Educational Darkness

Image of Picasso work

The contemporary avalanche of high-stakes testing and other assessment procedures in education is constructed upon faulty philosophical premises, which can be detrimental and harmful to students and teachers.

In medicine, the adage goes, “First, do no harm.” That should apply to education as well. What if, for example, a particular high-stakes test is poorly constructed and penalizes students for giving the right answer? What if a teacher must teach the “untruth” in order to keep her job? The implications of these errors for our society are enormous.

We must grant the possibility that this country’s obsessive efforts to quantify student achievement, along with the conservative attack on the education establishment in general, is the real crisis in education today.

Let me be clear that the deployment of high-stakes testing in our schools has been both a Democratic and Republican conquest, and I mean the word conquest as in a political attack upon and then the occupation of schools. For example, Education Secretary Arne Duncan, serving under President Barack Obama, has been a major battlefield general directing the current conquest.

I’m willing to concede there are political leaders that truly believe that high-stakes testing, which is testing in schools that can penalize teachers and students for low scores, is a method to boost achievement. Certainly, though, at this juncture anyone truly concerned with education would concede the high-stakes testing movement has created systems and procedures fraught with error.

The overall attack on the public education establishment, however, is ultimately a conservative ploy, which has used high-stakes testing in order to transfer public assets, primarily tax dollars, to private companies in order to respond to the fake crisis created by low test scores.

All this manifested itself recently in Oklahoma after some schools claimed that recent test scores for fifth- and eighth-graders were probably wrong in many cases. CTB/McGraw-Hill gave the tests. For example, the schools complained, according to a media report, that some students received lower scores for plagiarism, when, in fact they were merely citing sources.

Here’s the Tulsa World story about the issue. I won’t rehash all the complaints, all of which seem quite legitimate.

I have two points:

(1) As a longtime college professor here, I think students in our public schools should learn how to cite and document sources in papers and show evidence for their arguments. When students enter college, they should know these basic concepts and should be ready to learn and then apply different style and documentation guidelines in their research papers. If teachers must warn students as they approach a high-stakes test not to back up their arguments or interpretations with verifiable evidence, then there’s a real problem. It means the system is harming students, teaching them the wrong thing and implanting in them a basic untruthful idea.

(2) Why is a private company administering the test in the first place? It only makes sense that a for-profit company would align itself with those who want to use the crisis created by high-stakes testing as a way to transfer taxpayer money to the private sector. I’m not arguing that CTB/McGraw-Hill has an intentionally skewed test, but the overall conservative effort to privatize education is more likely in their financial interests than not.

Not many people are against basic standardized tests or measurements in public schools. But those tests and measurements should be created within the public school system itself and administered by the system itself. Any major action, such as holding a student back a grade or closing a school, should be done holistically and with the aim of really addressing problems, not as an excuse for more privatization, which can extend accessibility prejudices.

Education in this country and Oklahoma has become a political battleground that creates real casualties among students and teachers, and there has been a surge in misguided administrative oversight that defies logic and creates incompetence. Yet still teachers help students to learn in this new educational darkness.