Public Education | Participatory Democracy: After Neoliberalism

High Stakes Testing

When a Houston teacher helped her grandson prepare for standardized tests, she stressed the importance of identifying the best answer as opposed to a right answer—warning him to proceed slowly. After what must have been to him too many examples of best instead of right answers, he stated:

This is insulting to third graders. 

Thanks to No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top, this young person is of the generation that has only known high-stakes testing. The college freshman class of 2012 was the first cohort.  These laws focus professional and public attention on measurement and metrics, competition among schools and educators to such a degree that binge test preparation is now mistaken for teaching and test scores for learning. These are simulacra (in Baudrillard's sense), not the things themselves. Simulacra are hyperreal, “models of a real without origin or reality.” Quoting Ecclesiastes Baudrillard states,

The simulacra is never that which conceals the truth—it is the truth which conceals that there is none. The simulacrum is true. 

And students know this.

I am a strong supporter of assessment and even rigorous evaluation, as I believe most teachers and parents are also. But I find problematic "standardized" tests, which are too often "normed" by legislation and legislators who do not understand that standardized and normed-referenced have specific meanings, processes, and uses. I am disappointed that high-stakes exams have been too useful in ranking schools, withholding grade promotion, denying graduation, determining merit pay, turning around schools, and closing schools.

In Price, Duffy and Giordani’s Defending Public Education from Corporate Takeover, Smith (2013) describes a Chicago school in the 1990s,

I witnessed a systematic violence there, an institutional brutality that was hurled upon students, families, teachers and administrators. The violence was perpetuated from beyond the school itself and was going under the guise of urban reform (p. 41). 

Fifteen (15) year later, Smith frames this systematic violence as a “terrorism” that has “become almost normalized” (p. 56). While improving U.S. international standing is the espoused goal of education reform, students feel the brunt of these laws and polities.

New York city parents wanted me to know that teachers and test monitors where issued latex gloves as part of their testing packets. Concerned about their children’s well-being, these parents were angered that their schools and the testing companies anticipated physical manifestations of student anxieties, but were unwilling to reconsider how their actions resulted in students upheaving the contents of their stomachs. 

In cities, such as Chicago where the pressures are high; students went into the tests this year knowing an unprecedented number of their schools would be closed. A teacher, whose classroom is in a psychiatric hospital, explained the impact on students' abilities to cope during Occupy the DOE a multi-day protest held in Washington, DC at the Department of Education in April of 2012. 

The anxieties of these students were real, for about 12 thousand students were displaced from their schools and two thousand teachers laid off when over 50 Chicago schools shuttered in 2012. Interestingly, because of concerns for safety in a city where increased violence correlates with increased school closings, 12 hundred unarmed safety workers were hired for postings on city streets.

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