The Education Revolution will Not Be Standardized: The “Moral Imperative” of Testing Refusal


Let me start by suggesting something key that has not been articulated widely enough: All standardized testing is high stakes testing. If there were no stakes involved, why would corporate reformers and testing companies lobby tooth and nail to ensure standardized tests remain a central cornerstone of all education policies? At stake are billions of dollars for testing and data mining companies. The collection, ownership, and (mis)use of private student data is at stake. The future of students who are denied meaningful quality education in lieu of skill-drill and kill instruction is at stake. The use of testing data to assume the “value” of children according to race, culture, language and class is at stake.

And even if the standardized tests (in a reduced role returned to state level decision-making as Alexander and Murray seem to promise) are not used to evaluate teachers, retain students, or close schools, it is, and will continue to be, the weapon of choice of present day neoliberal corporate colonizers. Alexander, whose record of pro privatization, charters and support of the transpacific partnership should be warning flags to anything he promises because his actions mirror those of the counter revolutionaries who, as Hedges states, “churn out shadowy propaganda that the mainstream press runs uncritically,” while offering, “political alternatives that appear reformist but are ultimately under the control of the state” the goal of which is to “win back, or at least render passive, a disaffected population”(p. 94).

Reduced testing or non-high stakes will not accomplish the goals of the education revolution. For example, reduction of standardized testing is like being asked (if you were smashing me on the face with a hammer) if I would like you to hit me less. If that were the only choice then of course the answer would be “yes” but my preference would be not to be hit at all … or better yet to take away the hammer and destroy it.

If we are to imagine and create a system of public education which reflects the democratic, just, meaningful, and sustainable goals for all children, we must demand the elimination of standardized testing. Why? Because real change will not come through reform, reduction, or even resistance. It will come, as Chris Hedges argues, through the “moral imperative of revolt.” As such, Hedges suggests (citing Adam Ulam, 1998) “the revolt against any kind of oppression and injustice” requires “rejection of any palliative or halfway measures”

What will it take to convey to the public, especially leaders of some civil rights groups, that social justice can never be delivered by the same vehicle which perpetuates inequities in the first place? While the demands for equity and justice in a system which has never delivered on its democratic promise or resembled an anti-racist stance in education policy are vital and necessary, the history of standardized testing suggests its relationship to these goals has always been negative, rather than positive. Therefore, we must relinquish a reliance on a paradigm that was constructed by racists, positivists, elitists and social engineers. It requires, “abandoning the vocabulary of the ‘rational’ technocrats who rule” (Hedges, p.70). In other words, standardized testing “presents itself as the solution to the problem it perpetuates” (Hedges, p. 68).

It might be that certain organizational leaders have simply been co-opted. It might be that many have created corrupt relationships with government or corporate sponsors. “Those who do not carve out spaces separate from the state and its systems of power, those who cannot find room to become autonomous, or those who do not ‘live in truth’ inevitably become compromised” (Hedges, p. 96). Gates funding corrodes numerous labor or grass roots organizations supposedly dedicated to helping teachers, children and communities of color (the same groups most greatly harmed by standardized testing). But hopefully there are civil rights groups like the Seattle NAACP are fighting back against this narrative:

“…the Opt Out movement is a vital component of the Black Lives Matter movement and other struggles for social justice in our region. Using standardized tests to label Black people and immigrants ‘lesser,’ while systematically under-funding their schools, has a long and ugly history in this country.” -Gerald Hankerson, current President of the Seattle/King County NAACP “It was not until I was long out of school and indeed after the [first] World War that there came the hurried use of the new technique of psychological tests, which were quickly adjusted so as to put black folk absolutely beyond the possibility of civilization.” –W.E.B Du Bois, Co-founder of the NAACP

Even if the current “stakes” introduced in NCLB and furthered via RtTT are reduced or eliminated, the collection, ownership, and use of data is necessary to tie the global education initiative with the other facets of privatization. So the tests do, and will always, MATTER so long as they have any role in public education. And 21st century technology enables corporate education reformers to make this possible in ways that were not feasible mere decades ago. Just look at the few examples here:

  • In 2012 UNESCO and Brookings’s Center for Universal Education (CUE) joined efforts to convene a Learning Metrics Task Force that will investigate the feasibility of learning goals and targets to inform the post-2015 global development policy discourse”. There were three co-chairs representing the UN, the private sector and civil society including Sir Michael Barber, Chief Education Advisor at Pearson. The report claims that, “Exploring whether there is a discrete set of common learning goals that can be universally reached is an important step in shifting the education discourse toward access plus learning.”
  • In February 2014a report from UNESCO called Revolutionizing Data for Education-Challenges and Opportunities, summarizes ideas put forth during an event called the High Level Panel of Eminent Persons: “Prominent world development leaders including Bill Gates and the High-Level Panel of Eminent Persons who  have called for a ‘Data Revolution for Development’.  Bill Gates has noted, ‘From the fight against polio to fixing education, what’s missing is often good measurement and a commitment to follow the data. We can do better. We have the tools at hand.”
  • Formation of the Learning Curve Data Bank (LCDB):Developed by the Economist Intelligence Unit and published by Pearson, the report, entitled The Learning Curve outlines the main findings from analysis of a large body of internationally comparable education data.
  • The Economist Intelligence Unit: Clients include World Bank, Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. According to their website: The Economist Intelligence Unit helps business leaders prepare for opportunity, empowering them to act with confidence when making strategic decisions. The Economist Intelligence Unit prepares business leaders for opportunity. We accomplish this by delivering accurate and impartial forecasts and analysis which empower our clients to act with confidence when making strategic decisions.”

Ending testing is the not the goal of the revolution -it’s the key strategy for making revolution possible. To the mainstream media who distort the narrative to our testing refusal critics we must make clear: We are not “anti-testing” because we wish to shield our children from “difficult tasks” (though evidence that standardized testing causes unreasonable anxiety and emotional problems for children is well-documented and is worthy of serious address), nor are we are we afraid of evaluating teacher performance. We refuse the tests to deny them the data that makes the destruction of public education possible. Standardized testing costs monies that otherwise could be spent on libraries, counselors, and programs (or how about even food?). Standardized testing is directly connected with higher drop-out rates, behavioral and emotional distresses and the subsequent school-to-prison pipeline. Its tentacles directly and indirectly correlate with many other service sector neoliberal policies that are simultaneously dehumanizing us, disenfranchising our communities, and profiting the billionaire private sector monopolies.

Education reform is not happening in isolation. To revolt against testing as vehicle for the destruction of our schools, our communities and our children is to recognize that education is merely one piece to a bigger puzzle of corporate global control over our lives (energy, food, prisons, industry, etc etc).

The education revolution will not possible so long as the corporate agenda succeeds in convincing the public of our necessary dependency on it – the word dependency here suggests an addictive nature to the blind and destructive “need” for testing. See more on this idea here.  We must first reject this dependency. This will not be possible until we are able to let go of the false narrative that standardized testing has any genuine beneficial (there are some negotiable caveats of course) [1]use whatsoever or that it can ever live up to its promises. See the definition of insanity, also directly tied to dependency-thinking.
Standardized testing gives legitimacy (and profit motive) to an education system of corruption, destruction and colonization. Defense or support of it in any form (state or federal, annual or grade span, high stakes or so-called no stakes) perpetuates legitimacy of and lends aid to this corrupt system.  When the standardized testing mentality and practices are gone we can create spaces for the public education system we know is possible if we fight for it.

Hedges says it best:

“We live in a system that is incapable of reforming itself. The first step to dismantling that system is to dismantle the ideas that give it legitimacy. Once that is done, though the system may be able to cling to power through coercion and fear for years, it will have been given a mortal blow.” (p.97).

I’m ready to give corporate-sponsored destruction of our human and democratic rights the “mortal blow” it deserves. Are you?

[1] My one caveat to this statement would be support of the NAEP or something like it: done as random sampling and voluntary. See Richard Rothstein’s review of NAEP here.

Reference: Hedges, C. (2015). Wages of Rebellion: The Moral Imperative of Revolt.

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.

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