Absurd Defense of Standardized Testing in Jacobin Magazine

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A bizarre article appeared in this Month’s issue of Jacobin – a left-leaning, even socialist magazine.

 

It was titled, “The Progressive Case for the SAT” and was written by Freddie DeBoer.

 

In it, the author attempts to explain why the Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT) – though flawed – is a more unbiased way to select which students deserve college admissions than indicators like K-12 classroom grades.

 

It’s all convoluted poppycock made worse by a baroque series of far left think tank connections, intellectual bias and mental illness.

 

In short, DeBoer argues that our schools are unfair, so we should embrace unfair high stakes tests.

 

I know. That doesn’t make a lot of sense.

 

Let me slow it down a bit, premise by premise so you can see his point – or lack thereof.

 

The current education system privileges white affluent children, says DeBoer, so they have an easier time getting into college than poorer children of color.

 

Check so far.

 

Richer whiter kids often go to schools that are better funded than those that teach mostly impoverished minorities. Therefore, the privileged get smaller classes, wider curriculums, more extracurricular activities, more counselors, better nutrition, etc. – while the underprivileged… don’t.

 

Then DeBoer says that classroom grades are often dependent on the resources students receive. Richer whiter kids get more resources, so they often get better grades.

 

Still with you so far.

 

Therefore, he concludes, we need standardized tests like the SAT to help equalize the playing field. We need so-called “objective” assessments to counteract the “subjective” classroom grades.

 

But DeBoer admits standardized tests aren’t objective! They are also the result of resources – that’s why richer whiter kids tend to score better on them than poorer blacker kids!

 

The argument makes no logical sense.

 

Justifying one unfair system with another unfair system is beyond bonkers.

 

Plus DeBoer contends out of nowhere that classroom grades are more easily manipulated than the tests and thus the tests are more valid.

 

Wrong again.

 

Classroom grades are based on roughly 180 days of instruction a year for 12 plus years. The SAT is roughly one day. More if you retake it.

 

It is MORE difficult to influence 2,160 days worth of grading than 1 or 2 or 3. Not the other way round.

 

Moreover, classroom grades are tabulated by numerous teachers, many of whom have little or no contact with each other. Standardized test scores are tabulated by a handful of temporary summer workers who often collaborate on the scores.

 

Whether students get good or bad grades generally doesn’t affect a given teacher. However, low test scores are actually beneficial to testing corporations because they allow the company to make additional money by retesting and selling remediation materials to the district.

 

If one group is more subject to bias, it is those grading the standardized tests, not the classroom teachers.

 

He has a point that getting rid of standardized testing won’t by itself eliminate inequality. But doubling down on it certainly won’t either.

 

That’s just logic.

 

DeBoer seems to be ignorant of history, as well.

 

The SAT test didn’t just spring up out of the ground. It was written by people –  Psychologist Carl Brigham building on work by U.S. Army Psychologist Robert Yerkes to be exact.

 

Brigham devised the SAT in the early half of the 20th Century based on Yerkes’ and his own deeply racist eugenicist theories.

 

And when I say they were eugenicists, I’m not speaking in hyperbole. They truly believed that some races were just smarter, more moral and downright better than others.

 

“American education is declining and will proceed… with an accelerating rate as the racial mixture becomes more and more extensive,” wrote Brigham in his seminal A Study of American Intelligence.

 

“No citizen can afford to ignore the menace of race deterioration,” wrote Yerkes in 1922.

 

And this idea was the foundation of their application of standardized testing, as Yerkes  noted a year later:

 

“The contrasting intellectual status of the white versus the negro constituents of the draft appear from table 3. Few residents of the United States probably would have anticipated so great a difference. That the negro is 90 per cent. [sic] illiterate only in part accounts for his inferior intellectual status.”

 

Yerkes eugenics Table 3

 

Brigham was basing his ideas on another test created by Yerkes, the Army Alpha and Beta tests.

 

As noted above, Yerkes  used test scores to “prove” black soldiers in WWI were inferior and thus more suited to menial service and the trenches while whites should be given better positions.

 

And Brigham continued this practice with his SAT test.

 

In both cases, the psychologists used standardized testing to back up a racist and classist status quo.

 

Yet it is this same SAT test that DeBoer is suggesting we keep because it reduces racial and economic bias!

 

Certainly the SAT has changed some since Yerkes time, but it hasn’t changed THAT much!

 

And that brings us to DeBoer, himself.

 

Who is this guy and why did an allegedly respectable publication like Jacobin print his crap theory?

 

DeBoer appears to be a very troubled individual.

 

Back in December of 2017, he published a blog post about his mental illness, almost being committed to an institution, the antipsychotic drugs he was taking and the break he would have to take from being a “public intellectual.”

 

I don’t mean to shame anyone who suffers from mental illness. But when someone offers such a bizarre policy suggestion, questions of stability arise.

 

Next, there’s DeBoer’s think tank connections.

 

On the same Website, DeBoer talks about “My anti anti-SAT take for the People’s Policy Project” – the same theory he expanded upon in his Jacobin article.

 

People’s Policy Project (3P) is a left-leaning think tank created by another frequent Jacobin contributor, lawyer and policy analyst, Matt Bruenig.

 

You may recall Bruenig. In 2015, he criticized schools that provide more resources to impoverished children by dubbing them “welfare schools.” He saw the inclusion of free healthcare, free meals, free pre-K, and other wraparound services as increasing the welfare state and making children and families dependent on the government for survival.

 

And, yes, like DeBoer, this is a guy who claims to be a far left Democrat.

 

This is all very troubling.

 

Sometimes we fall into the lazy attitude that high stakes testing, charter schools and other corporate education reforms are only championed by the right.

 

Certainly the left – or at least the far left – is immune to this neoliberal agenda.

 

You definitely wouldn’t expect to get a heaping helping of top down supply side school policy in Jacobin!

 

It just goes to show you how little policymakers on both sides of the aisle understand education and how ignorant they can be when we don’t force them to include the experts in the conversation.

 

I am, of course, talking about real, live classroom teachers.

 

Until we prize what they can tell us about education, we will continue to be led in circles by the ignorant.


 

Like this post? I’ve written a book, “Gadfly on the Wall: A Public School Teacher Speaks Out on Racism and Reform,” now available from Garn Press. Ten percent of the proceeds go to the Badass Teachers Association. Check it out!

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More Truth in Teacher-Written Education Blogs Than Corporate Media

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Let’s get one thing straight right from the get go: I am biased.

 

But so are you.

 

So are the parents, students, principals and school directors. So are the policymakers, the corporate donors and professional journalists.

 

Everyone involved in education policy is interested in one side or another of the debate. It’s just that some pretend to practice a kind of objectivity while others are open about their partiality.

 

It’s unavoidable. I’m a public school teacher. Not merely someone who’s taught in a public school for a few years – I’m an educator with more than 15 years experience in the classroom. And I’m still there.

 

I’m not a Teach for America recruit who committed myself to three years in front of children after a few weeks crash course. Where I am now was my goal in the first place. I’m not doing this to get the credentials for my real dream job, being an education policy advisor for a Congressperson or Senator. Nor do I plan to become a Superintendent, Principal or school administrator someday.

 

All along, my goal was to have a classroom of my own where I could help children learn.

 

Moreover, I’m a public school parent. My daughter goes to the same public school my wife and I both attended as children. We could have sent her to a charter or private school. But we made the conscious choice not to, and we’ve never regretted it.

 

Our local district serves a mostly high poverty population. More than half of the students are minorities. The facilities aren’t as up to date as you’ll find in richer neighborhoods. Class sizes are too large. But we decided that being a part of the community school was important, and much of what my child has learned there simply isn’t taught at schools where everyone is the same.

 

So when you read one of my blogs (even this one), it comes from a certain point of view. And I’m okay with that. You should be, too.

 

However, when you read an article in the Wall Street Journal, New York Times or Pittsburgh Tribune Review, there is a presumption of detachment and neutrality. But it’s bogus.

 

Those articles are written by human beings, too, and thus they are likewise biased.

 

The only difference is what exactly that bias is.

 

My preference is plain and on the surface. I am in favor of public schools over privatized ones. I support teachers over corporations making decisions about how to educate. I’m an advocate for children and families.

 

When you read an article in the mainstream media, you frankly have no idea which direction their inclinations swerve.

 

However, you do know that money often plays a major role in their editorial spin.

 

Journalism is a business. Perhaps it should be a public good. We used to look at it that way. We used to try to keep it separate from advertising. It didn’t have to make a profit.

 

But that’s all changed. Now it’s expected to bring in money. It’s expected to generate “value” for the corporation that owns it. However, we rarely stop to think how corrupting an influence that is.

 

For some people, my position as an educator discredits my knowledge of schools. Yet getting paid by huge testing corporations doesn’t discredit journalists!?

 

I speak here from experience, too. I used to be a professional journalist.

 

Before becoming a teacher, I worked full-time at various daily and weekly newspapers in Western Pennsylvania. I can tell you first hand that sometimes editors encouraged or physically rewrote articles to spin the story the way they wanted.

 

I remember writing a story about a local tax collector seeking re-election. I didn’t know him, personally, but I had heard several rumors about unsavory practices he had allegedly engaged in while employed in a different capacity as a public servant. So I did research and found that they were true. I had proof. I even confronted him, personally, with what I had found to give him a chance to explain.

 

However, when I submitted the article, my editor had a conniption. Apparently, the tax collector had called the paper threatening to cause trouble. So the article was completely rewritten to downplay what I had discovered.

 

None of it mattered that much. It was just a local tax collector’s race. Frankly, I can’t even remember if he won re-election. But it was demonstrative of what happens in editorial departments.

 

I’ve seen businesses complain about news articles and threaten to withdraw advertising. I’ve seen colorful, glossy info-packets sent to reporters seeking articles about subjects enticing them with the ease of approaching it from their point of view. I’ve had editors assign me stories that I thought were non-issues and then they tweaked my finished product so it had the implications they intended from the get-go.

 

If that happens at the local level, imagine what happens at the biggest corporate offices.

 

Now don’t get me wrong.

 

I’m not saying that mainstream media is nothing but lies. I’ll leave that claim for the President. But it IS biased. And as smart consumers of media, we need to be aware of it.

 

We need to be aware that corporate media is often going to take the side of big corporations. They’re going to be in favor of standardized testing, Common Core, charter and voucher schools. They’re going to talk up computer-based depersonalized learning. They’re going to uncritically criticize those standing in the way of corporate profits – i.e. teachers.

 

This doesn’t mean readers shouldn’t trust education reporting from professional journalists. There are writers out there who are trying to present both sides of the issue without editorial meddling. There are reporters who understand the big picture and are trying to expose the truth. Moreover, they have resources that bloggers often don’t – copy editors, fact checkers, knowledgeable and experienced colleagues in media, etc.

 

However, they are frankly working with significant limitations that teacher bloggers don’t have.

 

When I want to know how public schools work, I can simply appeal to my first hand experience. When a reporter want to do that, she is often stymied by rules and regulations that keep people like them out.

 

They are rarely permitted inside our schools to see the day-to-day classroom experience. Legal issues about which students may be photographed, filmed or interviewed, the difficulty of getting parental permissions and the possibility of embarrassment to principals and administrators often keeps the doors closed. In many districts, teachers aren’t even allowed to speak on the record to the media or doing so can make them a political target. So reporters are often in the position of being unable to directly experience the very thing they’re reporting on.

 

If I read a book about baseball, I might know a lot of facts about the players. But that can’t compare with someone who’s actually been to the games, been on the field, even played in the World Series!

 

 

At the same time, education blogs aren’t perfect either. For one, you have to be cognizant of who is writing them.

 

You’re currently reading The Gadfly on the Wall Blog. But that’s worlds different than reading the Education Gadfly. The latter site is owned and operated by the Thomas B. Fordham Institute. This organization actually runs charter schools in Ohio. They spend millions of dollars spreading propaganda on charter authorization, school choice, standardized curriculum, digital learning, standards, testing, etc.

 

I, on the other hand, am just a school teacher with a laptop. Education Gadfly has a paid staff. No one pays me a dime nor do I even sell advertisements.

 

To be fair, I operate on a free WordPress site and sometimes WordPress puts ads on my page. But I don’t see any of that money. It’s just the cost of having a free site. If I wanted to pay for it, I could get an ad-free site.

 

Also, once in a blue moon a Website that reposts my blog pays me a couple of bucks for the privilege. So maybe I’ve ordered a pizza or two with money from the blog, but I certainly couldn’t survive off the revenue from it. I would literally make more money working one week at WalMart than I’ve ever pulled in from three years of education bloggery.

 

 

These are the reasons why teacher-written education blogs are superior to the competition.

 

They aren’t beholden to corporate money or influence. They have first-hand experience of the subject.

 

Journalists have a hard job and they deserve our respect. But they can’t compare to the expertise of practicing educators.

 

If editors included our voices more, perhaps the mainstream media wouldn’t be so skewed towards corporate interests.

 

But that’s really the goal, in the first place.