High stakes standardized testing, authorized by the federal government’s No Child Left Behind Act in 2001, is now ubiquitous in American schools. With the approval of the Every Student Succeeds Act in 2016, we continue the legacy of administering annual tests to every child in grades 3-8 and once in high school. Although federal policy has driven America’s testing program since the arrival of No Child Left Behind, standardized testing has a long and provocative history in the United States. From their inception, standardized tests have often influenced, and been influenced by, a variety of social, cultural, human, political and economic factors. The purpose of this paper is to explore the history of standardized testing in the United States and its role in all aspects of society, and to provide an alternative vision that embraces the intellectual, cultural, and developmental diversity of America’s children. This new theoretical and conceptual approach has been referred to by many as educating the whole child.
The Four Frames
Bolman and Deal’s four-frames helps leaders to view the same situation (Bolman and Deal, 2013) from different perspectives which facilitates effective problem solving. Oftentimes, leaders view situations through a singular frame, and thus become frustrated when the answer to a challenge does not readily present itself. However, leaders who strive to reframe a situation, and understand it from another point of view, become better at managing varied occurrences. According to Bolman and Deal (2013), the goal is for leaders to develop “fluid expertise,” which illustrates the seamless use of each frame when the appropriate opportunity presents itself. (p.12).
Some would argue that public education and standardized testing disproportionately function from a structural frame perspective. With the implementation of annual standardized testing, and now with the explosion of computer testing in our schools, we are operating from a hyper-rational frame driven mostly by metrics (Bolman & Deal, 2013). At present, standardized testing that are administered by state education departments annually in grades 3-8, are generally created by a third party private vendor (Livaudais, 2016). In the past, standardized tests were administered by local schools and school districts and were also created by a third party (Au, 2013). Some states in both the past and the present have used standardized test scores for promotional decisions, as well as to make both homogeneous and heterogeneous classroom decisions, which often resulted in disproportionally tracking the poor, immigrant, and African Americans into classrooms of low efficacy and low expectations (Au, 2013).
The human resource frame explains the importance of understanding the complexity of human beings and human relationships. Some would argue that schools, like other organizations, are like families where individuals have needs, feelings, prejudices, skills, and limitations (Bolman & Deal, 2013). With regard to the implementation of the Every Student Succeeds Act and the recent Race To The Top initiatives, there is evidence that human needs have been neglected based on the lack of teacher preparation and training (Scholastic, 2014) tied to the initiatives. As a consequence, a parent-led resistance to these policies have resulted in the refusal of standardized testing by hundreds of thousands of parents throughout the country, citing a lack of knowledge of the changes and the harm that was being done to their children among other things. (Levy & Saraisky, 2016).
Politically, power dynamics have often been in play throughout the history of public schools and standardized tests. We continue to rank and sort individual students based on test scores, as opposed to implementing more cooperative practices that leverage the strengths of our diversity. This paper will illustrate many of the power dynamics involved with regard to testing, but here I will briefly mention that some of the most powerful people in our country, from the president, to governors, to local school superintendents, have continuously supported annual standardized testing as a strategy for improving public schools (Chingos, Dynarski, West & Whitehurst, 2015).
Symbolically, organizations and schools do not exist separately from but rather are anchored by the social and culture reality of its students, staff, and families (Bolman & Deal, 2013). From a symbolic perspective, cultural expression occurs through rituals, events, stories and ceremonies that abandon the assumptions of rationality. Annual testing serves as a symbolic ritual in our public schools. Every year, test results show African Americans, Latinos, English language learners, special needs and low income students, performing below their white, English speaking, general education, economically advantaged peers. This “persistent denigration” (Stone, 2012) serves to illustrate the continued struggles of students from particular groups, just as early standardized tests have done in the past as part of the eugenics movement (p. 111-112).
High-Stakes standardized testing in the United States began as a re-contextualization of an assessment tool developed in France by Alfred Binet in 1904. The Binet Scale IQ test was designed to assess if young children were mildly developmentally disabled (Au, 2013), and to provide them the adequate supports needed to function in society. Despite the fact that Binet argued against the use of IQ scores as static, due to the race and class politics at the turn of the 19th century in the United States, American cognitive psychologists Henry Goddard, Lewis Terman, and Robert Yerkes distorted Binet’s original use of the test to justify the ranking, sorting, and segregation of people by race, ethnicity, gender, and class according to supposed hereditary based intelligence (Au, 2013).
In 1865, the 13th amendment to the United States Constitution was narrowly passed effectively ending slavery in America unless you were incarcerated. Despite the ending of slavery under federal law, many of America’s citizens were not ready to accept African Americans as equals. Therefore, states began to implement segregation laws, and lynching became an ever-present aspect of American life (Kousser, 2003).
The post slavery period in America also consisted of a rapid rise in immigration to support our industrial revolution. During this period, many of the soon to be factory workers that fueled the industrial revolution were from southern and eastern Europe. Many believe this population along with the recently freed slaves, became targets of discrimination based on standardized test scores, and America’s structure of a biological caste hierarchy (Au, 2013).
Citing Dikotter (1998), Winfield (2010), states “eugenics was a fundamental aspect of some of the most important cultural and social movements of the twentieth century, intimately linked to ideologies of “race,” nations, and gender, inextricably meshed with population control, social hygiene, state hospitals, and the welfare state (p. 467).
Inequality was so pervasive in American society, many citizens, politicians, and scholars supported segregated schools, segregated classrooms, selective breeding and even forced sterilization. Beginning with Indiana in 1907, 32 states adopted laws authorizing the sterilization of people judged to have hereditary defects (Jones, 2017).
Sir Francis Galton, English statistician and cousin of Charles Darwin, author of The Origin of Species, developed the term eugenics in 1883 to articulate his plan to improve the human race through selective breeding (Black, 2003; Kevles, 1985 & Winfield, 2012). According to Spiro (2009), Sir Francis Galton, analyzing the long line of wealthy Englishman on both sides of his ancestral tree, believed that “if a twentieth part of the cost and pains were spent in measures for the improvement of the human race that is spent on the improvement of the breed of horses and cattle, what a galaxy of genius might we not create” (p.121).
Another major spokesman for the eugenics movement was psychologist Edward Thorndike, who many refer to as one of the “Fathers of Curriculum.” Thorndike played a leading role in the design of our modern education system (Winfield, 2012). Between 1908 and 1916, Thorndike and his students at Columbia University developed standardized achievement tests in arithmetic, handwriting, spelling, drawing, reading, and language ability. Thorndike wrote a New York Times article in 1927 that coincided with the release of his book The Measurement of Intelligence. Winfield (2012) highlights Thorndike’s thinking from the Times’ article:
Men are born unequal in intellect, character, and skill. It is impossible and undesirable to make them equal by education. The proper work of education is to improve all men according to their several possibilities, in ways consistent with the welfare of all (p.147).
Here Thorndike, a Columbia University professor, is not only clear on his beliefs related to intelligence being hereditary and unchanging, he also does not believe it is worth investing the time and money to “make them equal by education.” Instead, he believes we should do the best we can to maintain the system of inequality, for the “welfare of all.”
The welfare of all in American culture at the turn of the 19th century and into the 20th century referred mainly to the middle and upper class of American society. All did not mean African Americans immigrants from certain countries, or the less “fit.” Fitter family contests were continuously written about in newspapers and the wealthy continuously supported the study and proliferation of eugenics through investments. From 1920-1938 the Eugenical News was also published to continue narrative of intelligence based on heredity (Winfield, 2012).
Some would argue that America’s first general-purpose philanthropic foundations — Russell Sage (founded 1907), Carnegie (1911), and Rockefeller (1913) — backed eugenics because they considered themselves to be progressive, and as searching for root causes of societal problems (Schambra, 2013).
Testing Begins to Spread
Lewis Terman, a Stanford University psychologist with the support of the National Academy of Sciences, revised an intelligence test originally created for the army, to be used to rank and sort school children. Along with others, Terman created the Stanford achievement test in 1922 and by 1925, reported sales were near 1.5 million copies (Au, 2013). Using tests to track students into achievement groupings in school began around this time. A 1925 survey of 215 cities with populations over 10,000 found that 64% of participating cities used testing to sort students into classrooms in elementary school, 56% used tests to sort junior high school students, and 41% of high schools used tests to classify and sort students as well (Au, 2013). By 1932, almost 75% of school districts began to use intelligence testing to place students into ability groups and colleges began to use tests to justify admissions as well (Haney, 1984).
Through this tracking system, and in accordance with Thorndike’s “proper work of education” concept, John Franklin Bobbit, also considered one of the fathers of curriculum (Winfield, 2012), believed that schools should be structured to prepare students for their future social roles. Therefore, structuring schools like industrial factories with students as raw materials and teachers as assembly line workers was the best way to achieve the goal of social efficiency (Au, 2013).
Although immigrants were needed to support the boom of the industrial revolution, maintaining the American caste system was important to many. To stem the immigration tide of the early 20th century, Henry Goddard translated Alfred Binet’s test and put it to use assessing the intelligence of immigrants on Ellis Island in 1917. The study concluded that 83 percent of Jews, 79 percent of Italians, and 87 percent of Russians were feebleminded adults with a mental age of under five years old (Pepper, 2006). Also in 1917, psychologist and Army Colonel Robert Yerkes was responsible for the mental testing of almost 2 million recruits during World War I. Yerkes used test results to sort incoming soldiers and determine their “mental fitness.” Some conclusions drawn by Yerkes during this time was that the intelligence of European immigrants could be judged by their country of origin. According to Yerkes, the darker peoples of eastern and southern Europe were less intelligent than their fairer skinned, western and northern counterparts (Au, 2013).
Karier (1972) explains how the tests designed by Yerkes and others had deep seeded bias built in:
Designing the Stanford-binet intelligence test, Terman developed questions which were based on presumed progressive difficulty in performing tasks which he believed were necessary for ascending the hierarchical occupational structure. He then proceeded to find that according to the results of his tests, the intelligence of different occupational classes fit his ascending hierarchy. It was little wonder that IQ reflected social class bias. It was in fact based on the social class order (P. 163-164).
As we analyze data from current standardized testing in American schools, the results continue to fall along socioeconomic lines (Tienken, 2016).
The For-Profit Agenda
Just as philanthropy and investment contributed to the spread of standardized testing in America from a local school and school district perspective, the spread continues at present following the No Child Left Behind, Race to The Top, and Every Student Succeeds Act legislation from a federal policy perspective. Shortly after No Child Left Behind became law, organizations like the Sylvan Learning Centers increased profits by 250%. Organizations like Sylvan Learning Centers increased profits because parents rushed to place their children in tutoring programs to ensure their children attained proficiency on annual standardized tests. Within five years of the NCLB legislation, sales of printed materials related to standardized tests nearly tripled to $592 million (Pepper, 2006).
The testing industry is also related to the charter school industry. Under the federal “New Market Tax Credit” program, investors in charters and other projects in underserved communities can collect a generous tax credit of up to 39% to offset their costs (Wiggins, 2013). This generous tax credit can help organizations almost double their money within a seven-year period. The corporatization of America through Citizens United and other endeavors directly relates to the testing industry and the proliferation of charter schools. Pepper (2006) further explains:
The effect of NCLB has been to dismantle public education by funneling public tax dollars directly to corporations through penalties, private tutoring companies, and vouchers. Once more, the populations paying for this policy are students of color and the poor, since according to Ben Clarke in CorpWatch, the poorest schools with limited resources comprised primarily of such students perform the worst on the tests. The schools are then reconstituted by the school district, outsourced to private companies like Edison, or a portion of their federal funding is diverted to “parental choice” (p. 40).
The Heritage Foundation, and other conservative think tanks that support market based theory in public education have a history of union busting and decreased accountability in charter schools (Anderson and Donchik, 2016).
Paul Weyrich, co-founder of the Heritage Foundation, founded the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) in 1973. Anderson and Donchik (2016), report:
While ALEC’s espoused mission statement is clear about its grounding in free markets, limited government, federalism, and individual liberty, a holistic coding of the model bills of the Education Task Force found that bills tended to cluster around three main themes: (a) the privatization of public assets, or, in other words, the transfer of state taxpayer dollars from public schools to private non-profit or for-profit education corporations; (b) opposition to teachers unions, tenure, and certification; and (c) the transfer of new managerialist principles to the public sector (p. 333).
Education management organizations (EMO’s), are now the norm in public education. Citing a report from Amy Goodman regarding the New Orleans school system, Pepper (2006) states:
The EMO model has already dismantled the New Orleans public school district. Immediately after Hurricane Katrina hit, the Louisiana state legislature voted to take over most of the city’s public schools and effectively fire the 7,500 teachers and employees who work in them. Control of many of the schools is being given to private charter management organizations (p. 41).
How students perform on standardized tests, continues to impact school closures, the opening of charter schools, de-unionization, and segregation based on intellectual, social, and economic resources.
A Way Forward
The Civil Rights Movement was a watershed moment in American history. Legislatively, America was no longer going to accept inequality as our reality. This movement followed the landmark Brown vs. Board of Education case which unanimously ruled that state-sanctioned segregation of public schools was a violation of the 14th amendment and therefore unconstitutional. Interestingly, near the end of the Civil Rights movement, the National Assessment of Education Progress (NAEP) was first administered in 1967. In 1970, the NAEP illustrated a 50%-point gap between African Americans and Whites in math and reading achievement. There was still a long way to go.
Despite continued testing in the U.S., president Lyndon B. Johnson finally began to take a holistic view of what was happening in our public schools. As part of his Great Society initiative, the Elementary and Secondary Education Act was authorized in 1965 which included Title 1 funding to support the poorest students in the poorest schools. The Voting Rights Act was also authorized in 1965 following the Civil Rights Act of 1964 which ended legal discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex, or national origin and provided opportunities for marginalized people to engage in the electorate and to receive labor justice. America, from a federal policy perspective, was redesigning itself politically and structurally to meet the needs of all children.
In many ways throughout American history, inequality has been facilitated by a dominant culture, which has been present since before the Declaration of Independence. Generally speaking, the dominant culture has been white, male, “educated,” English speaking, and property owning. All other cultures in the United States, from African Americans to immigrants, to indentured servants have been trying to measure up and be accepted by America’s dominant culture.
Otherness is the way we appreciate others who are different (Edwards, 2015). It reflects, healthy socio-moral outlook and cultural warmth during interactions with others and reactions to those who are different. Otherness development is based on human nature, and reactions based on differences (Edwards, 2015). Looking at the standardization of America’s schools via standardized testing solely in English language arts and mathematics, standardized curriculum, and standardized instructional practices, we notice the ignoring of the multiple intelligences (Gardner, 2011), the social emotional development of all children, and a lack of self-reflection and deeper learning present. Despite our increases in diversity, we continue to support only a pedagogy rooted in the dominant culture.
Moreover, from a cognitive perspective, this dominant culture has operated from the neocortex, analytical compartments of the brain. When embracing all children and educating the whole child, we must incorporate emotional intelligence into our public schools. Cognitive intelligence predominates America’s schools. And though beneficial to many, continuing to neglect the emotional intelligence of America’s students stagnates us from reaching our ideals as a country. Emotional intelligence is necessary to fully embrace America’s diversity. We do this with a focus on experiential learning, and by focusing teacher training and classroom pedagogy on the limbic system of the brain (Goleman, 1996). Further, our analytical strengths have also become our analytical weaknesses as we continue to judge and support all children through this narrow lens. Sternberg (2006) talks about analytical, practical, and creative skills as being of particular importance to society. Don Ambrose (2011) discusses how utopian, neoliberal market based ideology is suppressing our creativity. To properly educate the whole child and every child we have to go in a different direction.
Because the dominant culture is so embedded in American society, it will take Kurt Lewin’s change theory, by means of the implementation methods used by Edgar Schein throughout public education, to facilitate the process of reexamining ourselves, identifying disconfirmation, and making the necessary changes toward socio-moral people, schools, and nation. We must holistically analyze America’s “data” to see if our expectations and hopes are being realized (Schien, 1995). America’s disproportionality in college graduation, incarceration, infant mortality, and wealth indicate a country that is not living up to its ideals and provides disconfirming data to begin the change process. As we connect this disconfirming data with the survival anxiety of the masses, we can begin the process of unfreezing which initiates change.
As we leave the unfreezing state and enter the changing stage, cognitive restructuring will be required. Within the context of moving from a white English patriarchy lens to a more multicultural lens with regard to achievement in public education, we must redefine what achievement is from one rooted in analytical verbal reasoning, to one encompassing both pragmatic and creative intelligence (Sternberg, 2006). Moving away from the narrow definition of intelligence championed by Terman, Yerkes, and Goddard and toward Gardner, Sternberg, and Goleman requires the process of cognitive restructuring.
This is a process that we must commit to both locally and nationally as it is a process that takes time, commitment, and leadership. Consider scanning, which is necessary for refreezing, and one can grasp the gravity of the change that is needed.
Double Loop Learning
America’s current test and sanction practices are an example of single loop learning as policy (Anderson, 1994). We focus on changing actions, related to singular measures as opposed analyzing and changing our governing variables. Our espoused theory of equality, as evidenced by the Preamble to the United States Constitution, is vastly different than the theories that have been in practice throughout American history. By implementing double loop learning as part of the professional preparation and development of all educators, we begin to critically examining our “governing values,” which will lead not only to change in our surface actions, but the governing variables themselves. Our theory-in-use must become more multidimensional.
Two Success Stories
Tacoma Public Schools (TPS) has created a Whole Child accountability system, after an extensive community input and data collection process (Ahmed, Hurley & Murray, 2015). The district measures student progress in alignment with whether students are healthy, safe, engaged, challenged, and supported.
Ahmed, Hurley & Murray (2015) explain:
TPS reports publicly on the benchmarks, promoting trust, transparency, and accountability to the community. TPS engaged in a comprehensive gap analysis of all related policies, processes, and programs to identify action steps. As a result, TPS has increased graduation rates by approximately 20% in 4 years, over 90% of students participate in the PSAT and SAT testing, and an increased number of TPS students receive scholarships to community and four year institutions (p.799)
A key word above is “challenged.” We can cognitively challenge students while also meeting their holistic needs. Our school system must be redesigned around both quantitative and qualitative measures to promote the welfare and success of all students.
Another success story is the implementation and research of Howard Gardner’s theory of the Multiple Intelligences implemented in an Ireland school district. Gardner defined an intelligence as the ability to solve problems or fashion products that are of consequence in a particular cultural setting or community. Hanafin (2014) explains in her study that “teachers reported successful student outcomes including more interest and motivation, better recall and deeper understanding, higher attainment, improved self-esteem, and more fun and enjoyable classroom experiences” (p. 126).
Under current federal education policy, innovative assessment pilots will only be authorized in seven states. Going forward, holistic learning, encompassing the community as a learning organism, established locally, will meet the cultural needs of each community and ignite the full potential of every child. This will allow America to fulfill the ideals of its constitution.
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