HIGH STAKES TESTING:
by Dave Stratman
If you live in any of 27 states or in one of many countries, high stakes tests are already in your school or your community. They are driving the shape of children's lives, the shape of parents' hopes and fears, the shape of our society now and into the future. They are undermining everything good about the public schools and worsening everything that is bad. They are both a terrible threat and a window into the stranglehold that big money and corporate power have on our lives.
TESTS DESIGNED TO FAIL
High stakes tests consist typically of a state-mandated test administered to public school students (children in private schools are exempt) in the tenth grade. Students must pass these tests to graduate, no matter how well they have done in school–hence the name "high stakes." In some states these tests are administered to students in lower grades as well; in Massachusetts, for example, students must take the state tests in the 4th, 8th, and 10th grades.
The tests are designed to make students fail. They frequently test students on material that they haven't yet covered in class, or phrase the questions in deliberately tricky or confusing ways, or use questions that are one or several grade levels above the students.
For example, math problems like the one below, which appeared on the 1997 state test for 4th grade students in Washington (the WASL), depend on a 7th grade understanding of proportions and comparing fractions with uncommon denominators up to 24ths:
You have three different bags of marbles. Each bag contains black and white marbles. Which bag gives you the most chance of picking a white marble?
(Three different bags of marbles are pictured.).
To solve the problem, a student has to:
* count the marbles of each color (Grade 4)
Tom Hooper, a teacher at Lincoln-Sudbury Regional High School in Massachusetts, after careful analysis of MCAS, the Massachusetts high stakes test, for 10th graders, concluded: "All in all it seems pretty clear that this test is designed so that at least 50% of the students have no chance to pass it."
The state tests measure students against the new "high standards" imposed by the states. These standards are often impossibly high and age-inappropriate. Gerald Bracey, a respected education analyst, writes: "Let's look at the appropriateness of what these [high stakes] zealots are compelling students to do. Consider this 10th grade standard from Virginia's program. 'The student will analyze the regional development of Asia, Africa, the Middle East, Latin America, and the Caribbean in terms of physical, economic, and cultural characteristics and historical evolution from 1000 AD to the present.' Somehow, I doubt that most readers reacted to this standard with, 'Oh my, they forgot Australia and New Zealand.' [Is] this really an appropriate, 'high' standard?"
The results of the test? Bracey writes, "In Virginia, 98% of schools flunked the first time around....the second time around a mere 93% of Virginia's schools failed." In Fairfax County, Virginia, where students rank at the very top of international comparisons in math and science, "After a year of intense effort, 78% still failed. This is not high standards. This is nuts."
The tests are very destructive educationally. They test students on such a broad range of materials that teachers have to rush through the curriculum; they cannot allow real discussion or in-depth study. Education is reduced to memorization of disconnected facts.
The tests have predictably negative effects on students. In Texas and Florida, which began high stakes tests several years ago, thousands of young people, especially black and Hispanic students, have dropped out of school. A teacher at a vocational school in Boston told me recently that "In the past I've never failed more than 15% of my students. This year 70% of them are failing. They're convinced that they'll never pass the MCAS and they've given up."
The tests put extreme psychological pressure on young and vulnerable people. Many parents report that their children are under greatly increased stress, while many teachers speak of the climate of fear in the schools. An Associated Press story of 2/17/00 headlined "Ten-Year Old Kills Self Over Grades" describes a little boy who hanged himself with his belt from his bunk bed "after leaving a note apologizing for a bad report card he had brought home last week." A teacher in New York called me in tears with this story; she then wrote that, "If he was in the fourth grade, he also was recently forced to take the standardized language test—the ELA. NY fourth graders will be forced to take THREE standardized tests this year. One 'accountability test' got moved up from third grade, one got moved down from 6th grade."
WHY ARE THEY DOING IT?
This is the crucial question. Business leaders claim their goal is to improve schools so that students can better compete in the world market. But if this is their real intent, why are they enacting legislation which is so obviously destructive? Why create tests designed to fail? Why set standards impossibly high?
I had an experience a number of years ago which can help answer the question "Why?" I was hired in 1985 by the Minnesota Education Association to help it defeat the Minnesota Business Partnership Education Reform Plan. The Minnesota Business Partnership consists of all the most powerful corporations in the state. Its reform plan was the most sophisticated plan at the time. Among other things, the Business Partnership Plan called for changing the kindergarten through 12th grade (K-12) school system to a K-10 system. According to their plan, all students would leave school at the end of the 10th grade with a "certificate of completion." The top 20% or so would be invited back to special schools linked to colleges for an advanced program. (Minnesota at the time had the highest school retention rate in the nation: 91% of its students completed 12th grade and a high proportion went on to college.)
The Business Partnership claimed that its reform plan was intended to give young people in Minnesota more "flexibility." We said, "The real purpose of your plan is to drive thousands of students out of high school without a diploma, to flip hamburgers and work in the stockyards. You're trying to create cheap labor and lower our children's aspirations."
We were able to defeat the Business Partnership Plan, but now it has come back with a vengeance in the form of high stakes testing. These tests are designed to accomplish the same thing as a K-10 system, but in a way that blames the students. The tests will drive millions of young people out of high school without a diploma so that, if they end up without decent jobs or decent lives, they will blame themselves instead of the corporate system.
The tests are not about education but about social control. By constantly raising the standards students have to meet, they make everyone afraid that "you'll never be good enough" and subject our children to the same stress that employers use to control us on the job. The tests are meant to get students used to having no control over their lives, and to defining their own worth by how well they measure up to the needs of the corporations.
Parents and teachers and students are a dynamic force which corporate and government elites are trying to beat back and contain. The elite has always tried to use the schools to persuade young people to accept their place in class society. Teachers, parents, and students, however, have fought for their own high hopes for all students with enough success to threaten corporate goals. In the 1960s the children of workers began to enter college in large numbers. In 1995 the percent of blacks and whites ages 24-29 who had completed high school for the first time was the same: 87%. High stakes tests are an attempt to put the genie of democratic aspirations back in the bottle. If people were not such a powerful force, the corporate elite would not have to go to such lengths to contain them.
TESTING AND CORPORATE POWER
High stakes testing and education reform are parts of the corporate restructuring of American and world society.
The 1960s and '70s witnessed a worldwide "revolution of rising expectations." In country after country, people rose up against elite rule. They rejected the values, the emptiness, the lack of democracy of capitalist and communist systems alike. Beginning around 1972, these elites undertook a counterrevolution to lower expectations and tighten their control. The Business Roundtable, which has led the assault on public education in the U.S., was formed explicitly to go on the counterattack against working people and to strengthen corporate control of society.
This counteroffensive has taken many forms, all of them designed to undermine the economic and psychological security of ordinary people. During these years millions of jobs have been shipped to low-wage areas overseas; millions more have been de-skilled or eliminated through the use of technology; millions of permanent jobs with benefits have been reduced to contingent or temp work without benefits and without a future. As part of this assault, the safety net of social programs–such as welfare, housing, food stamps, and others–which had given people some protection against corporate power has been ripped away, leaving people frightened and vulnerable.
In the 1950s people were told that "What's good for General Motors is good for the country." As the civil rights and antiwar and rank and file labor movements grew in the 1950s and 1960s, people challenged the idea of corporate profitability as the goal of human society and the Gross National Product as its measure. Education reform is intended to restore corporate success as the goal and measure of human life, and competition and inequality as the natural shape of human relations.
HOW CAN WE FIGHT THE TESTS?
The movement sweeping the country against high stakes testing promises to become the most important popular revolt since the 1960s. To succeed, this movement should take the offensive by doing three key things:
1) Expose the real agenda behind the tests. This isn't just a fight over educational techniques and we can't win it on a purely educational basis. Corporate leaders don't deny that they are behind education reform. What they lie about is their real agenda. Exposing the real corporate agenda shows the links between the corporate assault on education and other areas of people's lives–such as their working lives–where they have plenty of experience of corporate values. Expanding the scope of the movement beyond the purely educational will enable a wider range of people to take part.
2) Fight for real educational change. Even without corporate reform, the schools have profound problems which must be solved. The movement to defend the schools must also be a movement to transform them. The schools should not reinforce social inequality but help to overcome it; should not intensify competition but nurture solidarity and friendship. The question is, What are we educating students for? Schools should prepare students not to suit the corporations but to understand the world and to change it: education for democracy.
3) Build the movement for democratic revolution. The debate over education reform is a debate over the values and possibilities of human society. Should human beings be restructured to fit the economy, or should the economy be restructured to fit human beings? The great majority of people in our communities surely will share our feeling that the self-confidence and expectations of a generation of young people should not be destroyed merely to fit the needs of the corporations.
The more we raise these questions about our hopes for our children and the future of our society, the stronger the movement will be.
A great many people already feel in their bones that all the crucial issues of our society are linked. In exposing these connections we will be validating an understanding people already have. As they become more confident about their insights, they will be more prepared to build the movement.
We are at the beginning of a movement as broad as democracy and as deep as our feelings about our children and grandchildren. Given what is at stake, it is a struggle we must win.
Originally published in New Democracy Newsletter, May-June 2000.