Opt-Out? Part 2 of 4: Testing as Social Justice

In Part 1 of this series, I described by current belief that measurement, on its own, is not inherently bad. I believe that we should seek to use measurement in effective and empowering ways in schools. Just because things are hard to measure, doesn't mean we shouldn't try.

In isolation, this is a belief that is easy for me to get behind. However, the act of measurement is not separable from the act of interpreting measurement, something that all of us in education are keenly aware of. For much of the modern era in education, there has been a huge emphasis on acknowledging, and trying to correct for, inequalities in education. Jonathan Kozol's seminal book, "Savage Inequalities", is a heartbreaking and timeless account of children who are far too often forgotten in American public education. One of the few positives from No Child Left Behind is that we now have hundreds of reports demonstrating that, dis-proportionately, poor students of color score much lower on standardized tests. In our society where opportunity is linked to these metrics, this is an urgent problem.

A thorough discourse on educational opportunities in the United States ... would reveal a pattern of highly excluded and racially segregated groups who historically were denied equal access to schooling for centuries.

Tyrone C. Howard, "Why Race and Culture Matters in Schools"

Education is a social justice issue. So, what does this mean for standardized testing?

Part 2: Is standardized testing a social justice issue?

The educational outcomes for the children we represent are unacceptable by almost every measurement. And we rely on the consistent, accurate, and reliable data provided by annual statewide assessments to advocate for better lives and outcomes for our children. These data are critical for understanding whether and where there is equal opportunity.

The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, Press Release on May 5, 2015

"I agree that it is better to have data on the performance of poor children and the children in other particularly vulnerable groups than not to have that data. But annual accountability testing of every child is not the only way to get that data... It is not just that annual accountability testing with separate scores for poor and minority students does not help those students. The reality is that it actually hurts them."

Marc Tucker, "Annual Accountability Testing: Time for the Civil Rights Community to Reconsider"

"It's true that a standardized test can't measure inspiration, or reflection, or a lot of the other deeper-thinking habits. But that ignores a major function of testing. A major reason we use standardized tests is to make the case that there's large-scale educational injustice in our nation."

Cristina Duncan Evans, "How Does the Opt-Out Movement Intend to Close Achievement Gaps?"

The idea that standardized tests can be a lever of advancement for people of color has some powerful roots... In most people's minds, a test is an opportunity, and believing in our children and encouraging our children means teaching them that they can pass anyone's test.

Brian Jones1, "Standardized Testing and Students of Color" found in "More than a Score"

"By teaching students of color that the best way to succeed is to respond to tests the way the state demands, determine the validity of an argument under the state's rules, and examine essays only if they follow the state's standards, we are creating education via deculturation, or stripping a culture, instead of transculturation, the merging of cultures."

Jose Vilson, "This is Not a Test"

"the accountability era over the past thirty years – based significantly on standards and high-stakes testing – has not confronted and eroded race and class inequity, but in fact, and notably because of the central roles of standardized testing, race and class inequity has become even more entrenched in our schools and society."

P. L. Thomas, "High-stakes, Standardized Tests Are 'Master’s Tools,' Not Tools for Social Justice"

Is standardized testing a social justice issue? Yes. The quotes above are completely aligned in this regard, even if they justify their answer completely differently. Our interest in standardized testing has grown with our awareness of educational inequity across America. Combine that in with a resurgence in educational nationalism starting in the 1980s and you have a perfect storm pushing standardized testing as a necessary tool to enable equitable and exemplary education in America.

This is the view that Evans and the Leadership Council espouse. Viewing standardized testing as a necessary evil, they fear that without centralized and widespread measurement, we'll revert to an anachronistic reality where race and wealth based inequality is covered up beneath the guise of community empowerment and local control. They acknowledge the presence of testing's imperfections and biases, but they contend that a quantifiable problem is better than an ignorable problem. This type of intervention is not new for the federal goverment (think re-districting, voting ID laws, and affirmative action). It has long shown interest in correcting local inequality through tightly controlled federal oversight. Standardized testing in public education partially serves the same purpose.

This is a fairly compelling argument, and it has been quite effective at shuffling some sides in our current civil rights debate. The idea of measuring all of our students against what we value in education seems brilliant (assuming we can agree on what we value in education). Once we shine a light on the problems in education, we can root them out with hard work and targeted resources, right? Accountability through standardized testing is a glamorous idea, in part, because it relieves most of us from worrying about why inequality exists in the first place. For any who have seen the ABC show "Black-ish", this idea may feel related. It's one thing to watch a sitcom where a black family comically finds its way into affluent suburban culture. It's something entirely different to think about watching a show about why a black family, or any other marginalized family, might reject that goal of assimilation. That might push us out of our comfort zone, and it certainly wouldn't be good for ratings. I'm not blaming the writers. Their work is bringing important ideas to the foreground, but the limits of those ideas and the implicit assumptions present are a reflection of what we're willing to entertain right now in popular discourse.

Accountability through standardized testing is a glamorous idea, in part, because it relieves most of us from worrying about why inequality exists in the first place.

Vilson, Thomas, and Tucker push back on high-stakes standardized testing not because they don't beleive in illuminating the problem of inequity, but because they believe that the act of doing so actually hurts the kids we're all trying to help. Unfortunately, this is something that is hard to prove or disprove definitively.

Tucker gives a good summary of his argument supporting this idea in his article, quoted above2. He argues that the sheer volume of tests required across the nation popularizes "cheap tests" which "measure low-level basic skills." Further, schools serving marginalized groups of students have to pay the most attention to teaching towards these tests since they are at risk of being shut down, penalized, or viewed negatively in our system of high accountability. "Though students in wealthy communities are forced to take these tests, no one in those communities pays much attention to them." Tucker describes how high accountability creates a perverse incentive structure, where teachers are encouraged to spend the majority of their time only with a small subset of their students, those who are close to passing. There is certainly evidence of these incentives getting the better of schools and teachers, sometimes in dramatic ways.

Thomas goes one step deeper, making an impassioned case that standardized testing will never be able to counter issues of inequity because testing itself is part of the problem. "Testing, in effect, does not provide data for addressing the equity/achievement gap, testing has created those gaps, labeled those gaps, and marginalized those below the codified level of standard." Standardized testing and the ways that it is used perpetuate the "culture of power", or the culture of the dominant group in a society. Tests implicitly send messages to students about what is valued, and what is not. They can drive wedges between communities and schools. They contain biases towards certain students and against others. For these reasons, and for many others, many reject high-stakes standardized testing because it is a "fatal distraction" which can never lead to real change because it fails to address the causes of inequality.

Instead, a committment to standardized testing seeks only to measure these problems, and in doing so, it exacerbates them. Thomas asserts that the institution of standardized testing serves the purpose of keeping power where it is in today's society, even though many who support testing want the exact opposite. "That tunnel-vision [of focusing on testing] allows the privileged to avoid addressing social and educational inequity because marginalized groups are forced to work at the 'master’s concerns,' not their own." Thomas' ideas are self-admittedly "radical" (his blog is titled "the becoming radical"), but they're hard for me to dismiss.

Many reject high-stakes standardized testing because it is a "fatal distraction" which can never lead to real change because it fails to address the causes of inequality.

These debates make me think back to my previous reflections on Sarah Carr's book, "Hope Against Hope". She says that our debates over education have less to do with "entrenched partisan politics than competing visions for how to combat racial inequality in America." She encapsulated this idea in her reference to the historical positions of Booker T. Washington and W.E.B. DuBois in post-Civil War America. It's incredible how relevant this 150 year old discussion is in today's educational debate.

Supporting standardized testing as it exists today is akin to siding with Washington and saying that we must strive to help marginalized groups access the existing culture of power in America. Rejecting standardized testing because of what messages it sends to marginalized groups is more in line with DuBois' ideas. He would likely agree with Thomas in saying that trying to fix inequitable education through increased testing is futile and ultimately an expensive distraction.

I find myself rather sympathetic to the spirit of Thomas' message. However, I'm not ready to jump completely on board because I don't know what supporting his message means. Is it time for reparations? Should we join Austrailia in creating a "National Sorry Day"? Can we really solve these issues with simply more local control and more equitable funding for education? In the face of such entrenched social problems at the root of all this, I'm skeptical that moves like this will bring meaningful gains to our neediest students. I wonder if Houman Harouni is right when he states that educators are living in a huge contradiction: "They have to uphold public schooling as a social good, and at the same time face up to the fact that schooling is one of the most oppressive institutions humanity has constructed. It has to be built up as much as it needs to be torn down brick by brick."

All of this leaves me at somewhat of a loss. Diving headlong into increased standardized testing feels like a potential distraction and ignores this great contradictions of the purpose of public education. Rejecting testing feels a little bit like a false victory, since I have no idea what comes next. Maybe that's the point. I hope you can see why I'm unsettled.

So, here's where I'm at:

  • I don't believe it's valid to reject standardized tests on the basis that they don't measure anything useful. Tests can be designed and administered to gain meaningful information about how students are doing in their education, both at the local and national level. Whether they are or not is another question.
  • I do believe that the institution of standardized testing re-enforces the existing culture of power, the culture of those who are dominant in society. I see this as a urgent problem that is worth acting on.
  • I don't know what it will look like if we collectively reject standardized testing. I may support the rejection of testing in principle, but what will it look like? What will be the political, educational, and societal implications of that move? I worry that supporting the opt-out movement could be just as un-intentionally damaging to students as existing standardized tests are now.

This discussion will be informed by a deeper dive into the institutions that currently support the idea of standardized testing. Who controls the tests? Who profits from them and who stands to gain from different policies that are enacted? Is there an intentional effort to control populations of people through education, or is this just a side effect of our blindness to these issues? The answers to these questions matter immensely when it comes to the question of where to stand on standardized tests. That's where we're headed next. Thanks for coming along for a ride...


1 This quote may lend itself to an incomplete impression of Jones' point in the article mentioned. A salient point throughout the whole article is that we should "deepen the conversation" about standardized testing, rejecting easy answers. He is critical of the ways that standardized tests have become so highly emphasized in schools and the pressure attached to such tests. I highly recommend reading it in full for yourself.


2 Morgan Polikoff wrote a detailed analysis of Tucker's argument and its basis in educational research. He claims that this part of Tucker's argument is not well supported by existing evidence. Read his whole analysis here.

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