The Tyranny of Standardized Testing

Public school high stakes standardized testing is a form of modern day slavery, and is designed to continue the proliferation of inequality in our society.

I’ve known standardized testing my entire career. From the very beginning, how well students performed on standardized tests determined our worth as teachers and the worth of our school. A level 3 on the test was proficient. Level 4 was advanced. Level 2 was “almost” proficient and gut wrenching for a teacher. And level 1 was hopeless for the parent, teacher and student.

I have been a New York City educator for fifteen years, and I absolutely love what I do! I’ve had the pleasure of teaching students from kindergarten through twelfth grade in mostly “low income” schools. I’m now entering my 7th year as the founding principal of C.A.S.A. Middle School in the Bronx, and unfortunately, standardized testing continues to dominate the narrative. I say unfortunately because I believe standardized testing, especially the way it’s currently implemented, to be a major part of an oppressive form of education. And if we do not reverse course soon, the health and innovative spirit of our country will continue to suffer, while our economic and opportunity gaps fortify to the point of being irreversible.

After serving as a math cluster teacher during my first year, I was tapped to be a 4th grade classroom teacher in my second year. This meant that I was responsible for “teaching” language arts, math, and social studies. 4th grade was awesome! I thought my students just old enough to handle serious content yet young enough to still be innocent and impressionable. We didn’t have many resources and there was no real “rhyme and reason” to the curriculum. It wasn’t that resources were lacking because of underfunding, they were lacking because the school was in turmoil. The school had a part time principal and a cheating scandal before I arrived. So in many ways, in the wake of all of this, the school was still trying to find itself. By the end of my fifth year, four different principals held the position. Unfortunately, desperate poor and immigrant families were at the behest of this chaos.

As a classroom teacher, the state test jargon became part of the lexicon. We were told to focus more on “non fiction” reading passages because that was on the state test. “Be sure to practice multiple choice questions, so students get used to them,” administrators would often say. Practice exams occurred at least once a week beginning about two months prior to the real thing. These practice tests took at least two hours to administer and another two hours to grade. All of this time could’ve been used developing and implementing truly rich and authentic curriculum.  Because of this obsession with testing, our kids did not have art, music, theater, or any truly aesthetic course to enlighten their varied intelligences. They also didn’t have nearly enough science, as math and language arts were the only subjects tested. The student curriculum only included reading, writing, and arithmetic.

When the test scores arrived we celebrated. A few students would move from a level 2 to a level 3. A few others moved from a level 1 to a level 2. Every other student kind of remained the same, and teachers would pray no students went backwards. The next year teachers would do a better job of “analyzing” the exams. We would look at the types of questions, the way in which they were framed, the length of the passages, and the structure of the writing prompts and responses. We would be ready and our kids would perform better as well.

Students did perform better. Every year our test scores would creep up annually. Our school never saw exponential gains, but we saw improvement. We were totally a test prep school, focused more on the test than meeting the holistic needs of children and preparing them for a 21st century economy. The test controlled us.

The incremental improvements weren’t enough; especially not during the No Child left Behind era (NCLB). Under NCLB, which was enacted in 2001, all students were supposed to be “proficient” by 2015. Under this sort of pressure, four years after I left the school, it was closed down. The school was restructured into two new schools with smart and ambitious new leadership ready to take the children to the Promised Land — “passing” the state exam.

What also increased the pressure was the recent influx of charter schools. Some charter schools were crushing the state exams. They were “out performing” traditional public schools and even out performing public schools in white upper middle class communities. These select charters were better at analyzing the exams then we were. They administered interim assessments and used data driven instruction where we didn’t. They worked longer hours and longer school years. Bottom line, they “got it done!” The country rejoiced at the results. There was proof that poor black and brown children could learn! It was time to celebrate and pour billions of dollars into charter schools all over the country. For many, charter schools were the answer they were looking for, and the future of public education.

But as time went one, and the data continued to roll in, new narratives about testing, charters, standards, and American society began to present itself.

  • First, the 8th grade graduating class of a particular charter school, which had the 5th highest math scores in New York City in 2003, only had 21% of that cohort graduating from college six years after entering. It seemed that high test scores did not equal college success. What went wrong here?
  • Second, charter schools hold lotteries for entrance and have strict academic and parent involvement guidelines. Only savvy parents, who have the ability and opportunity to proactively meet the criteria for a particular charter school, are able to obtain and keep a seat for their children. If a parent works long unpredictable hours and can’t take a day off of work, they may miss a deadline and be left out. This is significant anecdotal data because many studies have shown that the more “savvy” and attentive the parent, the better chance their child has to do well in school regardless of what school the child attends. Given this we must ask, are charters the sole reason for the high test scores of students or should we give more credit to the savvy more available parent?
  • Further, since entry into a new millennium, America has been getting its butt kicked on international assessments. On the 2006 PISA assessment, America ranked 24th in math and 25th in science respectively. We were not only beaten by Asian countries, who have a reputation for high performance on standardized exams, but countries like Canada, Finland, and Norway also kicked our butts. Ironically, these latter countries manage their school systems by implementing research from American scholars like John Dewey, and Howard Gardner, while we continue to spin our wheels toward more standardized testing.

The “American Dream” was being replaced with the American reality. A reality that annual testing and charter schools have not closed the achievement gap between blacks and whites, nor has it closed the gap between America and the rest of the developed world.

Therefore, the charter school regime cannot be the future of public education. They are privately funded, anti union, test prep factories with draconian behavioral policies. They have mostly white staff with mostly black and brown students who are not allowed to speak during breakfast, lunch, or hallway transitions. A student from a New Orleans charter school stated, “I hate going to school. It feels like prison.” Charters argue that their “learning” environment contributes to their good test results. Well of course it does. That’s the point. Oppressive assessments, lead to oppressive schools, and oppressed students.

I believe the future of public education should be rooted in the principles of our democracy, and the needs of the people. Let’s consider that progressive public and private schools do not have high stakes standardized testing. They provide a well-rounded curriculum aligned to the innate curiosity and multiple intelligences of children. Their pedagogy is student centered and rooted in exploration, creativity, systems thinking, and aesthetic experience. I know this because I’ve visited many progressive schools and interviewed their students, staff and parents. I’ve also engaged in exhilarating and transformative progressive professional development facilitated by these schools. Unfortunately, our public schools offer professional that’s much more regressive than progressive.

As progressive school parents theoretically represent the “upper crests” of our society and refuse to send their children to test-obsessed schools, shouldn’t public schools try to emulate some of these practices? Public school students have the right to fulfill their potential like everyone else.

Some might argue that progressive school families are more “cultured” than the general public school family who is simply trying to survive from one day to the next. It’s like “comparing apples to oranges” they say. I agree that there are different experiences and thus different mindsets at play here. However, I would also argue that because many public school families are simply overwhelmed with living, schools and communities should be designed to give all students more consistent access to culture and varied learning experiences. Instead of oppressing families with a barrage of standardized exams, our government should collaborate with educators, health care professionals and community based organizations to provide a holistic education that uplifts and nurtures healthy and happy communities. The standardized exams are simply telling us what common sense already knows — historically oppressed and disenfranchised communities need a lot of help.

A democracy only works if there are people and systems in place that support our most vulnerable toward upward mobility. Let’s invest in “wraparound” services to support the needs of all children. Let’s align our resources and design our communities to provide “conception to career” supports. Let’s implement joy and a love of learning into our curriculum and pedagogy, so that we may have a society of happy and healthy adults. Let’s create stimulating learning spaces that support students in finding their passions. If we do, together we can reach our democratic ideals.

Let’s reflect briefly on the fact that public schools were designed for a different age and a different time. Public schools were designed for the purpose of indoctrination and for the maintenance of empire; Particularly, the sustenance of western empire. To paraphrase Sugata Mitra, students needed to learn how to “read, write legibly and do multiplication, division, addition, and subtraction in their heads,” so that no matter where they moved throughout the empire, they could fit nicely into position as an employee. Public education has always been designed to create an “assembly line” mental model, and the way we currently do testing sustains that model.

But the 21st century requires different skills and thus a different approach. Imagine we allowed education research to impact our policy, live in our classrooms, and address what’s really ailing our communities. Research tells us that there is a language gap that exists in lower class communities. It also tells us that toxic stress and chronic trauma disproportionately compromises executive functions in low-income communities of color particularly. Research has also found that those living in poverty literally have less brain matter and thus smaller brains than those from middle class communities. All of this research is currently ignored in public education. Instead, we’re approaching public education with an agenda that lacks a research base and one that has proven to only make matters worse.

Instead of sitting an 8-year old down for nine hours of testing every year, and at least 13 hours of testing if the student has special needs, let’s implement a curriculum that’s open and exploratory; One that allows students choice and peer support. And one that creates the next wave of engineers, architects, artists, and design thinkers. As we address the psycho-social-emotional needs of our communities mentioned above, we can begin to implement an invigorating 21st century curriculum.

So what can we do? Consider the words of the Declaration of Independence,

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”

“That whenever any form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government.” 

The reality is, we were never “created” equal in America. When these words were written the black man was a slave, not a man. When the constitution was completed we were only “promoted” to 3/5 of a man. The descendants of these enslaved people, 236 years after the Declaration of Independence, continue to perform 30-40 percentage points behind their master. Either our educational leaders are incredibly ignorant to these connections, or this is all by deliberate design.

Congress just recently voted to continue annual testing with the Every Child Achieves Act (ECAA).  This act, will lead our country toward investing billions of public dollars into private companies to administer oppressive standardized testing tactics, instead of investing billions in what the research says is needed for our communities.

Whenever government becomes destructive of its people, it’s time for the people to alter or abolish the government. When parents choose to opt out of the state tests, they are using civil disobedience to alter the government for its destructive high stakes standardized testing practices. Parents are opting out because the current implementation of standardized testing perpetuates a mental model of oppression for parents, teachers, and students.

Parents are opting out because they love their children and they love America.  Parents want to create a future rooted in America’s ideals that’s brighter for their children and grandchildren. A future, not rooted in the poverty, war, pain and suffering of today. But a future rooted in love and happiness.

Teachers are forced to align their curriculum and instruction to the state exams. Despite the very questionable validity and reliability of the exams, teachers are still punished if their students don’t perform well. Student intellectual abilities are then compromised because of the narrowing of the thinking and learning experiences that occur in standardized testing classrooms. Our fast paced unpredictable economy needs adaptive citizens who live aligned to their brilliance. Test prep schools are the last thing we need. Especially when considering the tests are created by private industry focused more on profit and dependence than transforming the lives of children.

America was born of horror for black people and that horror continues today for brown and poor people as well. Slavery, Jim Crow, redlining, crack cocaine, and now standardized testing were all sanctioned by the American government. All designed to destroy the mind body and souls of black and brown people; All within our so-called democracy.

Throughout history, when the American people united, these injustices were destroyed. I’m incredibly inspired to see parents of all races and backgrounds unite to destroy the oppression of standardized testing. The Opt Out Movement, along with the Black Lives Matter Movement, give me tremendous hope and love for this country. I stand for justice, I stand for humanity, and I encourage parents to stand in solidarity with each other. Parents must remember that they are the essential voice in education that will transform the system and by extension, transform the world.

Holistic Schools

There are 1.1 million children taught by 75,000 teachers in 1,800 schools throughout New York City. A city that is bigger than most states in America. It was therefore incredibly humbling to learn that based on the 2015 New York State test results, our school had the highest combined average growth scores in the entire city. 

Cornerstone Academy for Social Action Middle School (CASA) opened its doors in 2009, and has a track record of performing well on state exams. During the school report card era, Cornerstone never received less than a B as a grade. Prior to this year, our best year was 2012 in which Cornerstone received an A on its report card and was ranked in the top 17% of all New York City middle schools. 

As Schools nationwide continue to struggle to close the so called achievement gap, we continue to perform relatively well with a student body that is 100% Black and Latino. 

Quite often, when discussing the values, ideals, and results of my school, I have to clarify that we are not a charter school. We do not hold lotteries and do not have policies that allow us to discard students if those policies aren’t followed. Our students are allowed to speak freely during breakfast, lunch, and hallway transitions, as long as they speak respectfully of others and the learning environment. And lastly, our teachers are union — proud empowered members of the United Federation of Teachers.  

So what does it all mean? Although I am very happy for our school community, and proud of our most recent results, I know very well these results only tell a small portion of our story. I also know that the current climate of standardized testing does more harm than good to students. First, success on standardized tests are not predictive of college and career happiness or success. In Crossing The Finish Line, written by two former college presidents, based on their review of detailed data from 68 colleges the college board and the SAT, the authors concluded that the most accurate predictor of college completion was not the standardized SAT or ACT scores, but rather, the high school GPA of students. This is a clear indicator that it is the teacher’s expertise that should be more highly regarded throughout K-12 education above an arbitrary standardized exam. Further, in his landmark book How Children Succeed, Paul Tough tells the story of KIPP’s first graduating class. Although KIPP’s inaugural class had the fifth highest math test scores in New York City in 2003, only 21 percent of the cohort — 8 students, had completed college by age 26. Despite awesome standardized test results. Something obviously was missing. 

Numerous research, including the work of Howard Gardner and Sir Ken Robinson, show that state exams only measure a narrow view of intelligence. Because of this, it is even more damaging when schools align their curriculum and pedagogy to the narrow focus of the state exams, while simultaneously ignoring the innate curiosity of children and the 21st century skills needed to thrive in our current economy. The state exams do not measure creativity, verbal communication, real world problem solving, spatial intelligence, collaboration, initiative, or adaptability among others competencies. Only schools can do that. The intuitive brilliance of students is ignored by state exams and I would argue that it is exactly intuitive brilliance of students that is widely needed to rescue our economy and humanity from the damage of old mindsets and policies that continue to facilitate inequality and despair. 

After 15 years of testing in this way, and over 25 years of Teach for America, the so called achievement gap, wage gap, and some might argue depression and anxiety have grown. It is time to have different conversations and enact new education policy. Maybe CASA can be a major part of this new conversation. 

First, considering the above, the state exam is not a focus of our learning environment. Because of this, we are free to meet the individual, holistic needs of each student, while co-designing an authentic curriculum. Our curricula includes the multiple intelligences and space for additional academic supports where needed. With that, our students receive 450-600 minutes of literacy instruction per week, depending upon their needs. This instruction takes the form of large group, small group, and individualized instruction where necessary. 

We anchor our literacy instruction in writing performance tasks which help us to align the reading, writing, listening, and speaking standards in a more organic and cohesive fashion. With this, we can read and have critical dialogue on any topic and our students develop stronger skills in narrative, argument, and expository writing. 

Our students also receive at least 300 minutes of math instruction per week in large and small groups while also leveraging the efficiency and differentiating abilities of technology. Students also receive 375 minutes of S.T.E.A.M. (Science, Technology, Engineering, Art, Math) per week in which they work on projects directly designed to build their 21st century competencies. 

What’s just as important with our curricula is what happens outside of the “core subjects.” Our students receive recess daily. Gym, dance, and creative arts occur 2-3 times per week, as does technology and game design. Students also have a class called Genius Hour where they have the opportunity to work on projects aligned to their passions and interests.
We also have after school programming five days a week, where students can learn audio engineering, gardening, fine arts, robotics, sports, and receive additional tutoring where needed. 
Although the technical aspects of our learning environment are important, what I’m personally most proud of are the words used by visitors after a tour of our school and some interaction with our students and staff. They speak more to the tone, mood, and spirit of our school community. 

From filmmaker Michael Elliot: 
This school is unlike any other. If you visit, the first thing you notice is joy. Joy in the faces of students. 

From Fordham professor Mark Naison: 

Clearly the message being promoted in this school from the top down, is that these students are the carriers of a proud cultural tradition created in the communities in which they lived. 

Former student Yahira Ruiz Rameriz: 
I told my mom my first internship is going to be working at Home (CASA).

I see a clear connection between knowledge of self and joy, and that is the learning environment we’ve tried to create from the very beginning. Because Black lives matter in education as well, our students tackle issues within their community, and learn about their history and culture. This is all part of our restorative justice framework, as we work to restore what has been historically been stripped from our students. Further, we have a social worker and guidance counselor who work together to meet the psycho/social/emotional needs of students. As opposed to suspending students on a whim, we build quality relationships with students and families and hold mediations and restorative circles as needed. 
All of this helps us to create a safe learning environment and home for our students. Words like love and family are natural words to be used when describing our school. I love my students as my children and I love my teachers as my family. And it is this feeling, first and foremost, that drive everything that happens at CASA.
Finally, the most important aspect of any great school are the staff members. To use a sports analogy, championships aren’t won without great players. Thankfully, we have “great players.” 

All too often I read and hear stories about teachers being bullied, intimidated, disempowered, and alienated. In the climate of high stakes accountability and lack of proper resources and supports, I can see how this creates toxic learning environments filled with apathy and despair within school communities. I see this same overwhelming stress as I observe the entire public education system. Parents, teachers, and the elected officials are constantly at odds over what should be happening in public education. While we fight, children continue to suffer. 
At CASA we aim to do the exact opposite. Teachers have a voice in everything that we do. Teachers are empowered to share their ideas and genius with the school community at all times. We try to create a culture that’s transparent so there are no surprises, secrets or fears. Our environment is rooted in trust so teachers are free to take risks and feel supported in their continued learning and development. The growth and improvement of teachers is not just supported by me, but by their colleagues as well. We know we are the lead learners in our school community so we must model the way for parents and students. 

Further, our organizational structure is horizontal. We embrace the understanding that great ideas come from anyone at anytime, and anyone can take the lead on a project. From the school aide to the school principal all are encouraged to pursue their ideas to make our school great. Dan Pink, who highlights the research done by MIT, illustrates that people are driven by purpose, not “carrots and sticks.” This understanding informs our school culture. When staff members are personally invested with their ideas, it invigorates the entire learning community. 

Our staff members are awesome and we want to continue to empower them to be awesome. Supporting staff excellence has continued to create a culture of love, joy, and family. And that, above anything, is what makes our school great.