Dumping the Evidence: Remind Me Again Why Anti-Testing is ‘Progressive’?

Well, this isn’t subtle. From Alternet’s “7 Big Public Education Stories of 2014”:
Opt-out activists are targeting more than just the tests themselves. As an assistant principal in New York explained to me in October, “The whole school reform machine falls down without the data.” Beyond wasting instructional time, standardized assessments serve to legitimize school closures, runaway charter expansion, and drastically narrowed curricula.
Indeed, the school reform movement does fall down without the data. So do the movements around climate change, civil rights, public health, banking reform, industrial safety, economic justice and more. So it’s odd for a progressive outfit like Alternet (which is run by the former publisher of Mother Jones) and others to be cheering on the loss of data when it comes to the systematic failure of children of color in our traditional public schools. Data is evidence. And as the powerful know, if you can dump or discredit it, you can block most arguments for changing the status quo. Take the oil industry. For 20 or more years, Big Oil and its conservative allies have blocked action on climate change by insisting humans beings aren’t responsible; the science is in dispute and hence, why worry? Or take the issue of police shootings. In the wake of the recent national protests, many people are asking why there is no national data base on how many people are shot by police officers every year. Police unions and conservative allies argue that the data is difficult to collect and not necessarily helpful since every shooting is different. But I think the answer is pretty obvious: The numbers will be damning. And the data is a powerful argument for change. Which is why, starting in the 1990s,  the National Rifle Association blocked most federal research into gun violence and deaths. The NRA argued the data would be used to for a “political” agenda to destroy public education as we know it the Second Amendment.
“For policy to be effective, it needs to be based on evidence,” said Dr. Garen Wintemute, director of the Violence Prevention Research Program at the University of California, Davis, who had his Center for Disease Control financing cut in 1996. “The National Rifle Association and its allies in Congress have largely succeeded in choking off the development of evidence upon which that policy could be based.”
These tactics, according to Mother Jones have:
Kept meaningful data on gun violence out of the hands of lawmakers who could use it to help pass sensible reform legislation. Until (this ends), the NRA can rest easy and ask: where’s your proof?
Which is what I think the teachers unions are trying to do with test data and the issue of student achievement. By trying to shut down this data, the union is following the NRA’s reactionary, anti-science, anti-transparency playbook, which tends to be blithely racist to boot. None of this sounds particularly “progressive” to me. So I think activists on the left should think twice before signing on to this effort. Historically, teachers have never had a problem with so-called “high-stakes” or “high-stress” testing. Hell, this is the profession that invented the dreaded Final Exam and surprise pop-quiz. Standardized testing is also hardly new. The SAT exams were introduced in 1926. The Iowa Basic Skills Test, which even I, as an ancient crone, took way in my elementary days, was first administered in 1935. So why this new hysteria and backlash about standardized testing? I think there are three main causes.
  1. Under the 2001 No Child Left Behind Act, schools had to test annually in grades three to eight and then report the results demographically—frankly, it was one of the few good things to come out of that law. The resulting data showed stark, systematic gaps between white kids and children of color that couldn’t be dismissed simply by income levels. Yes, these gaps have been with us forever. But the data exposed it and made it hard to deny. Do I think the schools are solely to blame for this gap? No. Do I think the schools need to adapt to our 21st century and students? Yes. Because this is what institutional racism looks like, folks: starkly different outcomes for different groups. The data is staring at us and it’s not pretty.
  2. As our ability to track and analyze this data has grown, many districts started noticing that different teachers consistently had very different results. In Minneapolis, this data showed that the district’s top-performing teachers were achieving a year and a half’s worth of growth, year after year. Meanwhile students placed with low-performing teachers achieved six months of growth. And these teachers could be right across the hall from each other. This data made it harder for the teachers union to claim that no one could really tell who was a good teacher or not—it was all so subjective and personality-driven, which is why seniority had to be the top criteria in almost all staffing decisions, etc.
  3. In the last seven or so years, more and more states have required that teachers be evaluated in part by the progress their students make on these annual exams. (Nationally, it’s between 25-50 percent. In Minnesota, it’s 35 percent.) And ding, ding, ding, this is when the organized backlash against “high-stakes” “high-stress” testing seems to truly have started. Because #3 is challenging the old teaching paradigm, namely that It’s My Job To Teach and Their Job to Learn.
As the old saying goes, heresy is truth pushed to a logical extreme. Yes, kids have some responsibility for their own learning. But the old paradigm put it all on the children, which was very convenient for the adults, especially for white middle-class adults in settings where low-income children of color were failing en masse. Can we be clear? When the sole responsibility for test outcomes was on the children, there was little to no organized test resistance. But as soon as some of the responsibility shifted to the adults, oh my God! Let the weeping, wailing and gnashing of teeth begin. Oh, the inhumanity! Oh, the stress of “high-stakes”! Oh, the loss of childhood! Oh, the corporate conspiracy of Pearson! And so forth. I’m not entirely unsympathetic to the anti-test movement. Some districts test too much. Endless rote test prep is dumb. Art, music and gym are all crucial and belong in the curriculum. But the organized movement to dump standardized testing and replace it with projects or individual teacher’s tests, also strikes me as blatant attempt to dump the evidence. One more thing—this is a mostly white, Crunchy Mama, privileged-driven argument that overlaps a bit with the anti-vaccination rhetoric. Like the anti-vaccinators, Opt-Out parents seem confident that their children are not in danger. And if parents are confident their kid is brilliant and on-track to college, it’s easy to dismiss standardized tests as a drag on Little Dylan’s creativity. But if these same parents find out Little Dylan can’t read in fourth-grade or is three years behind in math, even though the teacher keeps showing them his wonderful art work—well, that’s when I suspect standardized testing becomes more important as does the location of the nearest Kumon math school. Etc. Check your privilege, people. Just sayin’.
Lynnell Mickelsen is a long-time progressive Democrat and recovering journalist who spent nearly two decades as a Minneapolis public school parent. An original version of this post appeared on her blog, "Put Kids First".
Lynnell Mickelsen
Lynnell Mickelsen is a long-time progressive Democrat and recovering journalist who spent nearly two decades as a Minneapolis public school parent. She is now active on education reform issues and writes on her blog Put Kids First.

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