The Standards Movement

By Asa Hilliard

Illustrator: Wasserman, L A Times Syndicate

The following is condensed from a speech by Asa Hilliard, professor of urban education at Georgia State University in Atlanta. Hilliard is the author of numerous books and articles on education, particularly the education of African-American children, and his most recent book is SBA: The Reawakening of The African Mind, Gainesville, FL: Makare Publishers. Hilliard gave the speech at a conference last fall at Howard University on “Moving Beyond Standards To Provide Excellence and Equity in the African-American Community.”

Is the standards movement a quality control movement, as it is advertised, or is it a decoy for something else?

We have been here before, with the standards movement. In fact, we reach a standards movement almost every three or four years. Some governor wants to manipulate the test score requirements or get a new test. Some president wants to manipulate test score requirements or get a new test. Somebody wants to change the standards of education, presumably as a way of raising the quality of schools and schooling and the achievement of children. I say presumably because I don’t think that I can remember a time when that was really the reason for having a standards movement. If you want to raise quality, then standards manipulation is probably the last place that you would start.

Let me say at the outset that no one fears high standards, at least no Africans that I know. We do not fear clear standards. We do not fear uniform standards. We do not fear public standards. In fact, we have been at the forefront of standards of the highest order. [Asa Hilliard, Barbara Sizemore, et al, Saving the African American Child. Washington, DC: National Alliance of Black School Educators, 1984].

But what we need is honest school improvement that acknowledges both high standards and high quality of school input. The standards movement as it is now progressing at the national and state level is half the solution to the problem. To establish the standards of output without having standards of input is a travesty. To hold children responsible for outcomes without giving the same level of sophisticated attention to guaranteeing the standards of exposure is an abandonment of the responsibility of adults for the education and socialization of children.

That’s why I used the title that I did: “Standards as Quality Control or Decoy?” I believe that the standards movement is generally a decoy. I don’t care whether it’s a Democrat or a Republican who calls for it. Usually, when people put so much emphasis on standards as a school reform tool, it means that they want to look like they’re performing a reform effort, but they’re actually moonwalking. They look like they’re going forward but they’re going backwards.

What most of us fear is that we will be held responsible for achievement without being given the same quality of treatment on the front end. We’re not afraid of standards. We’re afraid of hurdles, of obstacles.

Standards, Assessment, and Instruction

There are several things to deconstruct here, because they’re all tied together. When we say standards, you can talk about setting standards. You can also talk about the instruments to measure the standards, whether they’re valid, invalid, biased, or unbiased. And you can talk about the quality of instruction to enable people to meet the standards. All of that is tied together. But we generally break these apart. As a result, we usually make mistakes in our analysis. If you’re talking about using standards to get the achievement level of Americans up to snuff, then you’re going to have to talk more broadly and deeply than we’ve been talking so far.

I’m a little bit tired of people getting credit for improving education by doing the cheapest thing they can do, which is to call for the manipulation of test scores or to create new standards. These new standards are not going to be any better than the ones the College Board developed in the College Board’s Green Book: What Students Need to Know and Do in Order to Graduate from College. They’re not going to be any higher or better than the standards of the National Alliance of Black School Educators, [Hilliard and Sizemore, et al, Saving the African American Child. Washington, DC: National Alliance of Black School Educators, 1984]. In fact, I’ll take any standards that you come up with as long as they’re high enough. If you get a consensus of a group of thinking people, I don’t think you can write a set of standards that won’t make sense.

Are you going to say “no” to calculus as a standard for the high school level? I think calculus is a reasonable standard. All children are brilliant enough to learn calculus, if you want to offer it to them. But if you want to teach calculus, you have to know calculus. And most teachers don’t. So why blame the child for the inability to achieve when the deficiency is in the other place? Obviously, if you want the child to achieve in calculus and teachers don’t know calculus, then now you’ve got to prepare the teachers. Now you’re talking about staff development. See how it’s all connected?

If someone really wants to raise the achievement of children, you’ve got to recognize reality in the classroom. Once you do so, you’ll know that we’ll have to do what we did in the 1960s. When this country thought that the Russians were ahead in the space race, when they put up Sputnik, the next thing that happened was that the U.S. massively mobilized for science education. It was science, science everywhere. We had a National Defense Education Act. Look at the language: education became a matter of national defense. When the rubber met the road, they knew they had to do something and they funded the process of doing it.

What’s happening now? The budget is bankrupt on social welfare issues and nobody wants to do anything about it. So you manipulate the standards to make it look as if you’re doing something. But you cannot fix the problems that are wrong in the public sector without providing resources.

If you want to reform schools, don’t do it with testing. We used to say, “If you want elephants to grow, you don’t weigh the elephants. You feed the elephants.” Children will not grow unless they get quality instruction.

In some ways, I see the standards movement as Trivial Pursuit. We know it’s not a reform tool and yet we move ahead as if it’s a reform tool. I know why we ended up with national standards. After the Republicans gutted the social services budget, the politicians still wanted to look good to the people, so they could say they were making the best effort they could under the circumstances. In other words, they had to address the question, “What can I do with no money?” Basically, nothing but showboat.

IQ Is a Scam

I also want to say something about irrationality and mental measurement, because part of this job is to find tests that tell us the truth. The mental measurement movement is typified by irrationality.

IQ is the biggest scam in the history of education. Nobody needs IQ testing. Nobody benefits when you do it. I’m in a very different position than most of you; I don’t want an IQ test for Black kids, and one for green kids, and one for yellow kids, and one for red kids. I don’t want any for anybody, because it offers no benefits to anyone. The issue is not bias. Sometimes, people get up here to discuss bias, when we should be asking, “Why is this foolish question about IQ being asked? Who said that a teacher has to know a child’s ultimate capability before they start to teach?”

I have friends who are abandoning IQ because they know it’s hot water right now, at least the old IQ test. Now they’re all running to the Seven Intelligences measurement, so that we can have seven ways to rank kids instead of one. The problem is, the purpose of testing does not change when you shift from the one-dimensional intelligence to the seven-dimensional intelligence. If your purpose is to rank, rather than to diagnose and to fix, then you never shifted paradigms. You just changed the language. Maybe you changed some of the activity.

I was on a panel with Howard Gardner, author of Multiple Intelligences, and I asked him, “Do you know what people are doing with your tests? They say, ‘Well, you don’t have mathematical intelligence but maybe you have artistic intelligence, maybe a little musical intelligence.'” He said, “Well, I didn’t mean that by that.” I said, “I know. I didn’t think you did. I think your constructs have much more to do with curriculum than they do with ‘intelligence.'”

We have got to learn to ask new questions and not simply give a Black version of the white question. So intelligence testing should go out the window, as far as I’m concerned. Now if you want to know how we know it’s irrational, get the book edited by Helga Rowe, Intelligence: Reconceptualization and Measurement, which are papers from a summit meeting of psychologists in mental measurement in Melbourne, Australia, in 1988. They were trying to figure out what was the state of the art in measurement, especially intelligence measurement, and they came away with three conclusions. Actually, there were probably more conclusions, but these are the three that interested me:

  1. They couldn’t agree on what intelligence was. That’s what you might call a construct validity problem. It’s a little hard to measure precisely when you don’t have agreement on the construct.
  2. There’s no predictive validity to IQ tests unless you use low-level thinking as your achievement criteria. If you use high-level, complex, conceptually-oriented problem solving, then there’s no correlation between IQ scores and achievement outcomes. This is serious, because that’s where the IQ test is supposed to be making its contribution, in predictive validity. But it’s not there unless you measure something that somebody has already had time to process.
  3. If they can ever agree on what intelligence is, and if they can ever measure it, they will have to take context into account. That’s what the Black psychologists have been arguing for before I was born: that the context is what gives meaning to a response. You can’t universalize a dialogue, linguistically or culturally. It’s scientific idiocy to do so. So you have to understand whose IQ is being tested — those who make the irrational IQ tests. IQ testing doesn’t do any good for anybody other than people who need work. It’s a professional welfare program.

The disproportionate placement of African-American males in classes for the mentally retarded should have taught a prudent person that something is wrong with intelligence testing. When you get 25% of African-American males in Mississippi public schools in classes for the mentally retarded — and no other group has a proportion like that — maybe there’s something with the tests that we ought to look at. But if you’re irrational, you don’t. You go ahead as if it couldn’t be your test.

IQ tests, universally, are invalid. You cannot measure in absence of understanding of the context of the person. That means their culture, that means the political situation, that means their exposure to curriculum — all of that adds up to context.

Standards and Curriculum

I’m often called on to testify in court cases. In one case in Florida, the judge asked me, very impatiently, “Well, just give me an example of a biased item!” I said, “Well, Judge, all of them are biased.” And he said, “No, no, no. I don’t want to hear that; I want to hear a specific example!” I said, “Well, OK.”

The transgressions are so gross in these tests, it’s so easy. That’s a softball question for me. So I said, “You know, let’s take this section here of this test. This is about geography, the section on geography.” He said, “Well, what’s wrong with it?” I said, “Florida doesn’t teach geography.”

Wouldn’t you think that would be a content validity problem? He reluctantly had to rule in favor of the plaintiffs. Afterwards, officials actually had to go back and institute a statewide curriculum in Florida. So now Florida has a curriculum, supposedly. They went through a process and now they say, “We have a curriculum, so we can have a test, and we can make measurement.” But all they really have is a standard measure with no match between the standard and what is actually taught in school.

We’re going to run the risk of the same thing at the national level. Why? I sat on a subcommittee of the Goals 2000 national goals panel when they were talking about national standards. One of the biggest problems they had was political, because the states don’t want to be dictated to. Each state will set its own standards, if it wants to set standards. This potentially means 50 standards. But you’re going to have one test, at the national level, to measure the 50 different standards? That’s irrational. That means you can’t be serious about what you said you were wanting to do.

I could go on. But the issue is, when we finally get down to the end of this standard dialogue, where will we stand on national assessment? What kind of assessment, achievement or otherwise? Will the assessment be rational? Will it be true content validity? Will there be an empirical way to test it or will we still fool ourselves on mental measurement?

There’s also the question of a common national curriculum. If you’re not ready for a national curriculum, you’re not going to have national standards. And you certainly won’t have national, standardized assessment, because there’ll be a mismatch between the assessment and the sets of standards that go with each state, and maybe even substandards within each state.

Opportunity to Learn

The real issue is one of common treatment, that is, opportunity to learn. One of the things we find is that there are a lot of people that don’t want all children to learn at the highest level. I read Lisa Delpit’s book, Other People’s Children, and it’s clear there are a lot of people that don’t want to teach other people’s children, that don’t want to pay for other people’s children’s education. [Alfie Kohn in the April 1998 Phi Delta Kappan]

Let me give you the bottom line on vouchers. The voucher movement is a movement of greedy people who don’t want to pay for other people’s children. They’re trying to get money into their pockets so they can pay for the private schools they’re already paying for. They give my child $1,800 in a voucher, let him show up at the Moon Glow Private School that’s charging $12,000 a year tuition with his $1,800 voucher, and say, “I would come to school over here, but I don’t have transportation either, and all I got is this voucher.” Do you think that’s a solution to the educational needs of the masses of our children, Black or white? It isn’t.

It’s disingenuous of those people who support vouchers to say what they’re trying to do is school reform. What they’re trying to do is get their greedy paws on another couple bucks to reduce their private school tuition. That’s what it’s about. I told you I was going to tell it to you exactly the way it is.

What I want to talk about is the common treatment opportunity, that is, opportunity to learn. You can’t hold children to the standards unless you give them a chance to master those standards. You have to check to see if the opportunities are there. We are a country typified by savage inequalities — I love the title of Jonathan Kozol’s work, Savage Inequalities — and it’s not the children who are savages, it’s the people who savagely distribute the resources inequitably. Here’s what Kozol finds out: $10,000 per year per child at New Trier Township High School. $5,000 per year per child at DuSable High School. Where you live determines what level of resources you get. That’s a policy issue that is not being addressed by the standards movement. They’re not even looking at the inequality. They’re looking only at the output, not the input.

Content validity of achievement tests, and the standards, and the curriculum — all three must be aligned with each other. But I see no hope that that’s going to happen in this country any time soon. Too many vested interests have reason not to see that happen.

Quality Teaching

Another problem is that many of the people who are talking standards have no idea of the importance of quality teaching and leadership. I was senior advisor on a video series with Dr. Barbara Sizemore [Every Child Can Succeed, Agency for Instructional Technology, Bloomington, IN] looking mainly at public schools where the children from the lowest quartile in economics are performing in the top quartile and higher in academics. How often do you think that happens? Well, I can tell you it happens a lot. We started with some of the schools that Barbara had been working with in the Hill District in Pittsburgh. The kids are all coming out of the housing projects, through the crack-infested neighborhoods, through the gang-banging neighborhoods. The Vann school and Madison school in that neighborhood are number one and number two. They have good leadership and good teaching, which accounts for their quality output. Unless we accept that good teaching is efficacious, that it can move kids in a profound way, then all the discussion about standards will have no meaning whatsoever.

We also need to locate and destroy what I call “doubt production.” As an academic, I’m interested in origin of doubt, especially the doubt that all children can learn. I got a chance to speak at the American Psychological Association last August on the racism in psychology. One of the things that I charged was that the association itself contained members who for years have been manufacturers of doubt. The ideology of the absence of intelligence of African people was constructed by several of the most prestigious psychologists that we know.

If you want to do something, instead of manipulating the standards, go into the programs that teach the genetic inferiority of people of color, in psychology programs, in sociology programs. Go into those places and undo what is being done. For example, there’s a book by Mark Snyderman and Stanley Rothman, The IQ Controversy [1990]. In the book, over 1,000 prestigious psychologists were surveyed and over half of them agreed with the conclusion of The Bell Curve with respect to the difference between Black and white IQ. In other words, they believe that the IQ test is valid, which means that the gap in intelligence is real and it’s not just a gap in test scores. Now when the elite of the profession still profess this publicly, you’ve got a problem of the manufacture of doubt. How are you going to fix the school if on the one end people are talking about how all children can learn, and on the other end they’re talking about how Black children aren’t as intelligent as white kids?

So where do we go from here? As I said, we need to connect standards with instruction so that the standards themselves are content-valid, and then we need to connect the assessment instrument to the standards. If that happens, then maybe we can make some moves forward.

I have no expectation that that’s going to happen, however. Therefore, I think the standards movement is going to be abandoned and we’ll be doing this again in another five years when somebody else has the problem of how to raise achievement with no money.

But if we can turn the discussion around so that it focuses on the quality of service rather than on the analysis of children and their families, then maybe, just maybe, we might be one step ahead when the topic comes up again.