What if the high stakes tests were wrong? (A thought experiment)

what if

Prologue: What if, following the end of slavery with the Emancipation Proclamation, formerly enslaved black and brown people created an amazing resurgence of economic, educational and political successes? (They did). Would the elite in power squelch that budding success with New Jim Crow laws? And, what if to counter the gross systemic and violent inequities created by Jim Crow, decades later people fought back and demanded Civil Rights bills which included non- discriminatory hiring practices and desegregation in public spaces including public schools?  What if those new Civil Rights policies led to a rising black and brown middle class, and opportunities for success?  What if, decades later, there were a powerful elite who wished to re-segregate society and roll back the clock to a time of profound inequality that served to the advantage of a privileged few? How would the elite in power find ways around those Civil Rights anti-discriminatory policies?

In what ways might they accomplish that?

Meet the era of standardized testing. As the era of Civil Rights rolled forward from the 1960’ into the 1980’s, so did the era of A Nation at Risk and the need for standardized tests to address the “education crisis.”    BUT…WHAT IF?

What if—standardized tests were predicated on a philosophy of eugenics?

Eugenics theory uses “scientific” measures to “prove” that some people are inherently (by race, culture or even gender) not as genetically advanced as other. What if tests were designed in such a way to “prove” that?

It would suggest that only that which is on the test is worthwhile knowledge. Tests would be deliberately consutcrcted on knowledge already held by upper middle class whites, and as having greater worth than knowledge (or experiences) of that (those) who identify with other groups.

What if– the tests were constructed to be culturally and racially biased?

Then it would be predetermined from the outset that certain students would inherently do better than others.

For example:  “In NYC 26 Teachers and Staff of International High School at Prospect Heights refuse to give NYC ELA Performance Assessment Test becausethe test was constructed and formatted without any thought for the 14% of New York City students for whom English is not their first language. The level of English used in the pre-test administered in the Fall was so far above the level of our beginner ELLs that it provided little to no information about our students’ language proficiency or the level of their academic skills. Furthermore, the test was a traumatic and demoralizing experience for students. Many students, after asking for help that teachers were not allowed to give, simply put their heads down for the duration.  Some students even cried.”

What if– policy makers pushed an enormous campaign lauding these test-driven reforms as promoting “civil rights” and social justice?

Then they could deflect any accusations to the contrary despite any mounting evidence that such rhetoric is false. If they say it enough, at least everyone else will simply believe it.

What if– those (racially and biased by design) tests were used to measure student progress?

Then we would conclude that lower income students of color, students with different learning styles or needs, and English language learners were not learning as well as their white middle class counterparts. Correlation: either they’re just not as bright, they lack motivation, or their teachers are not good enough.

What if –-test-driven reform was designed to place the blame on the teacher or the learner to evade a real examination of institutional racism, class disparities, or other economic inequities that influence schools and learning?

It would detract us from seeking other ways of appreciating how and what students learn, or valuing their individual (and culturally diverse) strengths and assets. As a society we would not need to address real or significant changes to the existing socio-economic structural disparities of wealth and income in this country. Students and teachers would stand trial while the broader free market system hides in the shadows unchallenged.

What if –we promoted a public narrative that those test scores could “evidence” a schools success or failure, and rank schools accordingly?

Then people would not move into those communities with “poor performing” schools, which would drive down the property taxes (which are used to fund schools) so that schools in those (largely black and brown) communities would become perpetually underfunded and unable to provide quality resources and materials which lead to improved test scores. The only people left in those communities would be people financially unable to leave further diminishing the employment and economic resources available to those schools and communities

For example: Nationwide, the average low-income student attends a school that scores at the 42nd percentile on state exams, while the average middle/high-income student attends a school that scores at the 61st percentile on state exams. This school test-score gap is even wider between black and Latino students and white students. There is increasingly strong evidence—from this report and other studies—that low-income students benefit from attending higher-scoring schools.

What if– we used those tests to measure school success?

We would determine that schools with lower-income students of color and their teachers were under-achieving and in need of “correction.” This would mean a serious re-examination of the power or influence of unions and policies around teacher tenure (job security).

What if– those tests were used to construct policies of corrective measures?

Such policies would conclude that the teachers too are performing poorly and would be fired on the grounds of low student test scores. Those schools would be deemed failing. We could blame unions and tenure and thus abolish both.

What if those tests were used to drive away meaningful curriculum in favor of test preparation?

Then students who perform poorly on the tests would receive even more skill drill and kill instead of meaningful education, leading to greater disinterest and poor instruction, less critical thinking, arts, music, PE and other content that keep student interest. The cycle of “failure” would be deepened. More test prep for students “failing” the tests is like using leeches to treat a blood disease.

What if– test scores were used to then close schools?

Meaningful, successful public schools would cease to be viable options for students in economically disenfranchised communities and would be forced to attend corporate run charter schools which are not accountable for their quality. Segregation in these communities increases.

It would mean that entire communities would lose their right to a public education and be shuffled into privately managed segregated and poorly managed private charters. It would mean the disruption to entire communities, many of which are in the sights of real estate developers seeking to gentrify those neighborhoods.

What if– those tests were necessary to rationalize a public narrative that “proved” that certain people, schools, or communities were in need of surveillance and management because same students who performed poorly on those tests were the same students who received unfair disciplinary practices?

It would mean that over 70% of students involved in school-related arrests or referred to law enforcement are Hispanic or African-American. Additionally, students covered under IDEA are over twice as likely to receive one or more out-of-school suspensions

What if– we then used these disciplinary measures, which are correlated to the testing practices, to justify racist and classist assumptions about certain learners to maintain a system of inequities?

In the words of Ceresta Smith in a personal correspondence: “I discovered that by using the ‘achievement gap’ and standardized test scores for black and brown children, businessmen and politicians were able to usher in a set of market-based reforms that had the underlying mission of destroying public education while maximizing the profits of a selective group.”

What if we knew the tests are WRONG… and still used them? What reasons could there be?  

                                             Let’s Recap

WHAT IF: 1) we knew we could create tests that would pre determine who the winners and losers are going to be (based on things like gender, race, or ethnicity), and 2)  use those test scores to perpetuate a deliberate system of inequities that was constructed to suit the self- serving interests of powerful elite and corporate –driven ideology, and 3) created a curriculum that was so dis-interesting and so inappropriate that students of color and students with special needs dropped out in droves and found themselves pushed into the school to prison pipeline, thus 4) reducing the number of people competing for high income jobs in the workforce, reducing the number of people with voting rights because of incarceration records, and reducing the number of people who were critically empowered, and 5) such test scores could be used to blame educational failure on the heads of those same persons whom the system has failed and 6) detract us from focusing on growing economic disparities between rich and poor, and 7) use items 1-6 to roll back all the efforts created by the Civil Rights movements of the last 30 years (which is about when high stakes testing became the “solution” to our “woes”?

What if none of this was a coincidence?

And what if this were precisely the system we currently had in place? Because it is.

For a thorough analysis of how this is happening see Paul Thomas Becoming Radical. 



Published by educationalchemy

Morna McDermott has been an educator for over twenty years in both k-12 and post secondary classrooms. She received her doctorate in education, with a dissertation focus on arts-based educational research, from The University of Virginia in 2001. Morna's teaching, scholarship, and activism center around the ways in which creativity, art, social justice, and democracy can transform education and empower communities. She is currently a Professor of Education at Towson University.

2 thoughts on “What if the high stakes tests were wrong? (A thought experiment)

  1. Brilliantly laid out and factually completely correct. This is their 1984 mickey mouse attempt at total control in their run for Fascist Amerika which they almost completed. However, the wrenches are falling into their gears from many angles right now especially in L.A. with the exposure of the superintendent in Centinela Valley High School District with $773,000/year + in compensation. Now, with media on that people are coming out of the woodworks with other districts like Ontario-Montclaire where the average family income is under $19,000/year and the superintendent makes over $500,000 and they have board meetings in restaurants with steak dinners on credit cards. Guess who approved this? Why, the County Boards of Education have to approve every school districts budget or they cannot spend the money. And these are the same people who cannot find this or school districts in deep financial red ink for 3 of 4 years. Are we really supposed to trust them with the new funding formula in California legally written to eliminate accountability but which gives the local spending authority to parents.

    Now, the plan is to have districts buy iPads at, like LAUSD, $2,355 each on the 25-30 year credit card, go bankrupt, privatize school districts not schools, destroy and eliminate professional teaching and critical thinking and individual attention. Now we have Nazi Fascist Amerika and that is what LLoyd is talking about.

    Lloyd, you really understand the underlying game. Keep it up. Never give up. Watch what is going to happen soon. It is going to be fun.

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