Why testing fails our kids

The boycott of the Measures of Academic Progress (MAP) test begun by teachers at Garfield High School in Seattle has spread to other schools around the city--and inspired opponents of corporate school deform everywhere. This testing revolt is part of a groundswell of opposition against high-stakes standardized testing that has been developing for years.

Wayne Au is the author of several books on education, including Unequal By Design: High Stakes Testing and the Standardization of Inequality, and an editorial board member of Rethinking Schools. He talked to New York City educator and activist Brian Jones about the importance of the Seattle boycott--and the potential for a wider movement.

High school students take a standardized test

I WANT to start with your personal connection with Garfield High School. You're a Bulldog, is that right?

YEAH, GARFIELD High School class of 1990. I was attending as part of the Seattle desegregation busing program, since I actually lived up in North Seattle. So I went to Garfield and found it to be a really powerful and important education experience in my life. I went away to college and got my teaching degree. Then, after teaching elsewhere in Seattle, I came back to Garfield, just for one year, to be a language arts and social studies teacher.

NOT ONLY is this boycott happening at your alma mater, but you also wrote a book about standardized testing. Do you know if any of the teachers at Garfield read your book before the boycott got started?

ACTUALLY, I have two books on testing. I have my academic book, which is called Unequal By Design: High Stakes Testing and the Standardization of Inequality. And then, more recently, I coedited a book about high-stakes testing for Rethinking Schools with Milwaukee Public Schools teacher Melissa Bollow Tempel, called Pencils Down: Rethinking High-Stakes Testing and Accountability in Public Schools.

The only Garfield teacher I know who has read either book would be Jesse Hagopian, because I know he's talked to me about Unequal by Design, and I know he's been recommending my book to other teachers to help give them a bigger view on how to thinking about standardized testing.

JESSE IS the one who turned me on to Unequal by Design. You talk in that book about the history of standardized testing. So where do these tests come from?

THE TESTS actually originate way back with the first IQ tests. And let me be clear, these tests were developed by a French psychologist, whose last name was Binet, and he developed this test simply to determine if young children were developmentally disabled or not. He had no intent of doing a fixed version of IQ--he didn't see intelligence as innate. It was purely an assessment tool to see how to best work with young children.

Psychologists in the United States--Lewis Termin, for instance--took the basic ideas of Binet's test and built off to start trying to measure the IQ--intelligence quotient--of adults. Then they started to come to all sorts of conclusions based on the results of these very biased tests. They basically found, through what they thought was objective science at the time, that poor people and nonwhite people and immigrants were literally dumber than U.S.-born white men.

That really is the basis and building block for all our standardized testing now. That became the basis for the SAT.

A lot these guys--and this should not be surprising--believed in eugenics. They believed in what they thought was a science of the genetic basis for character traits, including intelligence.

So in its origins, standardized testing is really wrapped up in, for instance, the idea that poor people are poor because it's something that's built into them biologically, and that the racial hierarchies in the United States are mainly a manifestation of traits that are inborn and the tests are simply measurements of these traits. So it becomes this justification for massive inequality along class, race and gender lines in the United States.

What I find ironic is that here we are, well over a hundred years away from that, and when we look at what we have generally in terms of high-stakes standardized test scores, we're finding the same things. We're finding poor kids, kids of color, immigrant groups coming out with lower scores than affluent kids and white kids.

It raises the question that perhaps the tests aren't measuring what we think they're measuring. Perhaps they have nothing to do with "intelligence." Perhaps they have more to do with access to educational opportunities, access to resources in schools and in the home. Perhaps there are still very deep-seated biases built into the tests that make them at least partially exclusionary for some populations.

A FURTHER irony is that today, the tests promise racial justice. That was part of the argument for No Child Left Behind--that the learning of groups that were historically neglected and oppressed in the schools, such as special needs students, students of color, etc., were now finally going to be measured, and the adults working with them were going to be held accountable. What's wrong with that?

YOU'RE RIGHT that it's the other great irony of high-stakes standardized testing. And actually, this connects to the roots of it, too.

The makers of the SAT, when they first started writing their test, said this was going to be a good way to measure individuals objectively, so we can challenge the class-status bias for students who get into higher education. There was a long history of just blue bloods and the upper crust reproducing themselves through higher education. The makers of the SAT saw their test as a way to challenge class hierarchy for getting into university. This thread exists through the whole history of standardized testing.

And now we have this idea that these tests are the way we're going to show educational inequality. There's that overused term, "the achievement gap," right? The tests will bring this to light, and then we'll use them to fix that inequality.

But it's the same problem reproducing itself. First, there's the presumption of the objectivity of measurement, when there's so much pointing to the fact that tests aren't measuring things objectively.

Just look at Dan DiMaggio's great article called "The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Test Scorer," where he wrote about doing part-time temp work for Pearson, grading standardized writing essays. This is how Pearson does it. They have almost a sweatshop--they hire these people, pay them hourly, put them in cubicles or have them work long distance through computers, and sometimes they pay them piece rate, just like in sweatshops.

These are the people grading these essay tests. And DiMaggio talks about how their bosses would come to them and say, "You guys are giving too many 3s. We need to make these results match last year's results, so you have to change the scores that you're giving." This is the conversation happening in the test-scoring facility.

But then what happens is we get the test numbers publicly distributed, and no one has any inkling of the kind of very subjective change to the scores that's happening behind the scenes. The public is thinking that the scores are a great measure, and this is how we're going to fix inequality, when actually, the measure itself is tainted.

Plus, as we've seen, just knowing the numbers hasn't done anything to actually challenge inequality in schools--because we know what that educational inequality is based on. Educational inequality is strongly tied to class inequality in society--to factors outside of schools.

Schools are an important part, but the test scores themselves correlate so strongly with things like whether or not your parents went to college and did well in school, family income, food insecurity, health care, housing, homelessness. All these things contribute to school achievement, and the test scores aren't actually helping us fix those things. The test scores are actually mainly helping to target teachers in public schools.

BUT HOW can we know whether or not students are learning if we don't give a test?

WE JUST have to be clear that high-stakes standardized testing is one form of assessment. There are a whole lot of ways to assess student learning.

I am not opposed to assessment. In fact, I think assessment is critical and necessary and valuable for effective teaching. More importantly, it's valuable for learners to understand where they're at and the ways that they can grow and continue learning. So assessment is absolutely critical.

The issue is whether high-stakes standardized tests are doing the right kind of assessment. Obviously, I think they're not.

There are other forms of performance-based assessments. I'm a strong believer in real portfolios, where students collect their work, where they have a meta-assessment of what that work represents, when they then articulate, either in public through a defense or at least through an essay to a teacher. This is students reflecting on their learning.

Because we also know from research that that kind of metacognitive reflection is the highest level of learning--thinking about your thinking. So being able to demonstrate that through something like a portfolio, or some sort of public defense of your work, is a much more authentic way of measuring student learning.

But that kind of student learning has to be very tied to the teacher and the classroom and the school and the community. High-stakes standardized tests, by their nature, cover large areas geographically and large populations, right? We make these really big comparisons.

So by their nature, these kind of tests live far away from the learning. They live far away from the classroom, and from the communities and the teachers. That also contributes, then, to their inaccuracy in measuring the kind of learning that's taking place on a day-to-day level with those kids in their communities.

IT SEEMS like more and more, if you want to do anything in life, you have to take a test to do it. Whether you want to be a bus driver or you want to go to medical school, either way, you have to take a test. So what do we say to parents who want their kids to be able to do well on tests?

I STILL believe that as teachers we can work with students to understand the tests critically and approach the tests in a metacognitive fashion, without actually giving credence to the tests.

It's like the SAT preparation. SAT prep has very little to do with students learning information. It has more to do with figuring out, again in a metacognitive way, test-taking strategies. Which points to the ridiculousness of the tests. They're not showing your learning, they're showing your ability to take the test.

I also think students need to have critical understandings of the history of tests. They can learn to pick them apart in ways that have a meta-analysis, which can actually help them improve on the tests, if that's your goal, and still develop a critical understanding.

Also, and perhaps more importantly, students need to come away from that test-taking experience with an understanding that it's not a commentary on their value as people and as learners. That's actually one of the biggest problems--the psychological effect on kids who don't do well on the tests.

I also think parents just need to understand what's going on with these tests. There's a lot of work that needs to be done by folks like you and I, for instance, to be working with parents to help them think about whether or not there is value in the tests--whether or not there's learning connected to the tests, whether or not getting a good test score says something good about their kids, because it may or may not. That conversation really needs to happen.

WHY DO you think the Garfield test boycott is attracting so much attention right now?

I THINK it's been building. There have been small pockets of resistance happening in various places: individual teachers here, an individual superintendent or some principals there, parents opting out here and there. Parents Across America has been doing organizing, and United Opt Out has been organizing parents to opt out of the tests.

This kind of work has been happening, so when something like this pops up, we have to be clear that there's actually been a groundswell around the country. It's like any other social movement--the conditions exist, and then you need the right spark at the right time to help push it along. So when these teachers at Garfield take a collective action, suddenly people around the country see that. It takes on this importance to everybody else.

I'm really hoping that Garfield becomes a spark for a national movement, because I think the energy for a national movement has been there, waiting in the wings, and it just needed the right moment to have it happen.

Garfield High School has a history of progressive protests, whether it's the students who walked out about a year and a half ago, initially to support Jesse Hagopian when he was protesting budget cuts to education in the state of Washington and got arrested. But this turned into a walkout and rally to support education spending in Washington state. There's the history of the Black Panthers at Garfield High School, too.

Plus, Garfield itself is considered one of the flagship schools in Seattle Public Schools. So when you have the teachers at the flagship school doing something, it resonates more. That's why I think you see folks at Ballard High School in Seattle joining the boycott, then some of the staff at Orca K-8. Sanislo Elementary and the Center School jave joined the boycott, too.

That's what activism is, sometimes--it's tossing the stone so that you can create the ripples, and if things are in the right space and if the timing's right, sometimes, those ripples can turn into a tidal wave.

YOU WORKED with me and others to put together a statement that educators and researchers have signed in support of the test boycott at Garfield. What impact were you hoping that would have?

I SAW two main levels of impact, one local and one national.

First, we really need to talk about this in terms of Seattle teachers, because it's not just Garfield teachers anymore. I think the Seattle teachers who are involved in the boycott really needed a very public show of support because it's still unclear how the district is going to respond. These people's jobs could be on the line.

We know they have lives, they have kids, they have house payments--and so this is a big risk for them. As big of a public show of support as possible could help dampen whatever potential punishment they could face. And if it turns into a big enough movement in Seattle, who knows--maybe the district is going to have to say that we're just going to give in on the MAP test. If that happens, the teachers may not get in trouble at all, and that would be a wonderful thing.

I was at a press conference with the Garfield teachers and the rest of the Seattle teachers involved in this, and I presented that letter. Some of them knew about it, and some of them didn't, but when I told them we had gathered this list of educators and researchers that included not only Diane Ravitch, but Jonathan Kozol and Noam Chomsky, I could see some of their jaws literally drop to the floor. They were like: "Man, Noam Chomsky knows about this, and he signed a letter to support us?"

It really boosts people's spirits to know that they're getting national support. This is serious--there are professors and educators and activists around the country who have their hopes riding with them and who are invested in them. So that's the local angle.

But that's tied to the national angle, because what the letter does is it make this national support concrete in a way that didn't exist before. There are people signing online petitions, there's Facebook work going on, there are articles coming out on Common Dreams, there's your blog posts, there's my blog posts at Rethinking Schools. All that was happening, but the letter became something that said this boycott at Garfield is part of a national movement and something bigger.

In that regard, it's very, very important, not just to Seattle Public Schools and the teachers in Seattle joining in the boycott, but it's important to the world--and that importance becomes concrete through the letter and through the folks who signed it. What it does is help build the national movement and sustain things. That was my second hope in being involved with that letter.

The Garfield action raises some issues around organizing that we need to consider. There are folks like me and you and Jesse Hagopian who have very strong critiques of high-stakes standardized testing generally. I think a lot of the people who signed our letter have that critique, but that's not the critique of all of the Garfield teachers.

I think it's important to think about that. These folks are trying to organize and create unity around the issue of the MAP test specifically. Some are strong critics of high-stakes testing generally, but a lot of them are not, too. So there's something going on here that shows us how to organize locally in a way that creates this broader unity, which creates a vehicle to talk about both issues--not only do we get to talk about the MAP test, but we see the space open up to push a public discourse around high-stakes standardized testing generally.

I think there's a really good lesson to be learned around organizing and trying to pull together a relatively wide range of viewpoints into a broad point of unity that allows us to move our whole organizational effort against corporate education reform forward. I think that's a really important thing to get here.

Transcription by Leela Yellesetty and Rebecca Anshell Song