By Jesse Hagopian, first published in The Progressive magazine
Corporate education reformers who seek to reduce teaching and learning to a single score are beginning to realize they are losing the public relations battle. Hundreds of thousands of families across the country are opting out in what has become largest revolt against high-stakes testing in U.S. history.
Because most of their arguments are increasingly discredited because of this uprising, they are desperately attempting to cling to one last defense of the need to subject our students to a multibillion-dollar testing industry.
Charles F. Coleman, Jr. supported this last ditch effort for the “testocracy” when he took up former Secretary of Education Arne Duncan’s argument that opposition to standardized testing was only from out of touch “white suburban moms.” Coleman has in the past written pieces in support of making black lives matter, but in this careless piece he dismissed the opt out movement as a privileged white effort:
Boycotting standardized tests may seem like a good idea, but hurts black learners most….White parents from well-funded and highly performing areas are participating in petulant, poorly conceived protests that are ultimately affecting inner-city blacks at schools that need the funding and measures of accountability to ensure any hope of progress in performance.
Here are six reasons why Coleman’s belief that opting out hurts students of color is fundamentally flawed and why his belief that accountability and academic success require high-stakes standardized testing is just plain old wrong.
1. Extreme over-testing disproportionately harms students of color.
Coleman admits in his essay, “there should be concerns raised over excessive testing and devoting too much classroom instruction to test prep.” But he doesn’t acknowledge how destructive excessive testing has become (especially for children of color) or credit the opt out movement for revealing the outsized role that testing is playing in education. No one — certainly not the media — would even be talking about the excessive testing in schools if it wasn’t for the opt out movement. And the amount of testing in the public schools today isn’t just excessive — it’s extreme. The average student today is subjected to 112 standardized tests between preschool and high school graduation!
But the crux of the issue is that the highest concentration of these tests are in schools serving low-income students and students of color. Schools that serve more black and brown students have become test-prep factories rather than incubators of creativity and critical thinking. The corporate education reformers behind high stakes testing, like Bill Gates, Eli Broad, and the Walton family want their own kids to have the time and support to explore the arts, music, drama, athletics, debate and engage in a rich curriculum of problem solving and critical thinking. Rote memorization for the next standardized tests is good enough for the rest of us.
2. Communities of color are increasingly joining and leading the opt out movement.
While it’s true that currently the students opting out are disproportionately white, to portray opting out as a white people thing is to make invisible the important leadership role that people of color have played around the country. Chicago Teachers Union president Karen Lewis, a black women, is one of the most important leaders in the country against corporate education reform, and she led the union in the “Let Us Teach!” campaign against high-stakes testing. The Black opt out rate reached 10 percent in Chicago last year. PTA co-chairs Đào X. Trần and Elexis Loubriel-Pujols at New York City’s Castlebridge Elementary School (comprising 72 percent students of color) led the opt out movement there. They gained national prominence and helped to ignite the opt out movement across the country in 2013 when more than 80 percent of families refused to allow their kids to take a standardized test. The school had to cancel the test altogether.
One of the largest student protests against high-stakes testing in U.S. history occurred last spring when many hundreds of students in New Mexico — at schools that served 90% Latino students — walked out of school and refused to take the new Common Core exams. In Ohio, a recent study shows that communities of color and low-income communities opt out at nearly the same rates as whiter and wealthier ones.
In my hometown, the Seattle/King County NAACP hosted a press conference last spring to encourage parents to opt out of the Common Core tests. As Seattle NAACP president Gerald Hankerson put it, “…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.”
Or check out the brilliant podcast, “These Tests Will Go,” The Opt-Out Movement in Urban Philadelphia, which documents the uprising of African American parents determined to make their kids more than a test score and fighting for the programs their kids deserve.
3. The federal government hasn’t punished schools for opting out.
Coleman argues that if the number of students taking the required standardized tests drops below 95 percent, the government can cut funding to schools, and that will be most damaging to students of color. However,the federal government has never — not even once — cut funds to a school district for its high opt out numbers. While No Child Left Behind initially had a provision for penalties against large opt out numbers, which carried over to the new Every Student Succeeds Act, the “testocracy” seems to be too afraid to use this clause.
Moreover, the opt out movement holds the potential to actually increase the amount of school funding. The many millions of dollars wasted on ranking and sorting our children with standardized tests every year could be spent on tutoring programs, counseling services, art teachers, nurses, librarians, music programs, ethnic studies classes, and many services our children deserve.
4.Test-and-Punish policies are cruel and inequitable.
High-stakes tests are being used around the country to label children and schools as failing, to prevent kids from graduating, to fire teachers, and to close schools. Chicago Board of Education voted in 2013 to close some 49 of the city’s public schools — schools that served approximately 87 percent black students. In 71 percent of the schools had a majority of teachers and staff were African-Americans. The standardized tests the students take register racial and class bias, measure the lack of resources available to schools, and then provide cover for shutting them down.
A review by the National Research Council concluded high school graduation tests have done nothing to lift student achievement, but they have raised the dropout rate. African American, Latino, American Indian and low-income students are far more likely to be denied a diploma for not passing a test. High stakes tests often inaccurately assess English language learners — measuring their understating of English and the dominant culture rather than the subject they are being tested in. Boston University economics professor Kevin Lang’s 2013 study, “The School to Prison Pipeline Exposed,” links increases in the use of high-stakes standardized high school exit exams to increased incarceration rates.
5) Standardized testing was invented by white supremacists and maintains institutional racism today.
Once you know the history of standardized tests in public schools, you can never fall for Coleman’s absurd assertion that, “boycotting standardized tests may seem like a good idea, but hurts black learners most.” Standardized tests first entered American public schools in the 1920s, at the urging of eugenicists whose pseudoscience proclaimed that white males were naturally smarter. As Rethinking Schools editorialized, “high-stakes standardized tests have disguised class and race privilege as merit ever since. The consistent use of test scores to demonstrate first a ‘mental ability’ gap and now an ‘achievement’ gap exposes the intrinsic nature of these tests: They are built to maintain inequality, not to serve as an antidote to educational disparities.”
One of these early eugenicists was Carl Brigham, a professor at Princeton University and author of the white supremacist manifesto, A Study of American Intelligence. Brigham developed the Scholastic Aptitude Test, known as the SAT. Some of the most important early voices in opposition to intelligence testing — especially in service of ranking the races — came from leading African American intellectuals such as W.E.B. Du Bois and Howard Long. Horace Mann Bond, in his work “Intelligence Tests and Propaganda,”noted in 1924 what today we call the “Zip Code Effect” — what standardized tests really measure is a student’s proximity to wealth and the dominant culture.
6. There are better ways than high stakes testing to improve education for children of color.
Coleman asserts that, “Standardized testing, albeit imperfect, remains one of the best ways to ensure that teachers, schools, and school districts are held accountable for making sure children are succeeding.” A huge body of evidence contradicts this statement, and points to the power of an inquiry based pedagogy, coupled with authentic forms of assessment. Take, for example, the New York Consortium Schools for Performance Based Assessment. These fully public schools have a waiver from state tests and instead use performance-based assessments. Students work with a faculty mentor to develop an idea, conduct research, and then defend a body of work to a panel of experts — including school administration, other teachers, and outside experts and practitioners in the field of study.
If the testocracy is right — if it’s true that high-stakes standardized testing is the key to improving accountability and performance — then these New York consortium schools that don’t give the state standardized test should be the very worst schools in New York City. However, comprehensives studies show Consortium Schools have higher graduation rates, better college attendance rates, and smaller gaps in outcomes between students of color and their white peers than the rest of New York’s public schools.
Conclusion: Hold the system accountable
Coleman’s arguments lamenting students of color score worse on the tests than their white peers — without acknowledging the ways in which systematic underfunding of schools, poverty, and institutional racism have disfigured our school system — end up pathologizing communities of color rather than supporting them. The U.S. school system is more segregated today than at any time since 1968. The majority of students attending public school in the U.S. today live in poverty. The school-to-prison-pipeline (including disproportionate suspension rates and the use of high-stakes testing) has contributed to the fact that there are now more black people behind bars, on probation, or on parole than were slaves on plantations in 1850. As education professor Pedro Noguera has said, “We’ve developed an accountability system that holds those with the most power the least accountable.”
Our task must be to build multiracial alliances in the opt out movement that can produce the kind of solidarity it will take to defeat a testing juggernaut that is particularly destructive to communities of color — while causing great damage to all of our schools. And while must begin by standing up to the multibillion dollar testing industry by opting out, we must also create a vision for an uprising that opts in to antiracist curriculum, ethnic studies programs, wrap around services to support the academic and social and emotional development of students, programs to recruit teachers of color, restorative justice programs that eliminate zero tolerance discipline practices, and beyond.
Now, back to writing that opt out letter for my son.
Jesse Hagopian is a Rethinking Schools editor and the Progressive Education Seattle Fellow. Jesse teaches history and is the co-adviser to the Black Student Union at Garfield High School–the site of the historic boycott of the MAP test in 2013. Jesse is the editor of More Than a Score: The New Uprising Against High-Stakes Testing. You can follow Jesse on his blog, IAmAnEducator.com, or on Twitter: @jessedhagopian