Standards and Multiculturalism 13.4

Multiculturalism is a search, a conversation to discover silenced perspectives. Yet standardization emphasizes one “fixed” answer.

By Bill Bigelow

Proponents of “higher standards” and more testing promise raised expectations for all students and increased “ac.countability.” In practice, their reforms are hostile to good teaching and pose a special threat to multiculturalism.

The state where I teach, Oregon, has joined the national testing craze. This fall the Oregon Department of Education field-tested its first-ever statewide social studies assessments. Many teachers were dismayed to discover that the tests were a multiple-choice maze that lurched about helter-skelter, seeking answers on World War One, Constitutional amendments, global climate, rivers in India, hypothetical population projections, Supreme Court decisions, and economic terminology. Evidently, for the state of Oregon, social studies knowledge is little more than acquiring piles of disconnected facts about the world.

If it prevails, Oregon’s brand of standardization will undermine a multicultural curriculum — one that describes and attempts to explain the world as it really exists; speaks to the diversity of our society and our students; and aims not only to teach important facts, but to develop citizens who can make the world safer and more just.

In a sense, the entire effort to create fixed standards violates the very essence of multiculturalism. Multiculturalism is, in the words of Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates Jr., a search, a “conversation among different voices,” to discover perspectives that have been silenced in traditional scholastic narratives. Multiculturalism attempts to uncover “the histories and experiences of people who have been left out of the curriculum,” as anti-racist educator Enid Lee emphasizes. Because multiculturalism is an undertaking that requires new scholarship and constant discussion, it necessarily is ongoing. Yet as researcher Harold Berlak points out in the Spring issue of Rethinking Schools, “standardization and centralization of curriculum testing is an effort to put an end to a cacophony of voices on what constitutes truth, knowledge, and and what the young should be taught. It insists upon one set of answers.” Curriculum standardization is, as Berlak indicates, a way to silence dissident voices, “a way to manufacture consent and cohesion.”

Creating official, government-approved social studies standards is bound to be controversial, whether at the or state level. Thus, according to the Portland Oregonian, state education officials “tried to stake a neutral ground,” in order to win approval for its version of social reality. “We have tried so hard to go right down the middle between what teachers want, what parents want, and what the [Republican-dominated] Legislature wants,” according to Dawn Billings, a Department of Education curriculum coordinator. Not surprisingly, this attempt to be “neutral” and inoffensive means that the standards lack a critical sensibility — an emphasis on conflict and diversity of interpretation — and tend towards a conservative Father Knows Best portrait of history and society. For example, one typical tenth-grade bench.mark calls for students to “understand how the Constitution can be a vehicle for change and for resolving issues as well as a device for preserving values and principles of society.”

Only? Is this how, say, Frederick Douglass or the Seminole leader, Osceola, would have seen the Constitution? Shouldn’t students also understand how the Constitution can be (and has been) a vehicle for preserving class and race stratification and for maintaining the privileges of dominant social groups? For example, in the 1857 Dred Scott case, the Supreme Court held that a slave could not sue for his freedom because he was property, not a human being. Chief Justice Roger Taney declared that no Black per.son in the United States had “any rights which the white man is bound to respect.” The Abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison called the Constitution an “agreement with Hell” for its support of slavery. And in 1896 the Supreme Court ruled in Plessy v. Ferguson that segregation — “separate but equal” — did not violate the Fourteenth Amendment.


Almost 40% of the men who wrote the Constitution owned slaves, including George Washington and James Madison. In my U.S. history classes we look at the adoption of the Constitution from the standpoint of poor white farmers, en.slaved African Americans, unemployed workers in urban areas, and other groups. Students create their own Constitution in a mock assembly, and then compare their document to the actual Constitution. They discover, for example, that the Constitution does not include the word “slave,” but instead refers euphemistically to en.slaved African Americans, as in Article 4, Section 2: “No person held to service or labor in one state, under the laws thereof, escaping into another, shall in consequence of any law or regulation therein, be discharged from such service or labor, but shall be delivered up on claim of the party to whom such service or labor may be due.” It’s a vicious clause, that sits uncomfortably in the “preserving values and principles” rhetoric of Oregon’s standards.

It is probably inevitable that school curricula will reflect the contradictions between a society’s myths and realities. But while a critical multicultural approach attempts to examine these contradictions, standardization tends to paper them over. For example, another benchmark — “Explain how laws are developed and applied to provide order, set limits, protect basic rights, and promote the common good” — similarly fails the multicultural test. Whose order, whose basic rights, are protected by laws? Are all social groups included equally in the term “common good?” Between 1862 and 1890, laws in the United States gave 180,000,000 acres (an area the size of Texas and Oklahoma) to privately-owned railroad companies, but gave virtually no land to African Americans freed from slavery in the South. Viewing the Constitution and other U.S. laws through a multicultural lens would add texture and depth to the facile one-sidedness of Oregon’s “neutral” standards.

Indeed the “R” word, racism, is not mentioned once in any of the seven 1998 11th-grade field tests nor in the social studies standards adopted in March 1998 by the state board of education. Even if the only yardstick were strict historical accuracy this would be a bizarre omission: the state was launched as a whites-only territory by the Oregon Donation Act and in racist wars of dispossession waged against indigenous peoples; the first constitution outlawed slavery but also forbade Blacks from living in the state, a prohibition that remained on the books until 1926. Perhaps state education officials are concerned that introducing the concept of racism to students could call into question the essentially harmonious world of “change, and continuity over time” that underpins the standards project. Whatever the reason, there is no way that students can make sense of the world today without the idea of racism in their conceptual knapsack. If a key goal of multiculturalism is to account for how the past helped shape the present, and an important part of the present is social inequality, then Oregon’s standards and tests earn a failing grade.

Despite the publication of state social studies standards and benchmarks, teachers and parents don’t really know what students are expected to learn until they see the tests, which were developed by an out-of-state assessment corporation, MetriTech. As Prof. Wade W. Nelson points out in a delightfully frank article, “The Naked Truth about School Reform in Minnesota” (that might as well have been written about Oregon), “The con.tent of the standards is found only in the tests used to assess them. Access to the tests themselves is carefully controlled, making it difficult to get a handle on what these standards are. It seems ironic to me that basic standards — that which every student is expected to know or be able to do — are revealed only in tests accessible only to test-makers and administrators. This design avoids much of the debate about what these standards ought to be”
— a debate which is essential to the ongoing struggle for a multicultural curriculum.


It’s when you look directly at the tests that their limitations and negative implications for multiculturalism become most clear. Test questions inevitably focus on discrete facts, but cannot address the, multi-faceted meaning of facts. For example, in the field tests Oregon piloted in the fall of 1998, one question asked which Constitutional Amendment gave women the right to vote. Students could know virtually nothing about the long struggle for women’s rights and get this question right. On the other hand, they could know lots about the feminist movement and not recall that it was the 19th and not the 16th, 17th, or 18th Amendment (the other test choices) that gave women the right to vote.

Because there is no way to predict precisely which facts will be sought on the state tests, teachers will feel pressured to turn courses into a “memory Olympics;” teachers simply could not afford to spend time probing beneath the headlines of history.

Last year, my students at Franklin High School in Portland performed a role play on the 1848 Seneca Falls, NY, women’s rights conference, the first formal U.S. gathering to demand greater equality for women. The original assembly was com.posed largely of middle- to upper-class white women. I wanted my students to appreciate the issues that these women addressed and their courage, but also to consider the limitations imposed by their race, class, and ethnicity. Thus in our simulated 1848 gathering, my students portrayed women who were not at the original conference — enslaved African Americans, Cherokee women who had been forcibly moved to Oklahoma on the Trail of Tears, Mexican women in the recently conquered territory of New Mexico, poor white New England mill workers — as well as the white middle- and upper-class reformers like Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Lucretia Mott who were in attendance.

In this more socially representative fictional assembly, students learned about the resolutions adopted at the original gathering and the conditions that motivated those, but they also saw first-hand how more privileged white women ignored other important issues such as treaty rights of Mexican women, sexual abuse of enslaved African Americans, and the workplace exploitation of poor white women, that a more diverse convention might have addressed.

The knowledge that my students acquired from this role play consisted not only of “facts” — although they learned plenty of these. They also exercised their multicultural social imaginations — listening for the voices that are often silenced in the traditional U.S. history narrative, becoming more alert to the importance of issues of race and class. However, this kind of teaching and learning takes time — time that could be ill-afforded in the fact-packing pedagogy required by multiple-choice tests. And after all their study, would my students have recalled whether it was the 16th, 17th, 18th, or 19th Amendment that gave women the right to vote? If not, they would have appeared ignorant about the struggle for women’s rights.

Likewise, my Global Studies students spend the better part of a quarter reading, discussing, role-playing, and writing about the manifold consequences of European colonialism. They read excerpts from Okot p’Bitek’s poignant book-length poem, Song of Lawino, about the lingering psychological effects of colonialism in Uganda; role play a trial on the colonial roots of the potato famine in Ireland; and examine how Asian economies were distorted to serve the needs of European ruling classes. But when con.fronted with Oregon’s multiple-choice question that asks which continent was most thoroughly colonized in 1914, would my students answer correctly?

As these examples illustrate, in a multicultural curriculum it’s not so much facts as it is perspective that is important in nurturing a fuller understanding of society. And sometimes considering new perspectives requires imagination as much as or more than memory of specific facts. For example, my history students read about the people Columbus encountered in 1492, the Taínos — who them.selves left no written records — in excerpts from Columbus’s journal and articles like Jose Barriero’s “Taínos: Men of the Good.” I ask students to write a story or diary entry from the point of view of a Taíno during the first few days or weeks of their encounter with Spaniards that draws on information in the readings, but goes further. It’s necessarily a speculative undertaking, but invites students to turn the “Columbus discovers America” story on its head, encourages them to appreciate the humanity in the people usually marginalized in tales of “exploration.” In response, students have written pieces of startling insight. Sure, a multiple choice test can assess whether students know that Columbus first sailed in 1492, where he landed, or the name of the people he encountered. But it is ill-equipped to assess what students truly understand about this encounter.

Not surprisingly, Oregon’s “one best answer” approach vastly over-simplifies and misrepresents complex social processes — and entirely erases ethnicity and race as categories of analysis. One question on a recent test reads: “In 1919, over 4.1 million Americans belonged to labor unions. By 1928, that number had dropped to 3.4 million. Which of the following best accounts for that drop?” It seems that the correct answer must be A.: “Wages increased dramatically, so workers didn’t need unions.” All the other answers are clearly wrong, but is this answer “correct”? Since when do workers leave unions when they win higher wages? Weren’t mechanization and scientific management factors in undermining traditional craft unions? Did the post-World War I Red Scare, with systematic attacks on radical unions like the Indus.trial Workers of the World and deportations of foreign-born labor organizers affect union membership?

And how about the Oregon test’s reductive category of “worker”? Shouldn’t students be alert to how race, ethnicity, and gender were and are important factors in determining one’s workplace experience, including union membership? For example, in 1919, professional strike.breakers, hired by steel corporations, were told to “stir up as much bad feeling as you possibly can between the Serbians and the Italians.” And more than 30,000 Black workers, excluded from AFL unions, were brought in as strikebreakers. A multicultural awareness is vital if we’re to arrive at a satisfactory answer to the above Oregon field-test question. But the state would reward students for choosing an historical soundbite that is as shallow as it is wrong.

At its core, multicultural teaching is an ethical, even political, enterprise. It has heart and soul.

This leads me to an aspect of these tests that is especially offensive to teachers: they don’t merely assess, they also in.struct. The tests represent the authority of the state, implicitly telling students, “Just memorize the facts, kids. That’s what social studies is all about — and if teachers do any more than that, they’re wasting your time.” Multiple-choice tests under.mine teachers’ efforts to construct a rigorous multicultural curriculum because they delegitimate that curriculum in students’ eyes: If it were important it would be on the test.


At its core, multicultural teaching is an ethical, even political, enterprise. Its aim is not just to impart lots of interesting facts, to equip students to be proficient Trivial Pursuit players, but to help make the world a better place. It highlights injustice of all kinds — racial, gender, class, linguistic, ethnic, national, environmental — in order to make explanations and propose solutions. It recognizes our responsibility to fellow human beings and to the earth. It has heart and soul.

Compare that with the sterile, fact-collecting orientation of Oregon’s standards and assessments. For example, a typical 49-question high-school field test piloted in 1998, included seven questions on global climate, two on the location of rivers in India and Africa, and one on hypothetical world population projections in the year 2050. But not a single question in the test concerned the lives of people around the world, or environmental conditions — nothing about increasing poverty, the global AIDS epidemic, disappearance of the rainforests, rates of un.employment, global warming, etc., or efforts to address these crises. The test bounded aimlessly from one disjointed fact to another. In the most profound sense it was pointless.

Indeed the test’s random amorality may reveal another of its cultural biases. Oregon’s standards and assessments make no distinction between knowledge and information. The state’s version of social education would appear to have no raison d’être beyond the acquisition of large quantities of data. But for many cultures, the aim of knowledge is not bulk, but wisdom — insight into meaningful aspects about the nature of life. Writing in the winter 1998/99 Rethinking Schools, Peter Kiang makes a similar point about the Massachusetts teacher test that calls into question the validity of enterprises such as these. He writes that “by constructing a test based on a sequence of isolated, decontextualized questions that have no relationship to each other, the underlying epistemology embedded in the test design has a Western-cultural bias, even if individual questions include or represent ‘multicultural’ content. Articulating and assessing a knowledge base requires examining not only what one knows, but also how one knows.”

Students “know” in different ways, and these differences are often cultural. Oregon nonetheless subjects all students to an abstract, data-heavy assessment device that does not gauge what or how they have learned. As Kiang points out, test-makers address multicultural criticism by including individual questions about multicultural content — for example, by highlighting snippets of information about famous people of color like Martin Luther King Jr., Cesar Chavez, and Harriet Tubman. But these “heroes and holidays” additions cannot mask the fundamental hostility to multicultural education shown by standards and assessments like those initiated by Oregon.

Spelling out an alternative to Oregon’s culturally biased, superficial “accountability” plan would require another article. In brief, I want the state to abandon its effort to turn me into a delivery system of approved social information. I want it to support me and other teachers as we collaborate to create curriculum that deals forthrightly with social problems, that fights racism and social injustice. I want it to support teachers as we construct rigorous performance standards for students that promote deep thinking about the nature of our society. I want it to acknowledge the legitimacy of a multicultural curriculum of critical questions, complexity, multiple perspectives, and social imagination. I want it to admit that wisdom is more than information — that the world can’t be chopped up into multiple-choice questions, and that you can’t bubble-in the truth with a number-two pencil.

Bill Bigelow ( teaches at Franklin High School in Portland, OR, and is an editor of Rethinking Schools. The Oregon Department of Education has threatened that teachers can be fired for writing about test questions — even those that appear on “pilot” tests. Thus, for safety considerations, the questions described here are the same as those that were included in Bigelow’s article, “Tests From Hell,” in Rethinking Schools, vol. 13, #2. A version of this article first appeared in Educational Leadership, April 1999.