wedge between parents and teachers and making it almost impossible to stop high stakes testing.

But many of us who oppose high stakes testing do so not because we are against equity and excellence. We are opposed to defining quality education by a test score alone. Many of us are seeing, up close and personal, that these reforms are making it more difficult for teachers to respond responsibly to low achieving students, and that opportunities are becoming less equal as school budgets shrink, college tuitions rise and financial aid is cut back. Our alternative visions of reform are varied but rarely heard or considered. For we start on the defensive, opposing a national systemic reform movement that has been in place in many states for up to 10 years and promises pie in the sky for everyone without having to increase taxes to pay for the reforms.

Where did this juggernaut come from? Why and how has high stakes testing become such a relentless, insensitive and pervasive force driving educational decisions today? And why does their rhetoric of accountability, which is essentially teacher bashing, resonate with parents?

I started looking for the answer to this question five years ago. And as an old history teacher I believed that only by putting current events in their historical perspective can we truly understand why we are where we are today, and more importantly, where are we going?

Understanding the origins and purposes of public education explains why some parents support the accusation that those who oppose high stakes testing don?t care about the disproportionate failure of poor and minority students within the system. I am going to outline very briefly a version of this history. Please indulge me in a few gross generalizations ? the more complex picture can be found in the 323 pages of my dissertation which is online or in a more accessible version in my book which is on sale today ? somewhere in the building.

The basic shape of our public school system was first created in Massachusetts in 1837. That is the year when Horace Mann persuaded the Massachusetts state legislature to create a state board of education, with himself as secretary from 1837 to 1848. This was a time of great upheaval in US history, a time when the status quo was under attack by a social reform movement and increasing immigration. Horace Mann?s advocacy for a common curriculum, graded classrooms, and a supervisory bureaucracy to ensure that a standard curriculum was taught was just what the current elites thought would preserve the status quo. Opposition to this system immediately formed and has continued throughout our history.

During the 19th century, the modern shape of the United States came into being ? sharecropping replaced slavery; Indians were murdered, removed and put on reservations; immigrants poured in from around the world to build the transcontinental railroads and work in the increasing number of factories that were owned by fewer and fewer corporations. The great modern cities were born. These cities were originally controlled by a multicultural working class majority of mostly foreign born citizens. This was not acceptable to the business elite who, without control of the city government, were unable to control the local economy. Furthermore, the business elite was unhappy that school boards were spending so much money over-educating a working class student population.

During the 1890?s, the new business leaders decided to engineer the first major transformation of the public school system since Horace Mann. The first step in that process was replacing working class representatives on school boards with businessmen and their allies.

Once business leaders gained the monopoly of positions on school boards, they immediately implemented what they called their efficiency programs. They sought out district superintendents who would adopt the reigning business model of the day ? scientific management ? where effectiveness was measured by cost per pupil.

Those superintendents who were able to reduce the cost per pupil and implement a vocational track found their salaries increased substantially. The general effect of this pressure was to increase class size from 25 to 40 and even to 75. The number of classes a teacher taught was increased and the salaries of teachers were cut. In order to know when teachers were inefficient and how schools compared with each other, standardized tests and record keeping were developed.

Standardized tests were created and used in the public school system, beginning in the 1890s, in order to sort working class students into vocational education and middle class students into college preparatory tracks. Standardized tests have always been designed to have a strong correlation to socio-economic status ? this is on purpose. And the tracking system of the last one hundred years is now being transformed into a new tracking system? college prep and dropouts. We do not, and never have, lived in a meritocracy. That is a myth that only the middle class believes.

During the 19th century, as the business model of scientific management was applied, the percentage of male teachers also dropped (although white men remained in control of the growing educational bureaucracy). Many principals noted that female teachers could be paid 1/3 the salary of male teachers with the added bonus that women were much more subservient and malleable than men ? middle class women were particularly sought out because they had been socialized to be nice and not make waves. By the turn of the century, 70-80 percent of public school teachers were white women. Today, the number is rapidly approaching 95 percent of public school teachers being white middle class females ? which makes alliances between teachers and urban, minority parents highly problematic. An important point, and one I will come back to later, is to notice the significant parallel between the first transformation of the public school system and the one we are in now. Beginning in the 1880s, Taylorism or scientific management became the reigning business model and that model was used to guide school reform at the time. In the 1980?s, the workplace was rearranged according to the new business model, Total Quality Management or Total Quality Control. I will explain later how this business model was used by the top CEO?s in 1989 as the basis for developing high stakes testing. That schools are structured to support the goals of the business elite in this country is not new?but neither is it right. But if we want to work for true democratic decision making, in which every group has a seat at the table, not just corporate America, then we need to understand how deeply the roots of big business go into the past?for the past shapes the present, and will shape the future unless we learn from our past.

While business leaders from 1890 to 1940 were pleased with the apparent effects of their reforms, most teachers were not. A 1912 article in the American Teacher (a published teacher magazine) complained that schools had become too commercialized.

?Education, since it deals with . . . [human] individual[s] is not analogous to a standardized manufacturing process.?

Another article in American Teacher , this one printed in 1916, claimed that the implementation of scientific management techniques ?demoralized the school system? by promoting ?discontent, drudgery, disillusion . . . exploitation, suspicion and inhumanity; larger classes, smaller pay and diminished joy?

These were the noticeable effects of a school system which was run by bells, where punctuality and rote learning was rewarded and creativity and free will were discouraged. Teachers and other workers didn?t take this lying down ? the first major alternative school reform movement in our history emerged during this time.

And I think if we better understood why this alternative school movement rose and fell from 1890 to 1940, then we might be in a better situation today to understand why vouchers, charters, and small schools have emerged simultaneously with high stakes testing. And because such knowledge would allow us to better understand and thus more effectively oppose the current corporate plan of attack, it is not a coincidence that the study of educational history and philosophy is fast disappearing from the curricula of schools of education.

By 1940, opposition to schools-as-factories was either coopted or quelled. The two-tracked public school system hummed along without any major challenges to it until the social movement of the Sixties. One of the greatest successes of the conservative movement of the last 30 years has been to eliminate our understanding of how powerful and effective the social revolution of the sixties was. Again, the successful marginalization of this history prevents us from learning from it, thus dooming us to make the same mistakes.

In 1972, the top CEO?s of this country believed they needed a new organization to put an end to, what seemed at the time, to be a fundamental democratization of the united states. The top business leaders in the nation were unsatisfied with the organizations that had successfully controlled legislation and culture in the past, organizations such as the National Association of Manufacturers and the Chamber of Commerce. So, in 1972, the top 250 CEO?s founded the Business Roundtable. In the next decade, they began to forge consensus on a number of issues. But it wasn?t until 1989 that they were able to agree on a national education agenda.

What forced the corporate leaders to circle the wagons suddenly in 1989 was the growing threat from Japanese car manufacturers. 1989 was the first year that Toyota sold more motor vehicles in the United States than GM, Ford, and Chrysler together. This was a powerful symbol of the declining fortunes of the US economy?s manufacturing base. It also signalled the transformation of the US economy into what we now refer to as the New Economy, or by the less heroic but more accurate name -- the service economy.

In the summer of 1989, the Business Roundtable devoted its entire annual meeting to hammering out an educational agenda to transform the public school system of the united states. The Business Roundtable wanted a school system that would mirror the new structures of the new economy. Just like the 20th century schools were built to imitate the factory, the schools of the 21st century are being rebuilt to imitate, and thus provide a seamless transition to the new job structures of the new century.

What are these new structures? Throughout the 1980s and into the 1990?s, for the first time, white collar, middle management workers began to experience sudden and massive layoffs?mergers, downsizing, rightsizing and outsourcing were all part of the new business model being implemented by the major corporations. This business model was a modified version of Japans? Total Quality Control system, which had been able to produce cheaper and more reliable products than American companies were producing.

By adopting a version of Total Quality Control, US business hoped to regain its once global economic dominance. Total Quality Control gives authority to workers along the assembly line to slow down or even stop the pace of work. Workers were given paid time off to form ?quality circles? to learn more about the entire production and design process so they understood better what their role was in producing the end product. So, instead of checking the quality of a product after it was built, which often resulted in a great deal of lemons having to be thrown away, quality control was integrated into the design and production process all along the way ? so there were no lemons rolling off the end of the assembly line.

I go into detail about this because it is this model that the CEOs of the Business Roundtable decided to build their educational agenda around. The principles of this model were to eliminate middle management and have the workers take on supervisory roles as well as continue to do the manual work of actually making the product. You can see this influence in many of the documents produced by the Business Roundtable and its allies ? A Danforth Foundation study has advocated for the elimination of school boards. All states that have passed high stakes testing legislation have some form of mandated site based decision making ? teachers and parents having to make decisions that principals and superintendents used to make. Teachers are supposed to intervene in the production, uh, educational process using hard data to drive their decisions so that quality is built into the process and that no lemons will roll off the end of the assembly line. In Maryland these groups were even called Quality Management Councils.

There are several problems with this theory besides the obvious one that children are not products and teachers are not robots. The most fundamental problem arises from the failure of American business to adopt the Japanese model in toto ? Japanese CEOs relinquished real power and authority to worker quality circles. American businessmen couldn?t bring themselves to do that. Now whether or not that explains why American manufacturing jobs have ended up overseas while the fastest growing jobs in America are truck drivers and telemarkerters, the inability of American CEOs to give up any power does explain why teachers and parents experience site based management as frustrating. Upper management has kept control over the pace and design of the production process by being the ones that define the product ? ie test scores?and by being the ones that define the rate at which the product is to be produced. Rising Test scores is now the goal of education ? a goal which neither parents nor teachers had any part in determing.

From 1989 to 1995, the Business Roundtable CEOs became so enamored of their theory of reform that they locked themselves into it ? they have done so because conveniently, this system is successfully justifying the increasing numbers of dropouts ? which feeds the growing service economy. They have locked us all into this reform model by creating an elaborate network of corporate educational foundations and partnerships with government groups who all work off of the same talking points (examples of these organizations, of which there are hundreds are Education Trust, Achieve, Inc, Education Commission of the States, Annenberg Institute at Brown University, the Harvard Graduate School of Education, Public Agenda, the Institute for Educational Leadership, Just for Kids, and the Broad Foundation). In addition to this interlocking network, the national Business Roundtable organization instructed each of its state Business Roundtable affiliates to directly lobby state legislators to introduce and support high stakes testing reform. Business leaders love high stakes testing because it is data driven ? and they get to decide what data is used and how hard to drive educators and parents.

You see, teachers are just like any other workers to these guys ? chess pieces to be manipulated, interchangeable and whose value is in their flexibility and malleableness, not any inherent individual talent, expertise or ability to think for themselves. CEOs only look for small doses of these latter qualities in candidates for management positions. In fact, independent thinking among the general public is very bad since it threatens the effectives of vertical bureaucracies ? the means by which the few control the many. Furthermore, a critical and informed citizenry would make it impossible for the $700 billion dollar advertising business to convince people to buy things they don?t want or need.

Now all CEOs aren?t the same ? but they don?t get out much and when you spend most of the time with people who are like you, a certain uniformity of thinking develops. And they believe that they are right. So they are using all their power and influence to pursue their vision of educational reform. They keep saying things like, ?we are going to stay the course? and ?people don?t change if they see the light only when they feel the heat.? They have been very successful at coopting just about everyone else behind their plan because most middle class people are afraid to make waves, most people don?t want to lose their jobs. People just want to get along.

Because of this network of corporate funded institutions and government bodies, no institution or professor can get funding to pursue reform or research without it being tied to whether it increases scores on standardized tests or not. No one is allowed to question the validity of using tests in this way. And while several educational organizations have officially stated that they object to the way in which test scores are driving educational policy, none have dared to risk their funding or their jobs to actively go out and campaign against high stakes testing.

The only people who are in a position to stop the high stakes testing juggernaut today are parents, teachers and students ? and only if they are able to create a powerful national alliance.

it is important to understand that business involvement in education is not the exception but the rule. it is also important to understand why high stakes testing doesn?t make any sense educationally but is being relentlessly imposed on our nation?s public schools because the corporate elite believe it will legitimise the transition from a manufacturing to a service economy. In the New Economy, knowledge workers are being paid less and less, and the lower class grows in numbers as they are simultaneously disenfranchised. A college prep curriculum for all, otherwise known as high standards for all, has already begun to slightly increase the numbers of college graduates. But the numbers of jobs for those college grads are not increasing, so pressure is being put on the wages of the existing high tech jobs to come down. How convenient for the corporation?s bottom line. A college prep curriculum for all is leading to increasing numbers of pushouts and dropouts, thereby easily filling the ranks of the largest employers in our economy--Walmart and the fast food services. Again, how convenient for the corporation?s bottom line.

If you find this unsettling, then you need to understand the role that the corporate CEOs play in forming legislation. By 2000, the Business roundtable?s state-by-state strategy, launched in 1989, had only managed to convince 20 state legislatures to pass high stakes testing laws. So ,the Business Roundtable lobbyists went to Congress and urged the federal legislators to rewrite the Elementary and Secondary Education Act. They wanted the federal education law to become leverage for their state strategy?to help them persuade the other 30 state legislatures to get with the program. For those 20 states, like California, who already had high stakes testing written into state law ? NCLB is useful as a bait and switch tactic. It allows our state superintendent, Jack O?Connell, to argue that the Public School Accountability Act of 1999 is much less draconian than NCLB, so perhaps we should reject the federal funds and stick with our home grown reform legislation. Great! Less funding for basically the same package.

Can we stop such a juggernaut? Howard Zinn has said that you can?t be neutral on a moving train. But can partisanship slow down or alter the course of a train that has such a head of steam?

I live and organize in SF ? right now the teachers and the district superintendent are locked in a battle over what superintendent Arlene Ackerman calls Dream schools. The teachers are under no illusions that school uniforms, the recitation in unison of cadences of academic excellence, and rigidly scripted curriculum are not going the solve the fundamental problems that have plagued so-called low performing schools. But the teachers have focused their opposition on eliminating only one of the many requirements of dream schools ? that the teachers must reapply for their jobs. This has allowed the superintendent and her storm troopers to accuse teachers of only caring about themselves. Again, there is enough truth in this piece of propaganda to make it stick. These teachers have been teaching in these schools in which most students have been failing for years, and the district superintendent is claiming that it is the teachers who are to blame.

This simplistic argument is repeated in an echo chamber created by newspaper editorials and pronouncements by corporate think tanks like the Education Trust. This allows business off the hook. And teachers, unwittingly, are playing right into their game plan. The real cause of our public schools? failure to leave no child behind is highly complex, and therefore, expensive and messy to fix. For example, everyone agrees that more adults are needed in schools and that greater and more authentic parent involvement is crucial. But because we don?t insist that all workers have a living wage in this country, many parents work two or even three jobs or their employers are not sympathetic to letting them have time off to work with the teachers and their children in the schools. Or their children commute 2 or 3 hours to school ? making parent participation a logistical nightmare.

Someday, we will acknowledge as a society that schools are an inextricable part of society, not an outside agency that will solve social and economic inequality but an institution that is a key part in the creation and legitimizing of inequality. That day will come once we all agree that students can?t learn unless they have proper mental and physical health care, full bellies, a place to study at home, parents or guardians whose employment allows them to spend time with their children in and outside of school, activities or jobs for teenagers to participate in so the need for gangs becomes moot, and a teaching force that has the freedom to develop curriculum and instruction with parents that truly engages and inspires students to learn.

This is the alternative vision to high stakes testing ? one that will never happen unless we acknowledge the historic limitations of the public school system, force corporate leaders to share power over policy with the local community, ensure that every school is environmentally and physically safe, and build honest and deep relationships among. teachers, parents and students. No one model of reform needs to be agreed upon, but whatever model a community chooses, it is the community that ought to do the choosing, and it must have democratic structures as part of its processes. Democracy is often dismissed as being too messy, and indeed it is messy but only on the front end. Top down reform is nice and clean on the front end, but very messy on the back end. The virtue of democratic decision making over top down decision making is that once a decision is arrived at, everyone is committed to implementing it.

Plato said that a slave is someone who allows someone else to determine what his or her goals are in life. This is true even if there is no slavery in the legal sense. I believe that humans are, by nature, simultaneously independent and social creatures ? we wish to have some control over our lives but we also believe in the public good. We need an educational system that teaches us how to navigate between our two impulses so they reinforce not undermine one another. Perhaps some day we will insist that this -- and not rising test scores-- is the true goal of education.

Copyright 2005


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