Friday, October 27, 2006

Critique of High Stakes Testing

I'd be interested in what folks think of this piece. I thought it expressed my views very well.

What's Behind High Stakes Testing and How We Can Expose It
David Stratman is editor of New Democracy, a bimonthly newsletter devoted to democratic revolution, and the author of We CAN Change The World: The Real Meaning Of Everyday Life. He is the former Washington Director of the National Parent-Teacher Association.

In 1985 I had an experience which can shed some light on what's behind high stakes testing. I was hired by the Minnesota Education Association to help it defeat an education reform plan put forward by the Minnesota Business Partnership, an association of the largest corporations, banks, and media outlets in the state. The Minnesota Business Partnership Plan was the most sophisticated education reform proposal of its time. Its centerpiece was a plan to change the K-12 system to a K-10 system. The Business Partnership proposed that all students leave high school at the end of the 10th grade with a "certificate of completion." The most successful students-estimated at the time to be the top 20%-would be invited back to complete high school in special programs set up for the purpose in conjunction with colleges and universities. Minnesota at the time had the highest school completion rate in the country. Ninety-one percent of its young people graduated from high school and a large percentage went on to higher education.

To be able to defeat this plan, we had to expose the purpose behind it. The Business Partnership said its plan was intended to give students more "flexibility" and "personal choice." We said that its real purpose was to drive tens of thousands of students out of school without a diploma, in order to lower students' expectations of what their lives should be like, and to create a large pool of cheap labor-young people who would flip hamburgers or work in the stockyards at minimum wage.

We were able to stop the Minnesota Business Partnership Plan, but I think it has come back in the new and more destructive form of high stakes testing. High stakes tests achieve the same result as reducing the K-12 to a K-10 system while making it appear that the problem lies in the children themselves, that they cannot make the grade. The high stakes tests sweeping the country will push a high proportion of young people out of school in the 10th grade or earlier. Their lives will be restructured and their expectations downsized to accept without complaint their place in a more unequal, less democratic society.

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 nough." Even the students who do well on the tests will be deeply injured by them. Young people are being told that education and life are all about making yourself acceptable to the corporations.

Most teachers and parents I talk with are very aware of the destructive effects of these tests. The question people can't figure out is, Why would the government impose such obviously destructive measures?

To answer this question, we need to look beyond the schools. In the past three decades, millions of jobs have been shipped overseas. Skilled manufacturing jobs have been replaced by low-skill service jobs-retail sales and cleaning offices. Huge numbers of white-collar jobs have been restructured out of existence. The lack of skilled jobs is likely to increase as automation increases. Computerization has greatly reduced the skills required in many jobs and has wiped out many others. This after all is the appeal of computerization to corporations: it makes people more expendable.

What do these developments have to do with high stakes testing and other elements of corporate-led education reform? The answer, I think, is simply this: our young people have greater talent than the corporate system can use. The purpose of high stakes testing is to crush the self-confidence and aspirations of millions of young people, so that if they have less fulfilling jobs and less rewarding lives in an increasingly unequal society, they will blame themselves instead of the corporate system.

Attacking public education is also a way of blaming ordinary people for the increasing inequality in society. Corporate and political leaders are saying, if millions don't have adequate work or housing or much of a future, the fault lies with the people themselves, that they could not meet the standards.

High stakes testing and education reform are part of a broader strategy to strengthen corporate domination of society. The 1960s and '70s witnessed a worldwide "revolution of rising expectations." Beginning around 1972, capitalist and communist elites undertook a counterrevolution to lower expectations and tighten their control. The counteroffensive has taken many forms, all of them designed to undermine the economic and psychological security of ordinary people. The export of jobs, the restructuring of corporations, the dismantling of social programs are policies intended to make people more frightened and controllable.

The growing movement against the tests promises to become the most important popular revolt since the 1960s. To succeed, this movement should take the offensive by doing three things:

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 on other areas of people's lives and will enable a wider range of people to join our movement.

Fight for real educational change. Even without corporate reform, the schools have profound problems which must be resolved. 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.

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 needs of the economy, or should the economy be restructured to allow the full growth and development of human beings?

High stakes tests are an attack on fundamental democratic values. Most people in our communities share these values. They will oppose these tests once they know how destructive they are and why they are being imposed. Our job is to reach them with this message.

How can you get started? The most important things to do are actually the easiest. Talk with your friends and family about the tests. Find out their opinions and offer them yours. You're bound to find many allies you didn't know you had. Get together with a few friends and compare notes. Identify a few other people to join the discussion. Just talking these things over is very powerful. As you reach out to others and your numbers grow, people are sure to feel stronger and to come up with many good ideas for building the movement. We are stronger than we think.

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 that we must win.

Thank you.