The Forgotten Disaster of America’s First Standardized Test

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“Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”

George Santayana (1905)

 

The merry-go-round of history continues to spin because the riders forget they are free to get off at any time.

 

But we rarely do it. We keep to our seats and commit the same stupid mistakes over and over again.

 

Take high stakes standardized testing.

 

It was a disaster the very first time it was attempted in America – in Boston, Massachusetts, in 1845.

 

Yet we continue to prescribe the same error to students in schools today.

 

Judging learners, schools and teachers based on standardized assessments has the same problems now as it did 174 years ago. Yet we act as if it’s the only accurate way to assess knowledge, the only fair and equitable way to assign resources and judge the professionalism of our schools and teachers.

 

IT IS NONE OF THOSE THINGS.

 

If we simply remembered our history, we’d know that. But our collective amnesia allows this bad policy to reappear every generation despite any criticisms or protests.

 

So let me take you back to Boston in the middle of the 19th Century and show you exactly where things first went wrong and how they still go wrong in nearly the same way.

BOSTON SCHOOLS

 

Even back then Boston had a history of excellent schools.

 

One of the country’s most prestigious institutions – the city Latin School – was founded in 1635 and had a list of alumni that reads like a who’s who of American history up through modern times. This includes Cotton Mather, Sam Adams, John Hancock, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Leonard Bernstein and even Santayana, himself!

 

But Boston wasn’t known just for educating the elite. The city’s school committee had opened the nation’s first public high school in 1821. This wasn’t a charity. The community funded its public schools relatively well and took pride in its students’ accomplishments.

 

Testing was a much different affair in the early 1800s than it is today.

 

At the local English Grammar Schools, most examinations were strictly oral. Students were questioned in person about the various subjects in which they had received instruction. Teachers tested students’ memory in a recitation to find out whether or not they were proficient in the subject at hand.

 

The purpose behind such an assessment wasn’t to assign a grade like children were eggs or melons. It was to give the teacher information about how much his students had learned and where the students’ teacher should begin instruction next year.

 

However, critics complained that such assessments weren’t impartial and that a written exam might be better. Unfortunately, having every student complete one was impractical before the pencil and steel pen came into common usage in the late 1800s. Besides, teachers – then called School Masters – were trusted to use their judgment measuring student achievement and ability based on empirical observation of students’ day-to-day work.

 

It should also be noted that many more teachers were men at this time. This changed by the 1920s, when the majority of educators were women while most men had fled to the administrative offices. As this transformation took place, it accompanied greater trust in administrators and decreasing confidence in classroom teachers. And if you don’t see the sexism in that, you aren’t paying attention.

 

This shift began with standardized testing – an innovation first introduced by a Massachusetts lawyer and legislator named Horace Mann.

HORACE MANN’S TEST

 

To this day Mann remains a somewhat controversial figure. To some he was a reformer seeking to modernize education. To others he was a self-serving politician looking to increase his own power and that of his party no matter what the cost.

 

In 1837, Mann was appointed secretary of the newly created State Board of Education. As a member of the Whig Party, he wanted to centralize authority. To do that, he needed to discredit the history of excellence in Boston.

 

Mann had traveled abroad to see the innovations of European schools and concluded that Prussia’s schools, in particular, were far superior to America’s. His remarks were included in a highly publicized 1844 report that demanded action lest our country’s children be left behind. (Sound familiar?)

 

When other prominent Whigs including his friend Samuel Gridley Howe were elected to the School Committee and later the examining committee, Mann had everything he needed to make a change.

 

Howe dispensed with the oral exams in favor of written tests, what today we’d call short-answer exams. Without any warning to teachers or students, this new committee came to Boston’s grammar schools with preprinted questions. Teachers and administrators were furious. Students were terrified.

 

The examiners picked 530 out of the city’s approximately 7,000 students — allegedly the best below high school age – and made them take the new exams. This was about 20 or 30 children from each school. Students had an hour to write their responses on each subject to questions taken from assigned textbooks -geography, grammar, history, rhetoric, and philosophy.

 

Most failed.

 

A contemporary report on the exams concluded that the results “show beyond all doubt, that a large proportion of the scholars in our first classes, boys and girls of 14 or 15 years of age, when called upon to write simple sentences, to express their thoughts on common subjects, without the aid of a dictionary or a master, cannot write, without such errors in grammar, in spelling, and in punctuation.”

 

Examiners explained in a subsequent report that they had been looking for “positive information, in black and white,” exactly what students had learned. Teachers took no offense at that goal, but complained that the test questions had not pertained to what students had been taught.

 

Howe and his examiners countered that they had ensured their new assessment was valid with field testing – a practice that modern day corporations like Pearson and Data Recognition Corp. still do today.

 

Howe’s committee gave the same test in towns outside of Boston, including Roxbury, then a prosperous suburb. In all, the committee tested 31,159 students the previous summer. The result – an average score of 30 percent correct.

 

However, the wealthy Roxbury students outscored all the other schools. Therefore, they were made the standard of excellence that all other schools were expected to reach.

 

So when Boston students – all of whom did not have the privileges of Roxbury students – didn’t achieve the same scores, they were deemed failing, inadequate, losers.

 

Thus Mann could justify criticizing the district, firing teachers and administrators and consolidating control over the city’s schools.

BACKLASH

 

The result was pandemonium. Howe issued a scathing report lambasting the schools and even naming individual teachers who should be fired. Mann published the results in his influential Common School Journal and these kinds of tests started to appear at urban schools across the country.

 

However, Bostonians were not all convinced. Editorials were published both for and against the tests.

 

Every aspect of the exam was disputed – and in similar ways to the testing controversies we still see today.

 

To start, raising the stakes of the exams invited cheating. One teacher was caught leaking questions to his students before the testing session began.

 

The assessments also showed a racial achievement gap that far from helping diagnose structural inequalities was instead weaponized against the very people working hardest to help minority students learn. Examiners criticized the head teacher of the segregated Smith School because his African American students had scored particularly low. He was accused of not seeing the potential in black children. Never mind that these students were the most different from the Roxbury standard in terms of culture and privilege.

 

The tests also began the endless failing schools narrative that has been used by ambitious policymakers and disaster capitalists to get support for risky and unproven policies. Rivalries began between city and suburban schools with Bostonians wondering why their schools had been allowed to get so much worse.

 

Much of the criticism came back on Mann and Howe who reacted by throwing it back on the teachers for doing such a bad job.

 

In the end, a few educators were let go, but the voters had had enough of Mann.

 

Parents accused him of deliberately embarrassing students and in 1848 he was not re-elected to office.

 

The tests were given again in 1846, but by 1850, Boston had abandoned its strategy and reverted to non-standarized exams that were mostly based on oral presentations.

 

The experiment deeply disturbed many people. No one could explain why there was a discrepancy between scores of rich vs. poor students. The original justification of these exams was that they would eliminate partiality and treat students fairly and equally. Yet the results showed a racial and economic bias that didn’t escape contemporaries. In 1850 as the tests were being discontinued, the chairman of the examination committee wrote:

“Comparison of schools cannot be just while the subjects of instruction are so differently situated as to fire-side influence, and subjected to the draw-backs inseparable from place of birth, of age, of residence, and many other adverse circumstances.”

 

And that’s how standardized testing began.

 

It was a political power play justified by so-called universal testing.

 

Numbers, charts and graphs were used to mesmerize people into going along with policies that were never meant to help children learn, but instead to gain power for certain policymakers while taking it away from others.

HISTORY OF STANDARDIZED TESTING

 

In the years that followed, standardized testing became much more efficient. In 1915, the first test was given with multiple-choice questions – Frederick J. Kelly’s Kansas Silent Reading Test. It was roundly criticized and eventually disowned by Kelly for focusing almost exclusively on lower order thinking skills.

 

Then in the 1920s eugenicists like Robert Yerkes and Carl Brigham went a step further with similar IQ tests to justify privileging upper class whites from lower class immigrants, blacks and Hispanics. Their work was even used to justify the forced sterilization of 60,000 to 70,000 people from groups with low test scores, thus preventing them from “polluting” the gene pool. Ultimately this lead Brigham to create the Scholastic Assessment Test (SAT) to keep such undesirables out of higher education. It is still in wide use today.

 

It wasn’t until 1938 that Kaplan Inc. was founded to tutor students in these same tests. Stanley Kaplan, son of Jewish immigrants, showed that far from assessing learning, these tests merely assessed students’ ability to take the tests. Thus he was able to provide a gateway to higher education for many Jews and other minorities who had been unfairly excluded because of testing.

 

In the 1960s black plaintiffs began winning innumerable lawsuits against the testing industry. Perhaps the most famous case is Hobson v. Hansen in 1967, which was filed on behalf of a group of Black students in Washington, DC. The court ruled that the policy of using tests to assign students to tracks was racially biased because the tests were standardized to a White, middle class group.

 

And then in 2001, President George W. Bush’s No Child Left Behind legislation revved the whole thing up into overdrive. With bipartisan support, he tied federal funding of schools to standardized test performance and annual academic progress – a policy that was only intensified under President Barack Obama who added competitive grants for additional funding based on test performance under Race to the Top.

 

Since then, standardized testing has grown from a $423 million industry before 2001 to a multi-billion dollar one decades later. If we add in test prep, new text books, software, and consultancy, that figure easily tops the trillion dollar mark.

 

Despite hundreds of principal, teacher, parent and student protests, tens of thousands of opt outs and a slew of lawsuits, high stakes testing continues to be the law of the land.

 

Yet the problems today are almost the same as those in Boston nearly two centuries ago.

LEGACY

 

These tests are political smokescreens used to stop policymakers from having to enact real reforms like equitable funding, wraparound services and addressing the trauma our most impoverished students deal with everyday. Instead, we push a school privatization and testing industry that makes trillions of dollars for corporations at the expense of our children.

 

“Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”

 

Here’s hoping that one day we remember and get the heck off this runaway merry-go-round.


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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Schools That Hinder Opt Outs Are Participating in Their Own Demise

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You can’t be a public school and still ignore the will of the people.

 

That’s the problem at too many districts across the country where narrow-minded administrators are waging an all out war on parents opting their children out of standardized testing.

 

The federal government still requires all states to give high stakes tests to public school students in grades 3-8 and once in high school. So states require their districts to give the tests – despite increasing criticism over the assessments’ validity, age appropriateness, racial and economic bias and the very manner in which the scores are used to justify narrowing the curriculum, school privatization, funding cuts, teacher firings and closing buildings serving the most underprivileged children.

 

In response, parents from coast to coast continue to fight the havoc being forced upon their communities by refusing the tests for their children.

 

Yet instead of welcoming this rush of familial interest, at some schools we find principals, superintendents and every level of functionary in between doing whatever they can to impede parental will.

 

Most administrators don’t actually go so far as out right refusal of a parent’s demand to opt out their children.

 

That’s especially true in states where the right to opt out is codified in the law.

 

Three states – California, Utah, and Wisconsin – have enacted legislation permitting parents to opt their children out of standardized tests. However, at least five others, including my home of Pennsylvania, have laws respecting parents’ opt-out wishes for certain reasons. In others states there may not be specific legislation permitting it, but none have laws forbidding it either. At worst, test refusal is an act of civil disobedience like tearing down a confederate monument or freedom rides.

 

In Pennsylvania, the school code specifies that parents can refuse the test for their children for “religious reasons.” Those reasons and the religion in question never need be named. Citing “religious reasons” is rationale enough.

 

Consider:

 

“PA School Code Chapter 4.4(d):

 

(4)  …If upon inspection of a State assessment parents or guardians find the assessment to be in conflict with their religious belief and wish their students to be excused from the assessment, the right of the parents or guardians will not be denied upon written request that states the objection to the applicable school district superintendent, charter school chief executive officer or AVTS director.”

 

So when a parent provides just such an objection, it’s there in black and white that administrators must comply with that request.

 

However, some administrators are trying to game the system. When the other students are taking the state standardized test, the opt out students are rounded up and forced instead to take a district created assessment that just so happens to look almost exactly like the test their parents explicitly asked they not be subjected to.

 

So in my state, some parents have opted their children out of the Pennsylvania System of School Assessment (PSSA) or Keystone Exams, but administrators are requiring them instead to take an assessment they cobbled together themselves that closely resembles the PSSA and/or Keystone Exam.

 

They take a little bit from the PSSA, a bit from the Partnership for Assessment of Reading Readiness for College and Careers (PARRC) test, a question or two from the Scholastic Assessment Test (SAT) and voila! A brand new Frankenstein’s monster of standardized assessment.

 

But that’s not all. Some districts go one step further. They tie the results of this bogus “district” assessment with class placement. The results of the faux test are used to determine whether students are placed in the remedial, academic or the honors class in a given subject (English Language Arts, Math or Science) in the next grade.

 

Does that violate the law? Parents did not want their children to be assessed with a standardized test, and that’s exactly what the school did anyway. The only difference is the name of the standardized test they used.

 

I am not a lawyer, but I’ve contacted several. The answer I’ve gotten is that this may not be technically illegal, but it does at least violate the spirit of the law.

 

Districts are given a certain latitude to determine their own curriculum and assessments. This kind of runaround is ugly, petty and possibly just on the line of legality.

 

But our administrators are not done. Not only are they requiring such students to take a cobbled together standardized assessment, when children are done, they are forced to do hours of test prep for the state assessment that their parents refused for them.

 

Imagine opting out of the PSSA and then being forced to spend that time preparing for that very test. Imagine refusing to allow your children to take the Keystone Exam but then having them forced to prepare for it instead.

 

Petty, small-minded, punitive and – in this case – possibly illegal.

 

The school code is specifically against this. From the same section (4.4):

 

“(d) School entities shall adopt policies to assure that parents or guardians have the following:

 

(3) …The right to have their children excused from specific instruction that conflicts with their religious beliefs, upon receipt by the school entity of a written request from the parent or guardians.”

 

Again, I am not a lawyer, but it seems pretty clear that this, at least, is a violation of the law.

 

They can request their children not be given specific instruction – in this case test prep. Yet that’s exactly what administrators are doing anyway.

 

So what are opt out parents to do? Should they lawyer up?

 

Possibly. Though no one likes to have to take their own school to court. Any monetary damages thus recovered come from the collective pot that should go to help all students learn. It’s unfortunate that some administrators play so freely with taxpayer dollars when it would be a simple matter to safeguard them AND respect parental rights.

 

A better course of action may be for opt out parents in such situations to seek redress directly from the school board.

 

School directors are elected officials, after all. They may not be appraised of the actions of the administrators in their employ.

 

And that is really where the buck stops. If school directors don’t approve of this sort of chicanery, they can easily put a stop to it.

 

These are public schools. They are supposed to be run by the public. Our democracy is supposed to be what defines us. We are run by the people, for the people.

 

We’re not some charter school where school directors are appointed to their positions, hold their meetings in private and rarely if ever have to account for their decisions.

 

It’s shocking that in an age when public schools are often set against privatized ones that we’d allow such foolishness.

 

We need to set ourselves apart. Instead of denying parental requests, we should go out of our way to accommodate them.

 

Parents could, after all, remove their children and try their luck elsewhere.

 

At charter schools, they would probably get an even worse welcome. After all, most such schools pride themselves on their test scores and test prep curriculum having kicked out any students who don’t score well.

 

However, parents of means could enroll their children in private or parochial schools that are not required by law to even take these high stakes tests.

 

I’m not recommending that course of action. These schools are expensive, restrictive, insular and extremely racially and economically segregated.

 

But how short sighted must public school administrators be if they play these sorts of games with parents and children in just such an environment?

 

Any public school leader who wars against opt outs is participating in their own schools demise.

 

This is doubly so at schools serving high poverty populations.

 

Children of the poor and minorities historically get lower test scores than those from wealthier families. These tests are used to justify budget cuts and firing school staff – including these administrators.

 

Opting out of testing is one way to deny this data to the state so that they can’t use it against the school.

 

Certainly having high numbers of students opting out can, itself, become an excuse for punitive action from the state. But nowhere in the country has it ever actually happened.

 

State legislatures, too, are run by majority rule. The same with the federal government.

 

Our lawmakers have no authority to tell voters they can’t opt their children out of testing. It is the voters who are the boss.

 

We’d all best remember that.


 

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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Diane Ravitch’s New Book is a Fun and Breezy Romp Through the Maze of School Policy

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Imagine you could talk with Diane Ravitch for 10 to 15 minutes everyday.

 
That’s kind of what reading her new book, “The Wisdom and the Witt of Diane Ravitch”, is like.

 
You’ve probably heard of Ravitch before.

 

She’s the kindly grandmother you see on the news who used to think standardized tests and school privatization were the way to go but actually had the courage to pull an about face.

 

She’s that rare thing in public policy – a person with the honesty to admit when she was wrong — and even lead the resistance to everything she used to believe in!

 

Now she champions teacher autonomy, fair and equitable school funding and authentic public schools with duly-elected school boards.

 

Her new book is full of shorter pieces by the education historian from all over the mass media – The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, Huffington Post and even her own blog.

 
You’ll find an article explaining why she changed her mind about school reform nestled next to a reflection on what it’s like to grow up Jewish in Texas. Here’s a succinct take down of President Obama’s Race to the Top next to an article extolling the virtues of student activism in Providence. Ever wonder what Ravitch would say to her mentor Lamar Alexander about our current Education Secretary Betsy DeVos? It’s in there. Ever wonder what books on education she would recommend? It’s in there.

 
This new book from Garn Press is more personal than anything I’ve seen from Ravitch on the shelves before. And that’s because it’s not part of a sustained argument like “The Life and Death of the Great American School System,” or “Reign or Error.” It’s a collection of vignettes taken from the last decade of her writing. These are flashes of inspiration, snippets of thoughts, bursts of criticism and humor.

 
They’re perfect for perusing and really quite addictive.

 
I found myself jumping from an article in the first 20 pages to one at the end to another in the middle. There’s no reason any of it needs to be read chronologically though they are organized in the order of publication.

 
It’s really a lot like talking to Diane, something that I’ve had the privilege to do on a few occasions. Like any conversation, topics come up organically and you go from one to another without rhyme or reason.

 

 

At least that’s how I read the book.

 
It would be perfect in your school’s teachers lounge. Educators could pick it up at lunch or during their planning periods and use it as a springboard to talk about almost any issue that comes up during the day.

 
Well, it would be perfect if we ever actually had that kind of time.

 
I found myself repeatedly interrupted when trying to read it. But that’s actually not a problem. Given the brevity of the articles and their impressive concision, it doesn’t matter if you have to put a bookmark in the middle of a chapter here or there. It’s easy to pick up the thread and continue later.

 
There are so many highlights, but one of my favorites is “Don’t Like Betsy DeVos? Blame the Democrats” where she writes:

 

 

“I contend that it is immoral, unjust, and inequitable to advocate for policies that hurt 95% of students so that 5% can go to a private school. It is even more unjust to destabilize an entire school district by introducing a welter of confusing choices, including schools that open and close like day lilies. Why don’t the advocates of school choice also advocate for funding to replace the money removed from the public schools?”

 
Or how about “Flunking Arne Duncan”? I must admit, the title alone made my heart give a little cheer. Ravitch gives the former Education Secretary the following report card which deserves to be blown up to poster size and displayed in every classroom in the country:

 

 

“Report Card: Arne Duncan
Fidelity to the Constitution                                       F
Doing what’s right for children                               F
Doing what’s right for public education                F
Respecting the limits of federalism                        F
Doing what’s right for teachers                               F
Doing what’s right for education                            F”

 
As a public school teacher, I must admit getting an inordinate amount of pleasure from Ravitch’s criticism of the fools and frauds writing school policy. But she has a lot to say on so many subjects – standardized testing, Common Core, even the basic greed underlying the whole political mess.

 
Consider this gem from “What Powerful and Greedy Elites are Hiding When They Scapegoat the Schools”:

 

 

“I have nothing against the wealthy. I don’t care that some people have more worldly goods than others. I understand that life’s not fair. I just harbor this feeling that a person ought to be able to get by on $100 million or so and not keep piling up riches while so many others don’t know how they will feed their children tonight.”

 
I could offer a dozen more quotes from the book. My copy looks like a rainbow with all the different colored highlights I’ve made through its 451 pages.

 
So if you want my advice, go out and buy “The Wisdom and Wit of Diane Ravitch.” It’s a fun and breezy romp through the maze of school policy.

 
Just keep a good supply of highlighters and bookmarks handy.


 

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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Standardized Testing is a Tool of White Supremacy

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Let’s say you punched me in the face.

 

I wouldn’t like it. I’d protest. I’d complain.

 

And then you might apologize and say it was just an accident.

 
Maybe I’d believe you.

 

Until the next time when we met and you punched me again.

 

That’s the problem we, as a society, have with standardized tests.

 

We keep using them to justify treating students of color as inferior and/or subordinate to white children. And we never stop or even bothered to say, “I’m sorry.”

 

Fact: black kids don’t score as high on standardized tests as white kids.

 

It’s called the racial achievement gap and it’s been going on for nearly a century.

 

Today we’re told that it means our public schools are deficient. There’s something more they need to be doing.

 
But if this phenomenon has been happening for nearly 100 years, is it really a product of today’s public schools or a product of the testing that identifies it in the first place?

 

After all, teachers and schools have changed. They no longer educate children today the same way they did in the 1920s when the first large scale standardized tests were given to students in the US. There are no more one-room schoolhouses. Kids can’t drop out at 14. Children with special needs aren’t kept in the basement or discouraged from attending school. Moreover, none of the educators and administrators on the job during the Jazz Age are still working.
 

Instead, we have robust buildings serving increasingly larger and more diverse populations. Students stay in school until at least 18. Children with special needs are included with their peers and given a multitude of services to meet their educational needs. And that’s to say nothing of the innovations in technology, pedagogy and restorative justice discipline policies.

 

But standardized testing? That hasn’t really changed all that much. It still reduces complex processes down to a predetermined set of only four possible answers – a recipe good for guessing what a test-maker wants more than expressing a complex answer about the real world. It still attempts to produce a bell curve of scores so that so many test takers fail, so many pass, so many get advanced scores, etc. It still judges correct and incorrect by reference to a predetermined standard of how a preconceived “typical” student would respond.

 

Considering how and why such assessments were created in the first place, the presence of a racial achievement gap should not be surprising at all. That’s the result these tests were originally created to find.

 

Modern testing comes out of Army IQ tests developed during World War I.

 
In 1917, a group of psychologists led by Robert M. Yerkes, president of the American Psychological Association (APA), created the Army Alpha and Beta tests. These were specifically designed to measure the intelligence of recruits and help the military distinguish those of “superior mental ability” from those who were “mentally inferior.”
 

These assessments were based on explicitly eugenicist foundations – the idea that certain races were distinctly superior to others.
 
In 1923, one of the men who developed these intelligence tests, Carl Brigham, took these ideas further in his seminal work A Study of American Intelligence. In it, he used data gathered from these IQ tests to argue the following:
 

 

“The decline of American intelligence will be more rapid than the decline of the intelligence of European national groups, owing to the presence here of the negro. These are the plain, if somewhat ugly, facts that our study shows. The deterioration of American intelligence is not inevitable, however, if public action can be aroused to prevent it.”

 

 
Thus, Yerkes and Brigham’s pseudoscientific tests were used to justify Jim Crow laws, segregation, and even lynchings. Anything for “racial purity.”
 

People took this research very seriously. States passed forced sterilization laws for people with “defective” traits, preventing between 60,000 and 70,000 people from “polluting” America’s ruling class.
 
The practice was even upheld by the US Supreme Court in the 1927 Buck v. Bell decision. Justices decided that mandatory sterilization of “feeble-minded” individuals was, in fact, Constitutional.

 
Of the ruling, which has never been explicitly overturned, Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes wrote, “It is better for all the world, if instead of waiting to execute degenerate offspring for crime, or to let them starve for their imbecility, society can prevent those who are manifestly unfit from continuing their kind…. Three generations of imbeciles are enough.”
 

Eventually Brigham took his experience with Army IQ tests to create a new assessment for the College Board – the Scholastic Aptitude Test – now known as the Scholastic Assessment Test or SAT. It was first given to high school students in 1926 as a gatekeeper. Just as the Army intelligence tests were designed to distinguish the superior from the inferior, the SAT was designed to predict which students would do well in college and which would not. It was meant to show which students should be given the chance at a higher education and which should be left behind.
 

And unsurprisingly it has always – and continues to – privilege white students over children of color.

 
The SAT remains a tool for ensuring white supremacy that is essentially partial and unfair – just as its designers always meant it to be.
 
Moreover, it is the model by which all other high stakes standardized tests are designed.

 
But Brigham was not alone in smuggling eugenicist ideals into the education field. These ideas dominated pedagogy and psychology for generations until after World War II when their similarity to the Nazi philosophy we had just defeated in Europe dimmed their exponents’ enthusiasm.
 

Another major eugenicist who made a lasting impact on education was Lewis Terman, Professor of Education at Stanford University and originator of the Stanford-Binet intelligence test. In his highly influential 1916 textbook, The Measurement of Intelligence he wrote:
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“Among laboring men and servant girls there are thousands like them [feebleminded individuals]. They are the world’s “hewers of wood and drawers of water.” And yet, as far as intelligence is concerned, the tests have told the truth. … No amount of school instruction will ever make them intelligent voters or capable voters in the true sense of the word.

… The fact that one meets this type with such frequency among Indians, Mexicans, and negroes suggests quite forcibly that the whole question of racial differences in mental traits will have to be taken up anew and by experimental methods.

Children of this group should be segregated in special classes and be given instruction which is concrete and practical. They cannot master, but they can often be made efficient workers, able to look out for themselves. There is no possibility at present of convincing society that they should not be allowed to reproduce, although from a eugenic point of view they constitute a grave problem because of their unusually prolific breeding” (91-92).

 

This was the original justification for academic tracking. Terman and other educational psychologists convinced many schools to use high-stakes and culturally-biased tests to place “slow” students into special classes or separate schools while placing more advanced students of European ancestry into the college preparatory courses.

 
The modern wave of high stakes testing has its roots in the Reagan administration – specifically the infamous propaganda hit piece A Nation at Risk: The Imperative for Education Reform.

 
In true disaster capitalism style, it concluded that our economy was at risk because of poor public schools. Therefore, it suggested circumventing the schools and subordinating them to a system of standardized tests, which would be used to determine everything from teacher quality to resource allocation.

 
It’s a bizarre argument, but it goes something like this: the best way to create and sustain a fair educational system is by rewarding “high-achieving” students.
 

So we shouldn’t provide kids with what they need to succeed. We should make school a competition where the strongest get the most and everyone else gets a lesser share.

 
And the gatekeeper in this instance (as it was in access to higher education) is high stakes testing. The greater the test score, the more funding your school receives, the lower class sizes, the wider curriculum, more tutors, more experienced and well compensated teachers, etc.
 

It’s a socially stratified education system completely supported by a pseudoscientific series of assessments.

 
After all, what is a standardized test but an assessment that refers to a specific standard? And that standard is white, upper class students.
 
In his book How the SAT Creates Built-in-Headwinds, national admissions-test expert, Jay Rosner, explains the process by-which SAT designers decide which questions to include on the test:

 

“Compare two 1998 SAT verbal [section] sentence-completion items with similar themes: The item correctly answered by more blacks than whites was discarded by [the Educational Testing Service] (ETS), whereas the item that has a higher disparate impact against blacks became part of the actual SAT. On one of the items, which was of medium difficulty, 62% of whites and 38% of African-Americans answered correctly, resulting in a large impact of 24%…On this second item, 8% more African-Americans than whites answered correctly…”

 
In other words, the criteria for whether a question is chosen for future tests is if it replicates the outcomes of previous exams – specifically tests where students of color score lower than white children. And this is still the criteria test makers use to determine which questions to use on future editions of nearly every assessment in wide use in the US.
 

Some might argue that this isn’t racist because race was not explicitly used to determine which questions would be included. Yet the results are exactly the same as if it were.

 
Others want to reduce the entire enterprise to one of social class. It’s not students of color that are disadvantaged – it’s students living in poverty. And there is overlap here.
 

Standardized testing doesn’t show academic success so much as the circumstances that caused that success or failure. Lack of proper nutrition, food insecurity, lack of prenatal care, early childcare, fewer books in the home, exposure to violence – all of these and more combine to result in lower academic outcomes.

 

But this isn’t an either/or situation. It’s both. Standardized testing has always been about BOTH race and class. They are inextricably entwined.

 
Which leads to the question of intention.

 
If these are the results, is there some villain laughing behind the curtain and twirling the ends of a handlebar mustache?
 

Answer: it doesn’t matter.
 

As in the entire edifice of white supremacy, intention is beside the point. These are the results. This is what a policy of high stakes standardized testing actually does.
 

Regardless of intention, we are responsible for the results.
 

If every time we meet, you punch me in the face, it doesn’t matter if that’s because you hate me or you’re just clumsy. You’re responsible for changing your actions.
 
And we as a society are responsible for changing our policies.

 
Nearly a century of standardized testing is enough.

 
It’s time to stop the bludgeoning.
 
It’s time to treat all our children fairly.
 

It’s time to hang up the tests.

 


NOTE: This article expands upon many ideas I wrote about in an article published this week in Public Source.


 

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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School Accountability Begins With the People Who Make the Rules: A Code of Conduct for Politicians and Test Makers

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Standardized testing is all about accountability.
 

We’ve got to keep schools accountable for teaching.
 

We’ve got to keep students accountable for learning.

 
It’s kind of a crazy idea when you stop to think about it – as if teachers wouldn’t teach and students wouldn’t learn unless someone was standing over them with a big stick. As if adults got into teaching because they didn’t want to educate kids or children went to school because they had no natural curiosity at all.
 

So we’ve got to threaten them into getting in linestudents, teachers: march!

 
But that’s not even the strangest part. It’s this idea that that is where accountability stops.

 
No one has to keep the state or federal government accountable for providing the proper resources.

 
No one has to keep the testing companies accountable for creating fair and accurate assessments.

 
It’s just teachers and students.
 

So I thought I’d fix that with a “Code of Conduct for Politicians and Test Makers.”

 
After all, that’s what we do when we want to ensure someone is being responsible – we remind them of their responsibilities.
 

You see, the state and federal government are very concerned about cheating.

 
Not the kind of cheating where the super rich pay off lawmakers to rig an accountability system against the poor and minorities. No. Just the kind of cheating where teachers or students try to untie their hands from behind their backs.

 
They’re very concerned about THAT.

 
When you threaten to take away a school’s funding and fire teachers based on test scores, you tend to create an environment that encourages rampant fraud and abuse.

 
So the government requires its public servants to take on-line courses in the ethics of giving standardized tests. We have to sit through canned demonstrations of what we’re allowed to do and what we aren’t allowed to do. And when it’s all over, we have to take a test certifying that we understand.
 

Then after we proctor an exam, we have to sign a statement swearing that we’re abiding by these rules to ensure “test security.”
 

This year, for the first time, I’m supposed to put my initials on the answer sheets of all of my students’ Pennsylvania System of School Assessment (PSSA) tests to prove….  I don’t know. That I was there and if anything went wrong, it’s my fault. Burn the witch. That sort of thing.

 
Even our students have to demonstrate that they’re abiding by the rules. Children as young as five have to mark a bubble on their test signifying that they’ve read and understood the Code of Conduct for Test Takers.
 

I still don’t understand how that’s Constitutional.

 
Forcing children to sign a legal document without representation or even without their parents or guardians present – it sure looks like a violation of their civil rights.
 

But that’s what accountability looks like when you only require certain people to be accountable.

 
So back to my crazy idea.
 

Perhaps the corporate flunkies actually designing and profiting off these tests should be held accountable, too. So should lawmakers requiring all this junk.
 

Maybe they should have to sign a “Code of Conduct for Politicians and Test Makers” modeled after the one the rest of us peons have to use to sign our lives away.
 

Here’s how it might look:

 

CODE OF CONDUCT FOR POLITICIANS AND TEST MAKERS:

 

Do…

 

 

-Listen to the complaints, concerns and criticisms of parents, teachers and students about the questions and assessments you’re creating.

 
Ask advice from education researchers and all stakeholders to ensure the questions you’re designing are backed up by psychological, neurological, sociological and all associated research on child development.

 
-Read each question you create carefully to ensure it is not simply multiple choice and instead assesses deeper understanding of concepts and skills. Also be sure that all open ended items and writing prompts allow for a multitude of answers and don’t simply ask the test taker to guess what the test maker is thinking.

-Be careful when writing your questions to make sure you have NOT left misspellings or grammatical mistakes in place that would unnecessarily increase confusion for test takers and thereby invalidate the results.

 
Check and double check to make sure you have created a fair and accurate assessment before giving it to students to evaluate their learning.

 
-Report any suspected cheating to a certified watchdog group and the media if you find any evidence or have any suspicion that anyone has created test items purely to enrich the corporation you work for or the privatization-testing-prison industrial complex.

 
-If you’re a lawmaker who’s voted for annual testing, take the assessment annually yourself to prove that it is an adequate test of basic student knowledge of which as a duly elected representative you should clearly pass. Publish your score prominently in the media to prove the test’s efficacy.
 

DO NOT…

 

 

-Have notes in your possession from special interests such as (but not limited to) the testing corporations, the publishing industry and/or the ed tech industry before, during or after voting for legislation that promotes the very same standardized testing and testing remediation on which these industries profit.
 

-Have any (approved or otherwise) electronic devises that tabulate previous test questions and prescribe reusing those that have resulted in answer curves consistent with previous tests thereby continuing the trend of selecting against students of color, the poor and other groups and/or subgroups.

 
-Share inside information about the test or previous test questions with anyone that you do not also make freely available to the public. It is not your job to create a remediation market and/or cash in on the testing apparatus you are creating.
 

-Dissuade students from talking with others about  questions after the test. They are human beings with rights. It is perfectly natural for them to talk and harmless for them to do so after a testing session is over.

 

 
-Take notes on individuals criticizing or opting out of testing with the purpose of punishing them for their dissent. This is a democratic process and you will welcome discussion, criticism and dissent.
 
-Use the bubbles in the answer booklet for anything at all. In fact, throw them away. It’s 2019. Surely we can find a better way to assess children than multiple choice questions answered by filling in bubbles on a sheet of paper with a number 2 pencil!

 
Conduct an online testing session unless you are 100% positive that the information input by the students and collected about the students is secure, will be secure and cannot be shared with advertisers, corporations or any other entity, and only with a certainty that this data will not be put in any database in a manner that could identify individual test takers or otherwise violate privacy laws.
 
-In fact, you know what? Don’t use standardized tests at all to assess student learning – especially not connected to high stakes. Instead rely on classroom grades and teacher observations for student assessment. Use indexes and audits of school resources to determine whether they are doing their best to teach students and whether lawmakers have done enough to ensure they are receiving fair and equitable resources.
 

 

What do you think? Would any of them sign off on this?

 


 

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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Who’s Afraid of Public Schools?

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Public schools are the bogeymen of American life.

 
We so often hear the bedtime story of “Failing Schools” that it’s no wonder some folks will do anything to ensure their kids get in elsewhere.

 
And let’s be honest. It’s the same impulse behind the latest college admissions cheating scandal.

 
A group of wealthy – though not too wealthy – parents thought their children should be able to enroll in the most prestigious schools.

 
So they bribed college admissions officers, cheated on standardized tests or paid coaches or other officials to accept their children as college athletes even if their kids had never played the sport.

 
We see the same kind of thing everyday in public schools – a confederacy of white parents terrified that their kids might have to go to class with black kids. So they dip into their stock portfolios to pay for enrollment at a private or parochial school.

 
Or they take advantage of a tax scholarship or school voucher to avoid an institution with low test scores by enrolling in one where students don’t have to take the tests at all.

 
Or they cross their fingers and enter their kid in a lottery to a charter school praying their precious progeny will escape the horrors of being treated just like everyone else’s kids.

 
And they call it a meritocracy!

 
What a joke!

 
They pretend that their children have earned special treatment.

 
WRONG.

 
No child deserves favoritism – paradoxically –  because all children do!

 
There are really two important but related points here:

 
1)  The children of the privileged don’t deserve a better education than anyone else’s.

 

2)  Children who come from wealthy families (and or from privileged social circumstances) don’t do anything to distinguish themselves from the underprivileged.

 
But these nouveau riche parents tried to bribe the way forward for their kids anyway even though to do so they had to launder the money through a fake “charity.” They didn’t care that doing so would earn them a tax deduction and thus result in even less money for the underprivileged. They didn’t care about the underlying inequalities in the system. No. They only wanted their children to remain in the class of America’s chosen few.

 
And the best way to do that is with cold, hard cash.

 
America doesn’t run on Dunkin. It runs on greenbacks. Dinero. Swag. Bling. The prosperity doctrine made physical, quantifiable and mean.

 
No one really denies that there are two Americas anymore. We just lie to ourselves about how you get placed in one or the other.

 
And that lie is called excellence, quality, worth – the ultimate in class war gaslighting.

 
It’s a deception that this scandal has shattered to pieces.

 
The privileged don’t earn their privilege. It’s not something they possess on the basis of intelligence or hard work shown through test scores. They don’t have it because of drive, determination or grit – once again shown through test scores. They have it based on wealth – the kind of wealth that buys time and resources to either pass the tests or bribe the gatekeepers to change the scores.

 
Think about it.

 
George W. Bush got into Yale and Harvard and graduated with a 2.35 GPA. Why? Not because he had the grades and demonstrated his worth. He was a legacy. Like at least one third of all admissions to Ivy League schools, he got in purely because he had family who graduated from there.

 
You think Donald Trump threatened the College Board not to release his grades because they were all A’s!?

 
According to one account, his scores were merely “respectable.” Yet he still dropped out of the prestigious Fordham University and transferred to the University of Pennsylvania after two years based on family connections and the reputation of his father, Fred Trump, one of the wealthiest businessmen in New York at the time.

 
Moreover, his kids, Don Jr. and Ivanka, were both enrolled at Penn around the same time as their father made hefty contributions. They began classes in 1996 and 2000, respectively, just as the university and its private Manhattan clubhouse received more than $1.4 million in pledged donations from Trump, the school newspaper reported.

 

This is not merit. This has nothing to do with what these people deserve. It is money – a pure transaction, you scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours.

 
The only thing that separates what the Trumps and the Bushes did with this latest scandal – the so-called Operation Varsity Blues – is the amount of wealth involved.
If you’re super rich, you can get away with it. If you’re just rich, you’d better not get caught.

 
And if you’re poor or middle class, you’d better stay in your lane.

 
But there shouldn’t be any lanes on this highway. Or at least they should only be in place to maximize fairness and student success.

 
We sneer at the idea of Affirmative Action but only because it’s directed at people of color. No one says anything about the real Affirmative Action that’s been in place since before our country even began – the system of reciprocity and privilege keeping wealthy white families in positions of power like Lords and Ladies while the rest of us serfs scramble for their leavings.

 
All children deserve the same opportunities to succeed. All children deserve the chance to get an excellent education. All children should attend a first class school filled with highly educated and experienced teachers who can draw on plenty of resources, wide curriculum, tutoring, counseling and support.

 
And the only way we’ll ever achieve that is through a robust system of public schools.

 
I’m not saying they’re perfect. In many neighborhoods, they’ve been sabotaged and surgically dismantled, but that’s a problem with an easy solution. Invest in public schools!

 
Because the stated purpose of public education, the reason it exists at all, is equity.
The alternatives – private and charter schools – are essentially unequal.  That’s their raison d’êtreto create a market that justifies their existence.

 
In order for charter and private schools to be a thing, there must be schools that don’t otherwise meet students’ needs. There must be an unreasonable demand that schools indoctrinate students into parents’ religious beliefs. There must be schools that aren’t as well funded or that have to meet ridiculous federal and state mandates.

 
The result is a two-tiered system. Schools for the haves and for the have-nots.
It’s an apparatus that perverts the public to make room for the private.

 
In the public system, students are segregated into communities based on race and class and then their community schools are funded based on what their parents can afford. The rich shower their children with the best of everything. The poor do what they can.

 
Then the federal government pretends to hold everyone “accountable” by forcing students to take standardized tests that merely recreate the economic and racial disparities already present in their districts and neighborhoods. In turn, this provides the justification for charter and voucher schools that further erode public school budgets and increases the downward spiral of disinvestment.

 

 

Meanwhile, few notice how the equity built into authentic public schools gets left behind by those enrolling in privatized alternatives. No more open meetings. No more elected school boards. No more public comment or even a voice in how the money is spent.
 

So long as there are two Americas, the fear of being in the wrong one will motivate the privileged to cheat and steal their way to the top. They will horde resources and wealth for themselves and their children while denying it to others.

 
It is a self-perpetuating system – a loop that we’re all caught in.
We must break the chain. We must recognize our common humanity and stop the zero sum game.

 
And perhaps the best way to begin is by supporting authentic public schools and not privatization.

 
We have been taught to fear public education, because it is really our only hope.

 


 

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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Hey, Teachers’ Unions, Let’s Get This One Right – No Early Presidential Endorsements & Lots of Membership Engagement

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Let’s not mince words.

 

The last Presidential election was a cluster.

 

And we were at least partially to blame for it.

 

The Democratic primary process was a mess, the media gave free airtime to the most regressive candidate, and our national teachers unions – the National 
Education Association (NEA) and American Federation of Teachers (AFT) – endorsed a Democratic challenger too early and without getting membership support first.

 

This time we have a chance to get it right.

 

Edu-blogger Peter Greene spoke my feelings when he took to Twitter:

 

“Just so we’re clear, and so we don’t screw it up again—- NEA and AFT, please wait at least a couple more weeks before endorsing a Democratic Presidential candidate for 2020.”

 

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He’s being snarky.

 
No one would endorse two years before people actually enter a voting booth.

 
But fairness. Evenhandedness. Moderation.

 
Let’s be honest. That didn’t happen in 2015.

 
So let’s take a brief trip down memory lane and review our history for just a moment in order to prevent these same mistakes.

 

The NEA represents 3 million educators. It is the largest labor union in the country. However only about 180 people made the decision to back Hillary Clinton last time around.

 

In October of 2015, the NEA Board of Directors voted 118 to 39 in favor of the endorsement with 8 abstentions and 5 absences.

 

The 74 member PAC Council voted to endorse Clinton with 82% in favor, 18% against and some of the largest delegations – California and New Jersey – abstaining.

 

Check my math here. So 61 PAC votes plus 118 Directors plus one President Lily Eskelsen Garcia equals 180 in favor.

 

That’s about .00006% of the membership.

 

We may call it such, but that is not an endorsement.

 

We need more than just the leadership to support a candidate. We need that to translate to actual votes.

 

When you circumvent membership, you see the result – Donald Trump.

 

To be fair, some NEA directors may have polled state union leaders. But according to NEA by-laws, the organization need go no further to obtain input from individual members for a primary endorsement. Even these straw polls are a formality.
The 8,000 strong Representative Assembly (RA) did not get a say. This larger body representing state and local affiliates did get to vote on an endorsement in the general election when the field was narrowed down to only two major candidates.

 

But anything like a poll of individual members was apparently not desired by leadership – now or later.

 

We can’t do that again.

 

The process at the AFT was likewise perplexing.

The AFT endorsed Clinton in July of 2015 – a half year before the primaries and more than a year before the general election.

 

This much seems certain:

 

1) The AFT executive board invited all of the candidates to meet with them and submit to an interview. No Republican candidates responded.

 

2) Democrats including Bernie Sanders, Martin O’Malley and Clinton were interviewed in private.

 

3) The executive committee voted to endorse Clinton.

 

4) THEN the interviews were released to the public.

 

How can the AFT claim its endorsement was a result of membership opinion when the organization didn’t even release the interviews to members until AFTER the endorsement?

 

Ostensibly, the executive council used these interviews to help make its decision. Shouldn’t that same information have been available to rank and file members of the union before an endorsement was made?

 

Which brings up another question: were AFT members asked AT ALL about who to endorse before the executive council made the final decision?

 

According to the AFT press release, they were:

 

“The AFT has conducted a long, deliberative process to assess which candidate would best champion the issues of importance to our members, their families and communities. Members have been engaged online, through the “You Decide” website, through several telephone town halls, and through multiple surveys—reaching more than 1 million members.

Additionally, over the past few weeks, the AFT has conducted a scientific poll of our membership on the candidates and key issues. The top issues members raised were jobs and the economy and public education. Seventy-nine percent of our members who vote in Democratic primaries said we should endorse a candidate. And by more than a 3-to-1 margin, these members said the AFT should endorse Clinton.”

 

So the AFT claims union members said to endorse Clinton on-line, on telephone town halls, surveys and a scientific poll of membership.

 

But did they really?

 

I’m not a member of the AFT but I know many teachers who are. Very few of them have ever been surveyed.

 

The press release says AFT members preferred Clinton 3-1. Yet to my knowledge they never released the raw data of any polls or surveys of membership.
This can’t happen again.

 
AFT President Randi Weingarten said something similar during an interview Friday on C-SPAN.

 

She said the executive council passed a four step process just last week to ensure members were behind whoever the union eventually endorsed this time around:

 

“Our Executive Council just passed a process last week which has four components. Number One is what do the members want? What are their aspirations? What are their needs in terms of Presidential candidates? And so we will be doing a lot of listening and engaging with members.

 

Number Two – There’s a lot of candidates that want access to our membership. What we would like them to spend a day with our members. We would like them to see the challenges in classrooms. The challenges that nurses have. [The AFT also represents nurses.] Listen to the challenges of adjunct professors who have student loan debt that is well beyond what salaries they get per month.

 

Number Three – People are really active these days. So we don’t want them to wait until there is a nationwide endorsement to involve or get engaged with candidates. So there’s going to be an ability to be involved or engaged as delegates to do these kinds of things.

 

Number Four – At one point or another we’ll get to an endorsement.”

 

Frankly, this seems kind of vague to me. I hope this new process gets better results than the last one.

 
We need to be able to trust our unions.

 
Don’t get me wrong. I love my union. I bleed collective bargaining and labor rights.

 
I teach in Homestead, Pennsylvania, just a few miles away from the site of the famous steel strike.

 
I want a union that represents me and my colleagues.

 
We must do better this time around.

 
We need a candidate that has broad popular support of members, not just leadership. Broad popular support will lead to engaged members at the polls and that engagement will translate into actual votes for our endorsed candidate.

 
So NEA and AFT leaders, your members want to know:
What is your process for selecting our next U.S. presidential candidate?

 
What questions will you ask potential candidates?

 
How will members have a democratic voice in the process?

 
Please be transparent and publish your process to share with members through multiple sources.

 
And my union brothers and sisters, get involved. Engage in the endorsement process now! Call on our NEA and AFT leadership to invite early and widespread, as well as transparent, involvement in the endorsement process.

 

 

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Do you know your NEA Board Members?

http://www.nea.org/home/1686.htm

 

NEA Leadership Contact INFO here:

http://www.nea.org/home/49809.htm

 

AFT Leadership:

https://www.aft.org/about/leadership

 

AFT Contact Info:

https://www.aft.org/contact

 
Let’s get it right this time.

 
Everything is riding on it.

 
Our vote is our future.


Special Thanks to Susan DuFresne for inspiring this article.


Still can’t get enough Gadfly? 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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