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.

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25 thoughts on “The Tyranny of Standardized Testing

  1. Reblogged this on The Academe Blog and commented:
    What has been happening to our public schools is beginning to happen to our colleges. The tyranny of testing is filtering up. We involved in higher education need to be listening to the experiences of those involved in K-12, as the author of this post, Jamaal Bowman, is:

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  2. This article is the way to start the new school year. The truth from beginning to end! The connections you make between slavery, our educational system, standardized tests, and charter schools IS real and flawless.

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  3. Sorry but I strongly disagree.

    1) A standardized test doesn’t care if you’re white, black, asian, or whatever – it’s actually the least racist method of testing (as opposed to face to face interviews, or any other subjective assessments).

    2) So why are Asians, even the poor immigrant working class ones, able to do so well on tests despite not having much wealth to pay for additional study services? Are you implying that blacks are inherently not as good at standardized testing for structural reasons?

    I went to Stuyvesant and knew quite a few of the African American students there – yeah there weren’t enough of them, but those kids got in because they were smart and went on to do great things. Why aren’t there more black kids there? Well, I don’t think the problem’s with the schools, I think the problem is with families – there are too many social causes for poor academic performance that need to be addressed, and those can’t be addressed in a classroom. Throwing more money at poorly performing schools is exactly the wrong answer.

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  4. You are absolutely right! I am glad you have found a way to try and expose this.

    In our society today is an invisible hand of control which attempts to define our vocabularies, teaches us how to dress and behave, what to eat and yes even what to learn.

    Youth today are not able to just follow their curiosities while growing into their culture. This behavior is not just akin to slavery but it dissolves the incentives of immigrant assimilation creating the derisive tension we experience in our society today.

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  5. As blacks are about 13% of this nation, and no other group has problems with testing, you certainly don’t speak for the masses.

    Why is it poor Latinos, poor whites, poor Asians all excel yet poor blacks do not?

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    1. Not sure what you mean by “problems,” but whether you mean have trouble scoring high on the test or whether you mean protesting the tests, you are wrong on both counts, at least in New York State. In fact, this is why I have some hope that things WILL change in the future. New York’s tests have become so time-consuming, random, unpredictable, and poor in quality, and the way the tests are graded (cut scores) is so capricious, that now even rich white kids are having problems with the test. Those parents have been hounding our legislators in droves. And since they have clout, some legislators are starting to listen.

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  6. How truly sad. Black or brown people are not the only ones taking standardized tests.
    You seek to use an institution that has been dead for 150 years as an excuse for the failings of the modern day educational system. Wouldn’t a better excuse be the “Great Society”? It’s far more recent.
    If you really care to understand why there are such things as standardized testing then I encourage you to read The Deliberate Dumbing Down of America. It is a fascinating read and quite revealing. Every educator in America should be required to read this book.
    I would encourage you to call for reforms in the matter of teachers’ unions followed up by a united call to dismantle the Department of Education.
    I agree completely with you that the educational system needs reform. NCLB is a failure but far from being the sole source of the problem. It is merely a symptom of a much deeper issue.
    Thank you

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  7. I am wondering if the commenters above complaining about this “rant” actually have kids in public school, especially in grades 3-8. If they do, they are not paying very close attention. I am a white middle class parent. I send my kids to majority non-white low-income schools. So I see both sides of the coin, and I can verify that everything Mr. Bowman says is true, probably to an even greater extent than he states. “Drill and kill” test prep factories are filtering down to middle and upper class public schools. If we are not vigilant, it may soon be that you will have to pay private school tuition to get a well-rounded education. And, as I get more cynical following recent education issues, I am starting to wonder if that’s what “the man” wants. Hey, taxes will go down, right?

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  8. I am a “brown” South Asian who grew up under a system of standardized testing which was far more tyrannical than anything in the US today. It wasn’t fun. I knew kids that got burnt out and crushed by the system.

    However, for me personally, and for a lot of my friends, the standardized testing pushed us to learn and understand things that we would have otherwise not cared for. Growing up, I was told stories of kids from little towns who made it to top schools. So-and-so was ranked #7 in JEE, or so-and-so got a perfect GRE/GMAT score. I read about their struggle and achievement, and was luckily able to emulate them. Without standardized tests, none of the Universities would have known about my existence.

    My point is that there is a middle ground. Yes, standardized tests can seem like slavery. But they can also find merit where prejudice would dictate otherwise.

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    1. Thank you for your thoughtful response. What if standardized exams from the state were used periodically instead of annually. What if you were driven to learn by your passions as opposed to simply the test? I envision a world where students are learning via the multiple intelligences and are engaged in a pedagogy of joy. I believe it is this pedagogy, that will literally change the world.

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      1. Definitely makes sense. Learning is easier when the student finds the process joyful.

        I recently found a great book titled “Where Mathematics Come From” by George Lakoff and Rafael E. Núñez. I think some of their ideas might relate to your point on “learning via the multiple intelligences”.

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  9. I have shared this to my timeline. Thank you for writing about such an important topic in such an honest and heartfelt way. I’m a teacher and I appreciate you putting this perspective out there. I agree with your points and hope that people start to question the narrative put out by “reformers” that standardized testing is meant to narrow the achievement gap. I would think by now it would be clear that this is not the case. Still, they continue to stand by this view. I appreciate your well written blog that eloquently states the truth.

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