Standards Won’t Change Inequity: A Reader

The new Common Core and related tests are likely to continue a three-decade pattern of traditional schooling either integrating the new standards and tests into the existing structure of schools or using the new standards and tests to justify existing practices. And thus, I offer a reader below, highlighting a demonstrable set of interrelated problems with U.S. public schools and higher education—inequitable discipline, retention, and other school-based dynamics disproportionately impacting African American males negatively and college graduation inequity for AA male athletes:

“We often talk about solving this problem as if it’s an easy problem to solve,” said James Forman Jr., a clinical professor at Yale Law School. “Actually creating a positive school climate, particularly in schools that are in communities that are themselves not calm and orderly, is hard work.”

Mr. Forman added that because school accountability systems focus on student test scores and other academic measures, rather than on reducing suspensions, schools might not have much incentive to keep troubled students in class [emphasis added]. “Sometimes getting rid of these kids can help you do better on the metrics that you are evaluated on,” he said. “If a kid is causing trouble, that’s probably not a kid who is testing well, and it may be a kid who is making it hard for teachers to teach other kids.”

K-12 and higher education are failing African American males; high-stakes accountability based on standards and testing is unlikely to change that fact—but is likely to increase it.

Faith-Based Education Reform: Common Core as Standards-and-Testing Redux

Let’s start with irony:

Compelling research suggests that the public in the U.S. is unique in its commitment to belief, often at the expense of evidence—leading me to identify the U.S. as a belief culture.

Additionally, while I remain convinced that the U.S. is a belief culture, I also argue that, below, the political cartoon posted at Truthout captures another important dynamic: Many committed to their own beliefs both do not recognize that they are committed to belief and belittle others for being committed to their beliefs:

By Clay Bennett, Washington Post Writers Group | Political Cartoon

By Clay Bennett, Washington Post Writers Group | Political Cartoon

And this brings me to advocacy for Common Core standards, with one additional point: Along with embracing belief over evidence, the public (along with political leadership) in the U.S. tends to lack historical context.

Placed in the century-plus commitment to pursuing new and supposedly higher standards for public schools, then, Common Core advocacy falls into only two possible characterizations:

  1. Common Core is a response to the historical failure of all the many standards movements that have come before, and thus, the success of CC depends on CC being somehow a different and better implementation of an accountability/standards/testing paradigm.
  2. CC advocacy is yet another example of finding oneself in a hole and persisting with digging despite evidence to the contrary. In other words, CC may well be yet another commitment to a reform paradigm that isn’t appropriate regardless of how it is implemented, as John Thompson details in his review of The Allure of Order:

Jal Mehta’s masterpiece, The Allure of Order, answers the question, “Why have American [school] reformers repeatedly invested such high hopes in these instruments of control despite their track record of mixed results?” He starts with the review of how the bloom fell off the NCLB rose, explaining why its results in the toughest schools have been “miserable.” In the highest poverty schools the predictable result has been “rampant teaching to the test” which has robbed children of the opportunity to be taught in an engaging manner.

Mehta explains that this “outcome might have been surprising if it were the first time policymakers tried to use standards, tests, and accountability to remake schooling from above.” The contemporary test-driven reform movement is the third time that reformers have used the “alluring but ultimately failing brew” of top down accountability to “rationalize” schools and, again, they failed [emphasis added].

These two claims are themselves evidence-based (and it will be interesting to watch as others respond, as they have to my previous work on CC, by either ignoring evidence or garbling evidence to support what proves to be faith-based commitments to CC), and thus should provide a foundation upon which to continue the debate about CC.

CC advocacy and criticism are often based on false narratives and baseless claims (see Anthony Cody for one example of this problem and Ken Libby‘s [@kenmlibby] cataloguing on Twitter #corespiracy)—again reinforcing the pervasive and corrosive consequences of faith-based, but not evidence-based debates.

Instead, we should start with an evidence-based recognition about standards-driven education reform.

For example, the existence and/or quality of standards are not positively correlated with NAEP or international benchmark test data—leading Mathis (2012) to conclude about CC: “As the absence or presence of rigorous or national standards says nothing about equity, educational quality, or the provision of adequate educational services, there is no reason to expect CCSS or any other standards initiative to be an effective educational reform by itself [emphasis in original]” (p. 2 of 5).

Therefore, CC advocacy has some principles within which it should continue if that advocacy is to be credible and thus effective:

  • Claims that CC advocacy is separate (and can be separated) from high-stakes testing must show evidence of when standards have been implemented without high-stakes tests (and how that was effective) or evidence of some state implementing CC without high-stakes tests connected. Otherwise, this is a faith-based claim.
  • Claims that accountability built on standards and high-stakes testing is an effective education reform strategy must show evidence of how that has worked in the previous state-based accountability era and then explain why those examples of success must now be replaced by the new CC set of standards. Otherwise, this is a faith-based claim.
  • CC advocacy has been endorsed as a logical next step built on the call in NCLB for scientifically based education reform; thus, CC advocates must either comply with the two points above or concede that the CC era is a break from evidence-based reform.

I am no advocate for remaining only within rational, evidence-based, and quantifiable norms for decision making, by the way, but I am convinced we must make clear distinctions between evidence and belief—and I am equally convinced that many education reformers enjoy a flawed freedom to call for evidence from their detractors while practicing faith-based reform themselves.

It is the hypocrisy that bothers me, the hypocrisy of power:

scientist evidence – Married to the Sea

Let’s acknowledge that teachers currently work under the demand of measurable evidence of their impact on students while CC advocates impose faith-based policies such as CC, new generation high-stakes testing, merit pay, charter schools, value-added methods of teacher evaluation, and a growing list of commitments to education reform at least challenged if not refuted by evidence.

CC advocates now bear the burden of either offering the evidence identified above or admitting they are practicing faith-based education reform.

Are Common Core and Testing Debates “Two Different Matters”?

A comment posted on my blog about union support for Common Core (CC)—which parallels my blog post about Secretary Duncan and the Obama administration’s support for CC—represents a typical response coming from standards advocates in the CC debate: “You can’t combine the issue of high stakes testing with the common core [sic] they are two different matters.”

Alfie Kohn in January 2010 argued against national standards in Education Week; I then offered a direct rejection of CC in the same publication in August of 2010. A few others took early stances against CC, such as Susan Ohanian (whose work is impressive and certainly well before most people raised any concerns) and Stephen Krashen.

Diane Ravitch and Carol Burris have taken stances opposing CC more recently, and they represent thoughtful and patient considerations of the exact issue raised by the comment quoted above. At first, Ravitch and Burris appeared willing to consider that CC could prove to be an effective reform mechanism. But both of their explanations for deciding to oppose CC are windows into my initial and continuing stance against the expensive and unnecessary venture into what for most states will be the third or fourth set of standards and high-stakes tests in about thirty years.

I have been a teacher for those thirty years, in fact—the first 18 years spent as a public school teacher in the rural South and the last 13 years as a teacher educator in the same region.

My work as a classroom teacher in the 1980s and 1990s was characterized by quarterly multiple-choice benchmark tests of reading and quarterly writing samples from my students that asked them to write one of four types of writing: description, narration, persuasion, or exposition (types that do not exist as stand-alone forms in the real world, by the way, but exist only in a world where standards and testing rule).

During those years also, state standards changed three times, and concurrent with those changes, we adopted new textbooks and sat through hours and hours of in-service, handed over more and more class time to test-prep, and implemented SAT courses during the school day (ones for which students received credit toward graduation) that required huge investments in hardware and software, which mostly never worked (my home state of SC has a history of so-called low SAT scores so our 1990s approach to addressing that was to encourage more students to take the SAT).

Eventually, the entire state of SC became invested in MAP testing while students at the high school where I taught were assigned two ELA and two math courses as sophomores if they had 8th-grade test data suggesting they would struggle with the state high-stakes tests. Our administration assigned as many as half our sophomores in double ELA and math courses, in fact.

One legacy of this test-mania was that many sophomores in our school wrote only 3-5-3 essays (3-sentence introduction, 5-sentence body paragraph, 3-sentence conclusion) because that was how they were trained to answer on the state writing test—a strategy that did increase how many passed but also ignored good writing pedagogy and mis-educated those students severely.

In the 1980s and 1990s, my high school became a master of doing the wrong thing the right way as we were regularly the top-scoring school in the state on the state’s high-stakes tests.

Once at higher education, I watched my teacher candidates and teachers in the surrounding public schools suffer under yet more revisions to the standards and two different versions of high-stakes tests (since the mid-1980s, SC has implemented BSAP and then PACT and then PASS); now the entire state is implementing CC and poised for the CC-based and once again new set of high-stakes test.

All of this is to say: If you have ever taught in public schools during the past three decades you know that the comment quoted at the beginning is patently false. In fact, if you have taught in public schools during the past three decades you know that CC cannot be separated from highs-stakes testing.

In 2013, with almost all states in the U.S. committed to CC, with the U.S. Department of Education supporting CC, with teachers’ unions supporting CC, with textbook and testing companies supporting CC, and with professional teacher organizations supporting CC, there is a deafening silence about a few facts that must be confronted if anyone or any organization wishes to make this claim: “You can’t combine the issue of high stakes testing with the common core [sic] they are two different matters”:

  • Name a state in the U.S. that implemented state standards since 1980 without also implementing high-stakes tests.
  • Name a state in the U.S. that has adopted CC and has not adopted some form of high-stakes testing related to CC.
  • Name a state that does not have high-stakes accountability mechanisms in place—as a legacy of state legislation and/or as a result of complying with federal mandates within policy such as Race to the Top or opting out of NCLB.
  • Name a school (especially a high-poverty school) where “what is tested is what is taught” does not drive most of what occurs in that school.
  • Name a state that is not spending tax payer money (totaling in the 10s if not 100s of millions of dollars nationally) on CC resources and technology, CC-aligned text books, CC testing, and CC teacher in-service.
  • Name a strong CC advocate who isn’t making money and/or gaining political advantage by endorsing CC.

My doctorate is in curriculum and instruction. A foundational part of my doctoral study and dissertation research, then, explored the century-old debate about what content matters, what should be taught in public schools. Any standards movement is a direct descendent of the larger curriculum debate.

While John Dewey and even Joseph Schwab provide engaging and powerful places upon which Eliot Eisner and others have the luxury of thinking deeply about esoteric things (issues that I too find fascinating), in the real world of day-to-day K-12 teaching, it is pure delusion and myopic idealism to make claims that CC and high-stakes testing debates are “two different matters.”

Around 2000 when my daughter was 11 and attending a public middle school, she came out to the car one day leaning against the weight of her giant backpack, slid into my car, and then said: “All they care about is the PACT test [SC's high-stakes test at the time]; they don’t care if we learn anything.” [1] She never once as a student mentioned the standards. And in many ways as a child of the accountability era, I think she learned to hate school. She loved her friends and loved many of her teachers, but she hated what school had become throughout the 1990s—which pales to what school has become in the twenty-first century.

Thus, address the bullet points above if you don’t believe me, or better yet, ask a classroom teacher—not a union leader, not a politician, not a representative of Pearson, not a consultant.

[1] See “Standards, Standards Everywhere, and Not a Spot to Think,” English Journal (2001, September).

An Alternative to Accountability-Based Education Reform

During three decades of accountability based on standards and high-stakes testing at the state level and another decade-plus of federal oversight of that accountability, the overwhelming evidence has exposed accountability as a failed network of policies in education reform.

Education reform in the U.S. now faces a potential watershed moment in which setting aside accountability and embracing a school reform agenda that acknowledges social and educational inequity offer a promise of success that accountability, standards, and high-stakes testing have failed to achieve.

First, education does not exist in a vacuum. Teaching and learning are impacted by out-of-school factors and impact the world beyond the walls of schools; thus, the primary foundation upon which education reform must be built is acknowledging that the U.S. currently has one of the highest childhood poverty rates among nations against which U.S. schools are commonly compared:

Relative child poverty rates

Next, another powerful example of inequity in the U.S. is that upward mobility has stagnated—notably in the top and bottom fifths—and, as Matt Bruenig has explained “you are better off being born rich regardless of whether you go to college than being born poor and getting a college degree”:

The third and final context for understanding an alternative to accountability-based education reform is the rise in the working poor in the U.S. and the increase in part-time work that leaves many working-poor families with adults holding multiple jobs but not having access to health care or retirement benefits.

Education reform must be built on policies that directly address the rising social inequity in the U.S. The essential shift away from accountability, then, must begin with social reform that addresses inequity. Social reform is necessarily the responsibility of state and federal legislation; thus, some of the policy targets addressing social inequity that are likely to impact positively a new vision of school-based reform include the following:

  • Food security: Children in poverty face food insecurity, but also suffer from access to low-quality foods (for example, fast food). Nutrition during pregnancy for women in poverty, early childhood nutrition, and nutrition during school ages are all essential elements for providing children the equity of opportunities that schools could provide.
  • Health care: Children and families in poverty tend to avoid needed preventative health care, and then are forced to seek out the least economically efficient avenues for receiving basic and urgent care, emergency rooms. If public education is to transform society and the lives of children, all children must be guaranteed the health (and nutrition) that children in affluence experience.
  • Stable work with rewarding salaries: Children and families in poverty often experience instability in the work of the parents and their homes since impoverished workers are competing with each other for entry-level and transient jobs. A stable workforce and increasing full-time jobs with benefits provide the basis upon which education can succeed where it has traditionally failed.

Certainly, many other social policies need to be addressed, but the foundational point here is that social inequity currently overwhelms public education in the U.S. A first step to education reform is social reform. As well, the public in the U.S. currently supports seeking greater equity: “The Pew Research Center has found that some 90 percent of Americans believe that the government should do everything it can to ensure equality of opportunity” (NYT February 16, 2013). What is lacking is the political will to make commitments to social equity of opportunity for all in the U.S.

Within the larger commitment to social reform, a new vision of education reform must include a broad commitment to providing an equity of opportunity for all children, and some of the policy changes must include the following:

  • End accountability based on standards and high-stakes testing: A growing body of research has shown that the accountability era has failed: “the absence or presence of rigorous or national standards says nothing about equity, educational quality, or the provision of adequate educational services, there is no reason to expect CCSS or any other standards initiative to be an effective educational reform by itself” (Mathis, 2012). A first and essential step to a new vision of education reform is to end the accountability era by shifting away from focusing on outcomes and toward attending to the conditions of teaching and learning—with an emphasis on equity of opportunity.
  • Implement a small and robust measurement system: As Stephen Krashen and others have argued, the existing National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) assessment system in the U.S. provides a more than adequate foundation upon which the U.S. can develop a systematic and limited process for administering tests to random samples of students in all states and gathering descriptive data on the effectiveness of schools. This new system must be low-stakes and should dramatically reduce the funding committed to testing in the U.S.
  • Scale back and eventually end tracking: The most accurate criticism of U.S. education is that it has historically perpetuated and currently perpetuates social inequity. Tracking remains grounded in data that reflect out-of-school influences and tends to funnel impoverished students into narrow academic settings and affluent children into rich educational experiences.
  • Focus on equitable teacher assignments: The focus on teacher quality within the accountability movement has tended to mislead the public about the importance of teacher quality connected to measurable outcomes while ignoring that impoverished, minority, and special needs students along with English language learners disproportionately are assigned to inexperienced and un-/under-certified teachers. Education reform committed to equity must monitor teacher assignments so that no students experience inequitable access to high-quality, experienced teachers.
  • Decrease bureaucracy of teacher licensing and increase academic quality of education degrees: Another legitimate criticism of traditional education is that teacher licensing has many flaws built into the bureaucracy of attaining a teaching certificate. Certification and accreditation mandates and systems tend to fail educators, and thus students. However, as in other fields, the quality of education degree programs still offer a tremendous promise for preparing teachers well for the teaching profession.
  • Honor school and teacher autonomy: Individual schools and classrooms vary dramatically across the U.S. School autonomy and teacher professionalism are the greatest sources of understanding what populations of students need. The current move toward national standards and tests is inherently a flawed concept since student needs in Orangeburg, SC, are dramatically different than student needs in Seattle, WA.
  • Replace accountability with transparency: High-stakes accountability has not only failed to produce outcomes promised by its advocates, but also has created negative unintended consequences (cheating scandals, for example). A more promising approach to insuring that a public institution provides that public with needed services is to require schools to be transparent: identifying educational needs and providing evidence for practices being implemented to meet those needs.
  • Address wide range of issues impacting equity—funding, class size, technology, facilities: Moving away from accountability and toward equity is a shift in the goals and then standards against which education policy is evaluated. Issues of funding, class size, technology, and facilities must be addressed to assure all children experience an equity of opportunities in every school.
  • Abandon ranking: Education in the U.S. has suffered the negative consequences of ranking for over a century. Ranking nearly always distorts data and typically fails goals of equity. Instead of ranking, education should honor how conditions of learning match clearly identified learning goals.
  • Rethink testing and grades: Tests and grades have been the foundation upon which education in the U.S. rests, but both tend to distort education seeking equity, autonomy, and democracy. Rich feedback that challenges learners and contributes to learning, however, is the lifeblood of learning.
  • Practice patience: Crisis and urgency have characterized the accountability era, and both states have contributed to the failure of accountability. Teaching and learning are complex and unpredictable, requiring political and public patience for reaching the goals that everyone seeks.

The points identified above are not intended to be exhaustive, but the evidence is clear that education reform has been on the wrong path for three decades. Accountability has failed, but that experiment has exposed a wealth of data that should inform a new vision of the need to address social and educational inequity through policies that fulfill the promises driving our democracy and our commitment to universal public education.

For Further Reading

Closing the Opportunity Gap: What America Must Do to Give Every Child an Even Chance, Carter and Welner, eds.

Reign of Error: The Hoax of the Privatization Movement and the Danger to America’s Public Schools, Ravitch (September 17, 2013)

Social Context Reform: A Pedagogy of Equity and OpportunityThomas, Porfilio, Gorlewski, and Carr, eds. (under contract, Routledge)

What We Know Now (and How It Doesn’t Matter)

Randy Olson’s Flock of Dodos (2006) explores the evolution and Intelligent Design (ID) debate that represents the newest attack on teaching evolution in U.S. public schools. The documentary is engaging, enlightening, and nearly too fair considering Olson admits upfront that he stands with scientists who support evolution as credible science and reject ID as something outside the realm of science.

Olson’s film, however, offers a powerful message that rises above the evolution debate. Particularly in the scenes depicting scientists discussing (during a poker game) why evolution remains a target of political and public interests, the documentary shows that evidence-based expertise often fails against clear and compelling messages (such as “teach the controversy”)—even when those clear and compelling messages are inaccurate.

In other words, ID advocacy has often won in the courts of political and public opinion despite having no credibility within the discipline it claims to inform—evolutionary biology.

With that sobering reality in mind, please identify what XYZ represents in the following statement about “What We Know Now”:

Is there a bottom line to all of this? If there is one, it would appear to be this: Despite media coverage, which has been exceedingly selective and misrepresentative, and despite the anecdotal meanderings of politicians, community members, educators, board members, parents, and students, XYZ have not been effective in achieving the outcomes they were assumed to aid….

This analysis is addressing school uniform policies, conducted by sociologist David L. Brunsma who examined evidence on school uniform effectiveness (did school uniform policies achieve stated goals of those policies) “from a variety of data gathered during eight years of rigorous research into this issue.”

This comprehensive analysis of research from Brunsma replicates the message in Flock of Dodos—political, public, and media messaging continues to trump evidence in the education reform debate. Making that reality more troubling is that a central element of No Child Left Behind was a call to usher in an era of scientifically based education research. As Sasha Zucker notes in a 2004 policy report for Pearson, “A significant aspect of the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 (NCLB) is the use of the phrase ‘scientifically based research’ well over 100 times throughout the text of the law.”

Brunsma’s conclusion about school uniform policies, I regret to note, is not an outlier in education reform but a typical representation of education reform policy. Let’s consider what we know now about the major education reform agendas currently impacting out schools:

Well into the second decade of the twenty-first century, then, education reform continues a failed tradition of honoring messaging over evidence. Neither the claims made about educational failures, nor the solutions for education reform policy today are supported by large bodies of compelling research.

As the fate of NCLB continues to be debated, the evidence shows not only that NCLB has failed its stated goals, but also that politicians, the media, and the public have failed to embrace the one element of the legislation that held the most promise—scientifically based research—suggesting that dodos may in fact not be extinct.

* Santelices, M. V., & Wilson, M. (2010, Spring). Unfair treatment? The case of Freedle, the SAT, and the standardization approach to differential item functioning. Harvard Educational Review, 80(1), 106-133.; Spelke, E. S. (2005, December). Sex differences in intrinsic aptitude for mathematics and science? American Psychologist, 60(9), 950-958; See page 4 for 2012 SAT data:

Class Grades

Since I am quick to criticize the media for its role in the failures of the current education reform movement—such as PBS, The Charleston Post and Courier, and Education Week—I must also recognize when a media outlet provides much needed insight into education policy that has clearly run off the tracks, such as the so-called Florida miracle and the enduring practice of assigning letter grades to schools.

In “Low-income schools struggle under state’s grading system” (Miami Herald, August 10, 2013), Michael Vasquez and David Smiley offer a clear but disturbing picture of accountability in Florida:

With dozens of changes in just the past three years, the formula behind Florida’s A-to-F school grading system has been criticized as a confusing mess. But there’s been at least one constant in Miami-Dade and Broward results: The wealthiest schools never get Fs, and schools with high populations of poor students face an uphill battle to even get a C.

The trend is visible through a decade-plus of school grade results, dating back to the first grades issued in 1999.

Vasquez and Smiley, along with the Miami Herald, represent a needed aspect of journalism addressing education reform: Recognizing large and compelling patterns, and thus the consequences of education policy.

The analysis of assigning letter grades to schools in Florida exposes some important conclusions:

•  Although high poverty rates don’t necessarily doom a school to a subpar grade, D and F schools are overwhelmingly serving students from poor neighborhoods, and the few schools that do overcome poverty to achieve an A are outliers. (There were nine such schools this year, all in Miami-Dade).

•  Of the 209 schools in Miami-Dade and Broward with at least 90 percent of students receiving free or reduced lunch, 78 percent received a grade of C or worse. Roughly 39 percent of these high-poverty schools received a D or F.

•  Of the 43 local schools with much lower poverty rates (30 percent or fewer students receiving free or reduced lunch), 86 percent received an A, and none received a D or F.

Despite efforts to identify educational quality among schools by focusing on growth models, data used in accountability policies remain primarily a reflection of out-of-school factors. Further, the schools that sit outside the typical patterns are rightfully identified by Vasquez and Smiley as “outliers.”

This analytical report on letter grades for schools in Florida is a strong example of quality journalism that seeks out and presents complex and detailed evidence, placing that data in the broader context of the many factors that impact not only the evidence we gather on our schools but also what conclusions we draw as well as how we draw those conclusions.

In the article, Miami-Dade Superintendent Alberto Carvalho explains, “‘Just as much as poverty can’t be an excuse, the exclusion of poverty as a factor is immoral.’”

Rare is the news article that allows a perspective this complex.

No Child Left Behind (NCLB) ushered in several grand promises in 2001, such as closing the achievement gap, but one of the central requirements of the legislation—the use of scientifically based research—is now poised to dismantle the entire accountability movement, including policies such as labeling schools with letter grades based primarily on test scores.

The evidence is clear that thirty years of accountability built on standards and high-stakes testing has failed. The next step is composing and sharing a unified message of that fact, while also building a coalition to reset the reform agenda so that we address poverty, equity, and opportunity in the lives of children and their families as well as in the schools those children attend.

Detesting and Degrading or De-Testing and De-Grading?

It began with an idea, a play on words: Children (and increasingly, teachers) detest school because the current test-and-grade paradigm is degrading so why not de-test and de-grade the schools?

With that idea in mind, I contacted Joe Bower, whose stance against grades and tests I followed on Twitter, and we began discussing an idea of an edited volume addressing de-testing and de-grading our schools, a direct confrontation of the current high-stakes accountability movement. We were fortunate to invite Alfie Kohn on board for the introduction and a chapter. From there the book was developed—although we struggled through a few hiccups with publishers, landing at Peter Lang USA.

Since the volume doesn’t preview each chapter, I want to offer below some snippets from each chapter, and invite you to join the authors of this volume in our tribute to the teachers at Garfield High (Seattle, WA) for their courageous stance against MAP testing (to whom the volume is dedicated):

De-Testing and De-Grading Schools: Authentic Alternatives to Accountability and Standardization

Joe Bower and P. L. Thomas, editors

Table of Contents

Introduction: The Roots of Grades-and-Tests, Alfie Kohn:

Most of the contributions to this book focus on problems with either grades or tests. In an article about college admissions published more than a decade ago, however, I suggested that we might as well talk about “grades-and-tests” (G&T) as a single hyphenated entity (Kohn, 2001). There are certainly differences between the two components, but the most striking research finding on the subject is that students’ G&T primarily predicts their future G&T — and little else. It doesn’t tell us much at all about their future creativity, curiosity, happiness, career success, or anything else of consequence.

In fact, the case for the fundamental similarity of grades and tests runs deeper than their limited predictive power. Both are “by their nature reductive,” as P. L. Thomas, co-editor of this volume, observes in his chapter. I would add that both emerge from — and, in turn, contribute to — our predilection for three things: quantifying, controlling, and competing. All of these are defining characteristics of our educational system but also permeate our culture more generally.

Part I: Degrading Learning, Detesting Education: The Failure of High-Stake Accountability in Education

Chapter One: NCLB’s Lost Decade for Educational Progress: What Can We Learn from this Policy Failure?, Lisa Guisbond, Monty Neill, and Bob Schaeffer (

It is not too late to revisit the lessons of the past ten years and construct a federal law that provides support for equity and progress in all public schools. With that goal in mind, this report first provides an overview of the evidence on NCLB’s track record. Second, it looks at recent efforts at NCLB “reform” and what past evidence says about their likely outcomes. Finally, it points to alternative strategies that could form the basis for a reauthorized federal law that would improve all schools, particularly those serving our most needy students.

Chapter Two: High-stakes Testing Assessment: The Deus Ex Machina of Quality in Education, Fernando F. Padró:

From here on forward the discussion reflects how assessment and quality are used as proxies for each other. The discussion comes more from a higher education viewpoint than a P-12 one, but one reason for this is that higher education is facing many of the same issues and pressures; therefore, the concerns at the macro level are more similar than dissimilar. In other words, it is another way at looking at those external influences impacting education and all aspects of educational activity from early childhood until the brink of formally entering the workforce. While the focus is not always on testing and assessment, the discussion is always about testing and assessment because that is the stock in trade within the quality model that is strongly impacting education.

Chapter Three: Technocratic Groupthink Inflates the Testing Bubble, Anthony Cody:

The sooner this groupthink bubble bursts, the better off we will be. In our classrooms, we must do our best to give our students meaningful opportunities to learn, in spite of the intense pressure to raise test scores. In the public arena, we can help burst the bubble by focusing on the big picture data that shows that in spite of a decade of obsessing over data, there is no evidence that better learning results (Hout & Elliott, 2011). We can help burst the bubble by calling out the self-appointed umpires like NCTQ, the Media Bullpen, and dozens of other test-obsessed advocacy groups that are attempting to overwhelm critical discussion of these issues. And we can support efforts to give voice to other points of view, through organizations that allow parents, teachers and students to raise their voices, without the filtering effect of foundation funding.

Chapter Four: Mean Scores in a Mean World, Lawrence Baines and Rhonda Goolsby:

Today, personnel from state departments of education are about as welcome in public schools as vultures. A wake of vultures seldom attacks healthy animals, but prey upon the wounded or sick. So, when student achievement levels wane, the state sees its role not as helper, but as disciplinarian—to punish a school for allowing its students to post achievement scores below the mean. If a school is contacted by the state, the news inevitably is bad— at best, a public humiliation and at worst, a tumult of teacher and administrator firings in a takeover. Firing people, while enjoyable for select politicians, is a tactic that helps neither student nor teacher.

Chapter Five: Degrading Literacy: How New York State Tests Knowledge, Culture, and Critical Thinking, Julie Gorlewski and David Gorlewski:

In June 1999, New York State anticipated the political and pedagogical movement that has engulfed public schools through the federal legislation entitled No Child Left Behind (USDE, 2003). The state’s education department implemented learning standards meant to drive local district curricula. In addition, the state unveiled a plan to attach the standards to mandatory assessments for students in grades 4, 8, and 11, beginning in the area of English language arts (ELA). Consequences for students and educators were significant and comprehensive. In addition to gauging individual student performance, tests at all levels were designed to measure schools’ progress towards meeting the learning standards and to rank schools according to student achievement. Scores and rankings were to be published and distributed by districts, the state education department, and media outlets; and schools with consistently inadequate scores and unacceptable levels of improvement were threatened with the designation “School Under Regents Review (SURR).” So-called SURR schools would be required to show rapid, significant improvement on standardized assessments or face state takeover (NYSED, 1999). Tests were equally high-stakes for students. In June 1999, passing the commencement level ELA examination (intended for students in grade 11) became a graduation requirement for the high school graduating class of 2000.

Chapter Six: The Aesthetics of Social Engineering: How High Stakes Testing Dehumanizes/Desensitizes Education, Morna McDermott:

Schools in America, at least since the industrial age, have been vehicles of social control. Factory model schools, designed during the industrial era, and guided by the industrial paradigm served that framework through economic, ideological, and political means. Now, just as decades ago, high-stakes testing (HST) is the weapon of choice used by education reformers to manipulate the educational system in ways that benefit their agenda to privatize public; pushing a standardized and highly regulated curriculum (to match with the required tests), increased social engineering (using and tracking student data via the HST for other purposes), and corporate profit (through the development, implementation and evaluation of the HST). One cannot deeply understand the origins or purposes of today’s high stakes tests without examining the social, political, and economic climate in which they exist. High stakes testing is the thread that ties together a larger picture of reform that includes: privatization of public education, replacing public schools with charter schools, enforcing a curriculum which “force feeds” meaningless data to already disempowered and disenfranchised communities, and uses “accountability” to turn data into big profits. Each of these issues, as they interface with testing policies and effects, will be explored in this chapter.

Chapter Seven: Standardized Testing and Boredom at an Urban Middle School, Richard Mora:

While conducting a multi-year, gender study at an urban K-8 school, I witnessed and documented the ground-level impact the push toward greater accountability in public education had on the group of 33 working-class, Latina/o students that I followed. At Romero, as I call the school, standardized test scores served as the ultimate measure of the school’s performance. As a result, entire class periods, hours at time, were dedicated to both district and statewide assessments, with teachers teaching to the test, to the practice tests, and to pre-practice tests. During these tests and the various quizzes and exams their teachers administered, the students had to sit quietly at their desks for long stretches of time, an expectation that proven difficult for most.

Additionally, during the sixth grade, the majority of students I observed had a double math period meant to prepare them for the upcoming state exam. Students found these experiences excruciatingly frustrating and repeatedly summed up their feelings with some variant of the statement, “School is so boring.”

Chapter Eight: Reconciling Student Outcomes and Community Self-Reliance in Modern School Reform Contexts, Brian Beabout and Andre Perry:

Education for African-Americans has historically been linked to the broad movement to improve their lot in life. Ceaselessly, from slavery and Jim Crow, towards full membership in American society, schooling was as much about academic learning as it was for ensuring the sustainability of the community in which the school was situated. Due to both de jure and de facto racial segregation of their communities and public schools, there have historically been high levels of self-determination in schooling for African-Americans (Anderson, 1988). The boundaries of the racial community were often undistinguishable from the geographic communities in which African-Americans lived. Racial uplift became the raison d’être in all sectors of Black society, but education offered a pragmatic focus for community development, political empowerment, and economic enfranchisement. This has meant black teachers, the visible presence of the African-American experience in the curriculum, and significant local decision-making power….

This current pervasiveness of market approaches is reflected in the reform language of state takeover, school turnaround, and reconstitution. As a consequence, since 2001, administrative control of many schools serving students of color has shifted from local educators and elected school boards to the states and the federal government who set the accountability policies and determine student and school accountability rules based on test scores. The following chapter interrogates this facially benign policy of raising student achievement with respect to the potential impact on the legacy self-determination of African-American schooling.

Chapter Nine: The Role of Assessment in Empowering/ Disempowering Students in the Critical Pedagogy Classroom, David Bolton and John Elmore:

Since the focus of teacher education at West Chester University has shifted toward teacher training, Democracy and Education, the one foundations course that students take is often where they learn critical perspectives on education. In this class, students define and examine their own philosophies and beliefs about the purpose of education in democratic society and compare, contrast, reject, and borrow from the philosophies of others. Since one of the stated goals of education at West Chester University is to create public intellectuals, it is critical that that foundations course be as empowering as possible.

Learning to think critically about assessment should be a vital part of this foundations course. If students are critically examining the purpose and content of education, i.e., instruction, then students also must learn to become critical assessors of their students. They must be given the intellectual tools to refocus the debate about assessment, so that assessment is not their master, but is a tool that will empower them as they teach their own students.

Part II: De-Grading and De-Testing in a Time of High-Stakes Education Reform

Chapter TenThe Case Against Grades, Alfie Kohn

Chapter Eleven: Reduced to Numbers: From Concealing to Revealing Learning, Joe Bower:

Since 2006, I have worked to identify and remove things like grading that traditional school has done for so long. And when I share this with others, I receive mixed responses. Some listen intently, nodding their heads in agreement, as if deep down they have always sensed something wrong with what Seymour Papert (1988) described as School with a capital ‘S’ — which is a place that he explains as having a bureaucracy that has its own interests and is not open to what is in the best interest of the children. Unfortunately, when most people close their eyes and think of their Schooling, many have experienced no other kind of School than the one with a capital “S.” Some listen in shock and awe at how school could even function without such things as grading. The people who have a hard time comprehending how children could learn without extrinsic manipulators concern me the most. They are so invested into traditional schooling that they have never questioned its foundation. Unfortunately, some have a distrustful view of the nature of children. Meaning that they believe that without grading there would be nothing to stop children from running amok.

Chapter Twelve: Assessment Technologies as Wounding Machines: Abjection, the Imagination and Grading, John Hoben:

For me the questions surrounding grading are incessant: Do I subtract marks for improper citation style in a paper where a young teacher talks about the death of her father with remarkable insight, wisdom and grace? What grade do I give a teacher who has the courage to write and share her struggles with breast cancer and her fears about leaving her young daughter? Or to a young man who writes about his mother’s struggles with the late stages of multiple sclerosis? Conventional grading gives no consideration to the marks these students should receive for having taught me about grace under fire, about humility and a quiet kind of perseverance instead of “sorting students like so many potatoes” (Kohn, 1994, p. 38). As a quantifying technology which presents teachers with a set of bureaucratic practices for the management of human subjects, grading is a machinery of abjection: a set of technical and administrative practices which works by “casting out” since schooling needs the threat of the wound to maintain its own internal boundaries and hierarchies. More than a simple means of disciplining students and teachers (Foucault, 1995), grading is a mode of schooling the imagination rather than allowing the imagination to radically transform schools. It does this by excluding those who do not fit prescribed models of excellence and teaching us to revile those who do not conform to dominant ways of thinking and being.

Chapter Thirteen: No Testing Week: Focusing on Creativity in the Classroom, Peter DeWitt:

When I entered college, a friend’s parents, who were both teachers, tried to persuade me from entering the field of education, which I found very sad. They were both excellent teachers but they said the profession was changing, and not for the better. I politely smiled and listened to their concerns but I continued down the same path despite their warnings. After working in an after-school program, I knew that I wanted to be an educator. I never forgot the disappointment I felt when those two retired teachers tried to talk me out of entering the profession that they spent so much time in. After seventeen years in education, first as a teacher and then a principal, I understand why they felt the way they did so long ago. However, I still maintain hope that things will get better and strongly believe it is my job as the school leader to help teachers find that love again.

I have come to a crossroads in my career. According to the movie Under the Tuscan Sun, that sounds very Oprah of me. When I began teaching I remember more seasoned teachers stating that if you stay in education long enough you will see the pendulum swing from one side to the other. It is my hope that the pendulum has swung to one very dysfunctional side long enough and will make its way to a side that is based in common sense and sound educational practices before many of us end our careers.

It seems as though policymakers in education want educators to pay attention to research, data and accountability, but they feel that they do not have to play by the same rules. Apparently research, data and accountability only matter when it tells policymakers what they want to hear. Unfortunately, the direction they have been leading education is not good for kids. It is bordering on educational malpractice. Just like the present economic issues in the U.S., education will continue to benefit only the top percentage of kids who can afford it.

Chapter Fourteen: Creating an Ungraded Classroom, Hadley Ferguson:

It is often easy to identify the beginning of an adventure; but where that journey will take you is usually a mystery. That was certainly the case with my adventure into ungrading and using portfolios for assessment. There have been many unexpected twists and turns in the road, unanticipated challenges as well as significant and rewarding successes. When I asked my administration if I could teach an ungraded class, I knew that I was stepping away from the security of my established practice and into a place where all of my skills and knowledge would have to be applied in fresh ways. A new adventure was truly starting. I asked for and was given permission to teach the only ungraded class in an otherwise school with grades. The school was in a time of transition, and teachers had been challenged to experiment with the best strategies for meeting the changing needs of 21st century students. My class, 7th grade history, became a place where learning took place within a new set of standards and expectations. While there were a wide variety of assignments and assessments, none of them was going to end in a grade.

Chapter Fifteen: “Parents Just Want to Know the Grade”: Or Do They?, Jim Webber and Maja Wilson:

Occasionally, someone has the nerve to suggest that grades are overrated, that a focus on them is detrimental, and that everyone might be happier and learn more if we de-emphasized or got rid of them completely. A widely discussed article on Inside Higher Education (Jaschik, 2010) described Cathy Davidson’s efforts to “get out of the grading business.” In her English classes at Duke University, students held regular meetings to decide if their work was acceptable or needed revision. Davidson gave no grades—only descriptive feedback. At the end of the experiment, Davidson declared, “It was spectacular….It would take a lot to get me back to a conventional form of grading ever again.” …

Still, the research accumulates: a study (Pulfrey, Buchs, & Butera, 2011) demonstrated that when students anticipate grades on papers (with or without comments), they become more likely to avoid difficult work than when they anticipate teacher comments without grades. This finding complements Ruth Butler’s (1987) study showing that grades (with or without comments) lead to lower levels of intrinsic motivation and creativity. But suggest that we act on this research—by de-emphasizing or replacing grades in the classroom—and even sympathetic teachers conjure up parent protests: “I’d be the first to get rid of grades and just do writing conferences and narrative feedback! But parents just want to see the grade!”

Chapter Sixteen: De-grading Writing Instruction in a Time of High-stakes Testing: The Power of Feedback in Workshop, P. L. Thomas:

It is now 2012, and I am at the end of my first decade as a college professor of education. After 18 years teaching high school English, a career that was deep in my heart and bones as a teacher of writing, I moved to the university in part as an act of professional and scholarly autonomy. Teaching in education courses, however, has proven to be far less fulfilling and off-kilter to my central concerns with directly addressing human literacy—fostering writers.

After being allowed to teach one section of the university’s introductory English course, I was fortunate that my university re-imagined its curriculum, replacing the two required freshman English courses with two freshman seminars designed to inspire and fuel student engagement in learning. One of the freshman seminars must be writing intensive, and the seminars are taught by professors across departments—not just the English faculty.

This curriculum change has afforded me a unique opportunity to teach a writing-intensive freshman seminar each fall at the university level, where I have the autonomy to implement writing workshop and, most significantly, to de-grade the feedback process of my students crafting their essays. In that context, this chapter opens with a brief discussion of how the writing curriculum has suffered a failed history in K-12 education—almost completely disconnected from the research and craft of composition as a field. Then, I detail my own evolution as a teacher of writing from my high school years as a teacher and into my recent experiences with de-grading the writing classroom for freshmen. I also examine how K-12 teachers of writing are both inhibited in best practices for composition because of the accountability era as well as how those teacher should and can reclaim the teaching of writing for all children.

Chapter Seventeen: One Week, Many Thoughts, Brian Rhode:

Have you ever had the pleasure of watching a school bloom? I have. I watched the walls around me burst into color, like flower petals extending themselves to the great warmth of the spring sun. Splashes of primary shades crawled throughout the school thoroughfares in which I spend my days as a professional. The entrances to classrooms became bustling hives of activity and the productivity was evidenced in the variety of posters, pictures and projects that emerged. Suddenly my small elementary school in upstate NY resembled a field of flowers in the full throws of its spring awakening!

I am certain many of you are asking what possibly ignited such a school-wide explosion of creativity. Quite simply, it was the result of a week without testing. My principal, Dr. Peter DeWitt, had the idea back in the fall of 2011 to give us, as a staff, a much-needed break from the relentless drive of standardized assessment based instruction. As a veteran of the classroom himself, he recognized a way to re-invigorate his teachers by endorsing a respite from the type of instruction that seems to stand in a starkly antagonistic position to the attitudes and beliefs that typically bring people into teaching.

Conclusion: Striving Towards Authentic Teaching for Social Justice, Lisa William-White:

What does it mean to prepare emergent teachers in an era where we bear witness to anti-immigrant discourses and policies; where we see (or even know) scores of people who live in poverty (Measuring Child Poverty, 2012); or where there is widespread bullying of children and youth in schools and communities (From Teasing to Torment, 2005)? What does preparation mean in a country where we have championed education reform since the 1950s; where we extol the importance of literacy and critical thinking; and yet, we further prescribe what constitutes appropriate knowledge, including what content teachers must teach (Common Core State Standards Initiative n.d.)? And, what does this all mean in an era of education deform (Pinar, 2012) – a time of shrinking state budgets, eroding of educational enrichment opportunities for children and youth, rising tuition costs in universities, and where democratic learning spaces in higher education are further undermined by business models for educational decision making?

Conservative Leadership Poor Stewardship of Public Funds

In South Carolina and across the U.S., conservative leadership of education reform has failed to fulfill a foundational commitment to traditional values, good stewardship of public funds. [1]

The evidence of that failed stewardship is best exposed in commitments to three education reform policies: Adopting and implementing Common Core State Standards (CCSS), designing and implementing new tests based on CCSS, and proposing and field-testing revised teacher evaluations based on value-added models (VAM).

SC committed a tremendous amount of time and public funding to the accountability movement thirty years ago as one of the first states to implement state standards and high-stakes testing. After three decades of accountability, SC, like every other state in the union, has declared education still lacking and thus once again proposes a new round of education reform primarily focusing on, yet again, accountability, standards, and high-stakes testing.

Several aspects of committing to CCSS, new high-stakes tests, and teacher evaluation reform that are almost absent from the political and public debate are needs and cost/benefit analyses of these policies.

More of the Same Failed Policies?

If thirty years of accountability has failed, why is more of the same the next course of reform? If thirty years of accountability has failed, shouldn’t SC and other states first clearly establish what the problems and goals of education are before committing to any policies aimed at solving those problems or meeting those goals?

Neither of these questions have been adequately addressed, yet conservative political leadership is racing to commit a tremendous amount of public funding and public workers’ time to CCSS, an increase in high-stakes testing never experienced by any school system, and teacher evaluations proposals based on discredited test-based metrics.

Just as private corporations have reaped the rewards of tax dollars in SC during the multiple revisions of our accountability system, moving through at least three versions of tests and a maze of reformed state standards, the only guaranteed outcomes of commitments to CCSS, new tests, and reformed teacher evaluations are profits for textbook companies, test designers, and private consultants—all of whom have already begun cashing in on branding materials with CCSS and the yet-to-be designed high-stakes tests that will eventually be implemented twice a year in every class taught in the state.

SC as a state and as an education system is burdened by one undeniable major problem, inequity of opportunities in society and in schools spurred by poverty.

Numerous studies in recent years have shown that schools across the U.S. tend to reflect and perpetuate inequity; thus, children born into impoverished homes and communities are disproportionately attending schools struggling against and mirroring the consequences of poverty.

Commitments in SC to CCSS, new high-stakes tests, and reforming teacher evaluations based in large part on those new tests are at their core poor stewardship of public funding in a state that has many more pressing issues needing the support of state government.

A further problem with conservative leadership endorsing these education reforms is that much of the motivation for CCSS, new test, and reforming teacher evaluations comes from funding mandates by the federal government.

Misguided education reform is not only a blow to conservative economics but also a snub to traditional trust in local government over federal control.

Recently, as well, a special issue on VAM from Education Policy Analysis Archives (EPAA) includes two analyses that should give policy makers in SC and all states key financial reasons to pause if not halt commitments to education reform based on student test scores—the potential for legal action from a variety of stakeholders in education.

Baker, Oluwole, and Green explain: “Overly prescriptive, rigid teacher evaluation mandates, in our view, are likely to open the floodgates to new litigation over teacher due process rights. This is likely despite the fact that much of the policy impetus behind these new evaluation systems is the reduction of legal hassles involved in terminating ineffective teachers.”

Further, Pullin warns: “For public policymakers, there are strong reasons to suggest that high-stakes implementation of VAM is, at best, premature and, as a result, the potential for successful legal challenge to its use is high. The use of VAM as a policy tool for meaningful education improvement has considerable limitations, whether or not some judges might consider it legally defensible.”

Do schools across SC need education reform? Yes, just as social policy in the state needs to address poverty as a key mechanism for supporting those schools once they are reformed.

But in a state driven by traditional values and conservative political leadership, current commitments to CCSS, new high-stakes tests, and reforming teacher evaluations are neither educationally sound nor conservative.

[1] Expanded version of Op-Ed published in The State (Columbia, SC), March 8, 2013: “Conservatives poor stewards of education funds”

Assembled Pieces Reveal Disturbing Reform Picture

Every time I write about Michelle Rhee, as I noted in a recent post, I feel like I should reenact the shower and wire-brush scene in Silkwood to purge myself of participating in the ceaseless media attention disproportionately afforded Rhee while the voices, daily efforts, and expertise of K-12 practitioners are not just ignored, but marginalized and even demonized.

So it is with a shared reservation (see Jose Vilson’s excellent post) that I once again wade into the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) debate—not to rehash my unequivocal opposition to the CCSS movement, but to offer a brief look at the picture revealed once all the pieces of the corporate/ “no excuses” reform movement puzzle are assembled. First, then, let me identify the primary pieces of that puzzle:


National high-stakes tests built on CCSS

Reformed teacher evaluation driven by VAM-based teacher ranking

Teach for America

Charter schools

These various pieces are an effective strategy with a common thread because separately each reform element creates a focal point of debate; for an educator or researcher to challenge any one of these policies is a seemingly endless task since the reform agenda is being set by those with political and financial power. Refuting the need for new standards, much less the flaws with implementing those new standards, immediately positions educators as reactionary and allows the self-appointed reformers to characterize those challenges as being for the status quo and against reform and accountability.

For example, teachers in my home state of South Carolina who have spoken against VAM-style teacher evaluation reform have been publicly labeled by the state superintendent of education, Mick Zais, as trying to avoid being held accountable for their work.

The picture these reform pieces show is not a patchwork of evidence-based and innovative strategies for improving public education, but a carefully unified process of infusing even more deeply the power of high-stakes standardized testing into the fabric of public schools. Look beneath any of the elements listed above and find the allure of new and better tests, as Secretary of Education Arne Duncan (2010) celebrated himself:

Today is a great day! I have looked forward to this day for a long time–and so have America’s teachers, parents, students, and school leaders. Today is the day that marks the beginning of the development of a new and much-improved generation of assessments for America’s schoolchildren. Today marks the start of Assessments 2.0. And today marks one more milestone, testifying to the transformational change now taking hold in our nation’s schools under the courageous leadership and vision of state and district officials.

Duncan’s entusiasm doesn’t stop there:

This new generation of mathematics and English language arts assessments will cover all students in grades three through eight and be used at least once in high school in every state that chooses to use them. In addition, the PARCC consortium will develop optional performance tasks to inform teachers about the development of literacy and mathematics knowledge and skills in kindergarten through second grade.

I am convinced that this new generation of state assessments will be an absolute game-changer in public education. For the first time, millions of schoolchildren, parents, and teachers will know if students are on-track for colleges and careers–and if they are ready to enter college without the need for remedial instruction. Yet that fundamental shift–re-orienting K-12 education to extend beyond high school graduation to college and career-readiness–will not be the only first here.

For the first time, many teachers will have the state assessments they have longed for– tests of critical thinking skills and complex student learning that are not just fill-in-the-bubble tests of basic skills but support good teaching in the classroom.

And what provides the basis upon which Duncan makes these claims?:

Yet existing assessments are only part of the problem. An assessment system and curriculum can only be as good as the academic standards to which the assessments and curriculum are pegged. We want teachers to teach to standards–if the standards are rigorous, globally competitive, and consistent across states. Unfortunately, in the last decade, numerous states dummied down their academic standards and assessments. In effect, they lied to parents and students. They told students they were proficient and on track to college success, when they were not even close.

The Common Core standards developed by the states, coupled with the new generation of assessments, will help put an end to the insidious practice of establishing 50 different goalposts for educational success. In the years ahead, a child in Mississippi will be measured against the same standard of success as a child in Massachusetts.

Even if we account for the sort of soaring rhetoric associated with political discourse, Duncan clearly envisions policy that must include a staggering and unprecedented commitment to testing that rises to the level of parody. But for all stakeholders in public education, the results of all the policies linked to standardized testing must include a brave new world of testing that boggles the mind in terms of the amount of time and funding required to design, field test, implement, and manage pre- and post-tests aligned with CCSS for every single course and teacher year after year after year.

As Yong Zhao has detailed carefully in an exchange with Marc Tucker, commitments to education reform policy linked to CCSS and the high-stakes tests built on these new standards are not anything new, are not justified by any clearly identified problems or needs, and are not consistent with the larger democratic goals of universal public education:

[L]et me restate my main point: it is impossible, unnecessary, and harmful for a small group of individuals to predetermine and impose upon all students the same set of knowledge and skills and expect all students progress at the same pace (if the students don’t, it is the teachers’ and schools’ fault). I am not against standards per se for good standards can serve as a useful guide. What I am against is Common and Core, that is, the same standards for all students and a few subjects (currently math and English language arts) as the core of all children’s education diet. I might even love the Common Core if they were not common or core.

Classroom teachers, educational researchers, and educational historians have offered and continue to offer a clear and valid voice that Duncan’s claims and the resulting policies are deeply flawed, but as Brian Jones asks, “If all of this testing is so bad for teaching and learning, why is it spreading?” According to Jones, the answer detailed in the full picture is clear:

As the tests spread and the consequences associated with them rise, absurdities abound….

The shift toward using student data to evaluate teachers is part of a larger trend of restructuring public education to align it with the rest of the economy. As one of the last heavily unionized groups of workers in the country, teachers stand in the way of privatization. And to the extent that they are self-governed, self-motivated and enjoy professional autonomy, teachers are a ‘bad’ example for other workers.

Even though it may not make for great teaching or genuine learning, high-stakes standardized testing is spreading because it is the perfect tool for controlling and disciplining teachers–and for training the next generation to internalize the priorities of the system.

The attempt to quantify and track every aspect of an employee’s ‘performance’ is not new.

Standardized testing—the inevitable consequence of commitments to CCSS, reformed teacher evaluation, and each piece of the corporate reform puzzle—combines the veneer of objectivity with the power of perpetual control over schools, teachers, and students, what Foucault characterized as “…entering the age of infinite examination and of compulsory objectification” (p. 200):

The exercise of discipline presupposes a mechanism that coerces by means of observation; an apparatus in which the techniques that make it possible to see induce effects of power in which, conversely, the means of coercion make those on whom they are applied clearly visible….

[T]he art of punishing, in the regime of disciplinary power, is aimed neither at expiation, nor precisely at repression….It differentiates individuals from one another, in terms of the following overall rule: that the rule be made to function as a minimal threshold, as an average to be respected, or as an optimum toward which one must move. It measures in quantitative terms and hierarchizes in terms of value the abilities, the level, the ‘nature’ of individuals….The perpetual penalty that traverses all points and supervises every instant in the disciplinary institution compares, differentiates, hierachizes, homogenizes, excludes. In short, it normalizes….

The examination combines the techniques of an observing hierarchy and those of normalizing judgment. It is a normalizing gaze, a surveillance that makes possible to qualify, to classify, and to punish….

In discipline, it is the subjects who have to be seen. Their visibility assures the hold of the power that is exercised over them. It is the fact of their being constantly seen…that maintains the disciplined individual in his subjection. And the examination is the technique by which power…holds them in a mechanism of objectification. (pp. 177, 170, 197, 199)

Now, in the context of whether or not the U.S. is committed to universal public education as a central element of a commitment to democracy and individual liberty, and then whether or not education reform is seeking that foundational goal, time has come to set aside the puzzle-piece-by-puzzle-piece dismantling of the corporate reform agenda and confront directly the central flaw with the picture itself, as Jones acknowledges:

The solution to this dilemma is not to develop better tests, but to tear down the whole enterprise of high-stakes standardized assessment and replace it with authentic assessments that are organic to the process of real teaching and learning.

In sum, the attempt to quantify learning and teaching in a standardized manner is extremely expensive; takes up weeks and, in some places, months of time in school; narrows the curriculum; undermines the intrinsic joy of learning; and leads to a culture of corruption and cheating. As a measure of student learning, standardized tests are an extremely limited instrument. As a measure of teacher effectiveness, they are even more flawed.

Measuring, labeling, ranking, and then sorting students, teachers, and schools is an anti-democratic process, a dehumanizing process, and a mechanism for control. At the center of this process being antithetical to both our democracy and our faith in education is the fundamental flaw of high-stakes standardized testing.

Do many of the puzzle pieces of the corporate reform puzzle misuse standardized tests and the data drawn from those tests? Yes.

But we must not fall prey to the simplistic claim that the problem is how tests are used and not the tests themselves.

The ugly full picture of corporate reform shows that the problem is testing. Period.