04 April 2011

Testing cannot be anything but political - and abusive

Last week Anthony Cody, teacher and blogger, did something The New York Times couldn't be bothered to do... he reported intelligently on a fascinating moment in education in America.

Asked an actual education question by a student for the very first time President Obama blasted his own education policies, clearly, and without equivocation. (In the President's previous visits to schools questions had been limited to "Do you like living in the White House?" and other celebrity nonsense.)
"... we have piled on a lot of standardized tests on our kids. Now, there's nothing wrong with a standardized test being given occasionally just to give a baseline of where kids are at.

"Malia and Sasha, my two daughters, they just recently took a standardized test. But it wasn't a high-stakes test. It wasn't a test where they had to panic. I mean, they didn't even really know that they were going to take it ahead of time. They didn't study for it, they just went ahead and took it. And it was a tool to diagnose where they were strong, where they were weak, and what the teachers needed to emphasize.

"Too often what we've been doing is using these tests to punish students or to, in some cases, punish schools. And so what we've said is let's find a test that everybody agrees makes sense; let's apply it in a less pressured-packed atmosphere; let's figure out whether we have to do it every year or whether we can do it maybe every several years; and let's make sure that that's not the only way we're judging whether a school is doing well.

"Because there are other criteria: What's the attendance rate? How are young people performing in terms of basic competency on projects? There are other ways of us measuring whether students are doing well or not."

Then he blasted the results of everything US Secretary of Education Arne Duncan has done in his 'educational career'...
"So what I want to do is—one thing I never want to see happen is schools that are just teaching to the test. Because then you're not learning about the world; you're not learning about different cultures, you're not learning about science, you're not learning about math. All you're learning about is how to fill out a little bubble on an exam and the little tricks that you need to do in order to take a test. And that's not going to make education interesting to you. And young people do well in stuff that they're interested in. They're not going to do as well if it's boring."
Cody asked the US Department of Education to explain. These days we get to do that, and Twitter's @EDPressSec, who is really a guy named Justin Hamilton, was forced into dialogue.

And things began to go badly from there. First, it took the young Mr. Hamilton almost 36 hours to come up with why the President agreed with his Secretary of Education. Then, the answers, well, they were worthy of the Nixon White House.

"Switching to measuring student growth--as opposed to using tests just to measure absolute levels of proficiency--may result in an increase in the frequency of tests. But that does not mean that students will face more high-stakes standardized tests."

No, of course not, no one will think that federally-mandated tests, on which school administrator and teachers jobs and income depend, will be considered high stakes Justin.

As Cody asks, in a question Mr. Hamilton has not yet been able to answer, "Many of the core elements of Race to the Top and the Blueprint are related to test scores. Department of Ed policy calls for the linking of teacher evaluations and pay to student test scores. The Blueprint calls for tracking of student test scores of teachers according to the place they were prepared. We still have the threat of reconstitution hanging over the bottom tier of schools, attended exclusively by children in poverty. All based on test scores. The President described the tests that Sasha and Malia took as "low stakes." All these changes RAISE the stakes on the tests, for teachers and schools. How does this move us towards the "less pressure-packed environment" the President is advocating"

The perils of choosing your cabinet from your basketball buddies
But really, this reveals a lot more about Duncan and Obama than just the fact that they've never actually discussed education policy. As in the legendary US Army quote about Vietnam, "We had to destroy the village to save it," the Obama/Duncan argument regarding "low-stakes tests which determine teachers' lives" suggests a fundamental disregard for the humanness of American teachers and students.

The US thought of Vietnam as a place to stop communism, not a place where real people lived. Thus bombings and the burnings of villages were OK. Obama (by default, because he has outsourced education policy to his buddy) and Duncan (by design) think of education as a place to score political points with Republicans and rich hedge fund donors, not as a place where real people live and work. Thus tests and humiliations and firings and ruining children's lives are all OK.

The strategies are equally flawed. US policy in Vietnam actually strengthened the appeal of communism throughout Asia, Africa, South America - even Europe and North America - in the 1960s and 1970s. And we know exactly what Republicans and the Democrats for Education Reform did for Obama in the 2010 elections. Perhaps if he had gotten the NEA and AFT thinking positively about his administration and had gotten them out to vote... Ah well, the White House has often been a place where intelligence goes to die. The isolation created by American paranoia really eliminates the possibility of good governance.

Allow me to try to explain testing to our President, to our Secretary of Education, even to Mr. Hamilton. Perhaps, if their educations had been a bit more robust, been a bit more connected to 'most people,' they'd understand why they sound ridiculous.

I am not against assessment. We assess ourselves, and those around us, constantly. I think of my days coaching football (soccer). I watched every player, I knew what worked for them, I knew what didn't. I knew what natural gifts they possessed, I knew what learned skills they had, and because I knew my athletes, I knew where each wanted to go. Still, no player ever got a grade from me. Every player played in every game unless hurt or sitting out for game discipline reasons. What my assessment did was help the player and I develop a map of where the player was is various facets of the game, and of where they wanted to be. Then my job as coach was to help them find paths between those starting and finishing points.

That's assessment. Teachers, those much maligned, overpaid, underworked teachers of your speeches, do that every day. But let us remember, that is not comparative assessment. It does not tell you that player (a) is "better" than player (b), and it can not help you compare team (a) to team (b) or coach (a) to coach (b). It is simply a way of helping people reach their potential.

Something happens though when you introduce the fiction of "standards" into this assessment process.
"When you assess something, you are forced to assume that a linear scale of values can be applied to it. Otherwise no assessment is possible. Every person who says of something that it is good or bad or a bit better than yesterday is declaring that a points system exists; that you can, in a reasonably clear and obvious fashion, set some sort of a number against an achievement.

"But never at any time has a code of practice been laid down for the awarding of points. No offense intended to anyone. Never at any time in the history of the world has anyone-for anything ever so slightly more complicated than the straightforward play of a ball or a 400-meter race-been able to come up with a code of practice that could be learned and followed by several different people, in such a way that they would all arrive at the same mark. Never at any time have they been able to agree on a method for determining when one drawing, one meal, one sentence, one insult, the picking of one lock, one blow, one patriotic song, one Danish essay, one playground, one frog, or one interview is good or bad or better or worse than another."
- Peter Høeg Borderliners
 That "something" is the linear scale of "standards." Standards:

  1. A level of quality or attainment.
  2. Something used as a measure for comparative evaluations.
  3. An object supported in an upright position.
  4. A musical work of established popularity.
  5. The flag or ensign carried by a cavalry unit.
  6. A rule or set of rules or requirements which are widely agreed upon or imposed by government.
  7. A bottle of wine containing 0.750 liters of fluid.
  8. One of the upright members that supports the horizontal axis of a transit or theodolite.
  9. A manual transmission vehicle.
"Standards" - as applied in educational evaluations - are all of numbers 1, 3, and 6. They are a subjective measure of quality. Their purpose is comparative. They are usually "agreed upon" by those dominating a culture and/or imposed by a ruling elite (is that different?).

I often meet with young people from 'non-Anglo" cultures who are in transition from secondary education to universities. Almost all of them are nailed on the language testing for freshman. They are told that their way of explaining things, of telling stories, is "circular," is not "straightforward." They are told that the organization of their writing is "wrong." And they are, laughingly, told this by college English departments which place Irish fiction in "Brit Lit" courses - meaning - that the people evaluating these students completely ignore culture's role in literature.

"Standards" can not possibly be anything but political. You don't have to worship at the shrine of great colonialists as E.D. Hirsch Jr. and Robert Pondiscio do to still - by applying standards - be imposing your belief system, your culture, and your religion on those being measured.

I'll go back to Borderliners, because in this passage, in which Høeg's character is describing a question on an IQ test, best illustrates this...
"A letter came from her. It was not in her own words, it was a quote straight out of Binet-Simon. She must have learned it by heart, just by reading it. "There was once a grasshopper, who had sung merrily all summer long. Now it was winter and he was starving. So he went to see some ants who lived nearby and asked them to lend him some of the stores they had laid up for the winter. `What have you been doing all summer?' they asked. `I have sung day and night,' replied the grasshopper. 'Ah, so you have sung,' said the ants. `Well, now you can dance.'

"Beneath this she had written: "What is the moral?"

"It was so deep. It showed how she had figured out that this was a problem from the "fourteen years" level and that I must have had it. She had, therefore, used what I had written to her and discovered the system behind Binet-Simon.

"At the time when I had been given this story, I had come close to answering that the moral was ants were not helpful. But this would not have fitted in very well with the other problems. Instead I had sensed Hessen, and then I had said the moral was that one must seize the moment."
Of course, if one were raised as a Catholic, or a socialist, the answer is indeed, "ants were not helpful." In cultures non-Anglo, non-capitalist, you have a human moral responsibility to help. So this IQ test question is not at all about "intelligence" but about conformity to Calvinist Capitalistthought.

Prison Ship Martyrs' Monument in
Fort Greene Park, Brooklyn -
Over 11,000 murdered
, and forgotten
But it isn't just that, everything which gets standardized, from what you know about the American Revolution to how you form a sentence is a both a cultural construct and a method of limiting future change. There is a reason why US schools teach Hemingway but not Dos Passos. Dos Passos not only questions why the US was in World War I, he questions everything from sentence structure to spelling, and neither E.D. Hirsch nor Arne Duncan wants him in your schools. There is a reason why US schools teach about Ticonderoga but not the 11,000+ prisoners of war murdered by the British in Wallabout Bay, Brooklyn (a murder four times the size of 9/11). Learning about the latter might endanger US love of the British. (Evacuation Day was celebrated with the burning of British flags in New York every year through 1916, before being squelched by the Wilson government.)

There is a reason American children are taught that reading is an individual thing (see how Protestants worship), that arithmetic is taught before math concepts (the goal was to fail most children), why it is considered important to be on time for class (your children are being prepped for shift work in factories). There is a reason spelling is considered important when it was not previously (Theodore Roosevelt asserted that enforcing traditional spelling was certain to deprive most children of literacy). There is a reason the five-paragraph essay is taught in schools (it enforces a specific form of thinking).

And so, when we test any of this - any of our curriculum - we are making a political statement, enforcing a political code. Every application of comparative assessment compares a wide range of children to, maybe Barack Obama's daughters, or maybe E.D. Hirsch's grandchildren, with all the cultural baggage included. The less your child's life has been like either of those gold-plated cohorts, the higher the likelihood that you will fail and be consigned to capitalism's required underclass.

Obama, the privileged child of doctoral students doesn't understand this because he focused on other issues in his life. Arne Duncan, who I think does understand this, works for his friends and benefactors, whose children "win" when most others fail. Justin Hamilton, well, he's just doing public relations. He works for his boss.

But their ignorance or evil intent (whichever) does not hide the fact. Education is, by nature, political. Standardized education is overtly political. Comparative assessment is cruelly political. Testing is a form of cultural and psychological child abuse.

That's the truth.

- Ira Socol

1 comment:

Jason T Bedell said...

Perhaps I am cynical, but I tend to have little faith in politicians. I didn’t really buy in to Obama’s change campaign simply because I didn’t expect him to be able to deliver. This isn’t about Democrats or Republicans; regardless of which candidate whose values I agree with more, I very rarely think they will be able to accomplish (or even try to accomplish) those things that they campaign on to get elected.
Two things struck me when I first read what Obama said. First, as you mentioned, his stated beliefs we directly oppositional to those pushed by Arne Duncan. This leads me to believe at least one of a few options. First, Obama and Duncan have never discussed education policy, which is damning of Obama’s appointment of Duncan. Second, Obama, like many upper-class citizens, have a different expectation of their own children than those “normal” people who cannot afford expensive private schools for their children. While I appreciate what Obama said, I almost would rather he had a strong conviction that he was sticking to. Hypocrisy and ignorance, while not unexpected, is not acceptable in his position when it is negatively affecting so many.