Manifest Destiny or Cultural Integrity?

I learned firsthand how standardized tests force students to accept a Eurocentric outlook.

By Reggoe Toussaint

Two summers ago I worked for Advanced Systems in Measurement and Evaluation in Dover, N.H. Advanced Systems, as we all referred to it, designs and scores standardized tests. The summer I worked there, the company had contracts with Maine, New Hampshire, Massachusetts, and Wyoming; the content areas I graded were reading, social studies, writing, and Spanish.

When I accepted the job, I welcomed the chance to learn the intricacies of standardized testing. However, as the summer progressed, I came to realize that standardized testing was not in the least bit fair. The questions themselves were extremely biased and the way they were graded did not take into account different forms of cultural expression.

I remember in particular an incident involving an eighth grade social studies test. Students were given a short passage to read and then asked to write an essay response. This particular question focused on Manifest Destiny. In order to receive a 4-point score (which was the best on our scale of 0-4), the student had to write an essay in which she/he gave two positive interpretations of Manifest Destiny along with two negative interpretations. Without those components, a student essay could not receive a four, no matter how well the essay was constructed .

I read many insightful answers that critiqued Manifest Destiny as an outlook that led to the dislocation and oppression of native peoples and that did nothing to preserve cultural diversity. The responses clearly fulfilled the negative interpretation requirement. But if a student did not address the positive interpretation requirement, she/he could not (by the definition of the scoring rubric) receive a perfect score.

I decided to bring this to the attention of Paul, the Quality Assurance Control person at my table. When I told him my concern, he responded, “Well, if the response doesn’t meet the requirements of the scoring rubric, it cannot receive the perfect score.”

I decided that if I was going to lose, I would at least go down with a fight. I made up an argument in one particular student’s defense. “Listen Paul, this student has most likely experienced the way in which Manifest Destiny has torn her culture apart,” I said. “She has given an insightful argument as to the effects of Manifest Destiny and the ways in which it has affected people she identifies with. Why should she be forced to accept a Eurocentric interpretation? Can’t I at least give her a four for her insightfulness and willingness to go out on a limb?”

Paul (who had a graduate degree from Boston University and was well indoctrinated into the ethos of middle-class America) responded with an emphatic, “No!”

I lost that day, along with the student whose response I was grading. But in a sense, the whole country lost, too, and we continue to lose when members of white middle- and upper-class America continue to force acceptance and conformation to ideas and interpretations that contradict real life experiences. Standardized testing does have some value in assessment, but it does and will continue to fall short and even do harm if it continues to assess everyone from the perspective of the dominant ideology without taking into account varying racial, cultural, and socio-economic interpretations.

It’s important to eliminate biases from standardized testing so that silent voices can be heard and the dominant culture can recognize the inherent worth of interpretations and viewpoints of oppressed peoples. Otherwise, standardized testing will continue to reflect and support a system in which the dominant culture remains dominant and oppressed cultures remain oppressed.