“When any adult, let alone a teacher, hands a child a label such as ‘seriously learning disabled,'” explains Jessica Lahey in her The Perils of Giving Kids IQ Tests, “they tip the first domino in a cascade of events that will determine the course of an entire life.”
But there is a larger message to her piece focusing on IQ: all measuring of students and all labeling of students have serious negative consequences.
Whether labeled “disabled” or “gifted,” a student then becomes a hostage to that label and to the inequity of the entire standardized testing process.
Lahey, however, is not treading on new ground. We have known for a very long time that IQ testing is biased by social class, race, and gender.
Possibly the definitive, although not without flaws, unmasking of intelligence measurement is Stephen Jay Gould’s The Mismeasure of Man, which was first published over three decades ago but was resurrected as a refuting of Hernnstein and Murray’s The Bell Curve.
Lahey offers a solid explanation for the efficiency allure of IQ and other measurements used to label students, but fails to highlight sufficiently the racist, classist, and sexist roots of those so-called objective processes.
In fact, Lahey argues, “Labels are not bad in and of themselves. Labels, like grades, are tools.” But labels are inherently bad because it is impossible to separate the tools from the intent of those tools.
Lahey even suggests, “Maybe it’s time to try a new system of labeling.”
This line of reasoning sounds too much like the pro-gun argument that acknowledges the horrors of excessive gun violence in the U.S. but suggests the problem is not guns, or gun access.
To argue that we have simply failed to find the right tests and the right labels is a supreme failure of the imagination.
Writer Neil Gaiman, speaking on the value of libraries, has proclaimed, “The world doesn’t have to be like this. Things can be different.”
And Gaiman is speaking from a lived experience he addressed in 2012:
I never really expected to find myself giving advice to people graduating from an establishment of higher education. I never graduated from any such establishment. I never even started at one. I escaped from school as soon as I could [emphasis added], when the prospect of four more years of enforced learning before I’d become the writer I wanted to be was stifling.
Gaiman had to “escape” a formal schooling system trapped in “labels are not bad” and “[let’s] try a new system of labeling.”
Testing, labeling, and ranking are inherently antithetical to teaching and learning, counter to the basic human dignity of children and humans.
Schools don’t have to be like this. Schools can be different.
Without simplistic and dehumanizing standardized tests, without labels of any kind.
“Do the stuff that only you can do,” Gaiman urged graduates of an arts university.
But his message is not simply valuable in the so-called impractical world of the arts.
Gaiman’s message is about human autonomy and dignity—which are always sacrificed at the alter of tests and labels.
There simply is no right way to do those.
Social Justice: The New American Dream, Kurt Vonnegut