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Sunday, April 29, 2012

The hidden agenda behind standardized tests

From the Bradenton Times, by Dennis Maley

This week, local schools wrapped up yet another year of FCAT exams. The panic attacks, shot nerves and turning tummies that plague administrators, educators, parents, and not least of which students, can recede to the slightly less vexing anxiety of waiting to receive the scores. Few argue the notion that such tests are far from the best metric of educational success, yet so much hinges on their results. It might be easy to dismiss this as just another bureaucratic snafu, but others see an engineered outcome with a more nefarious goal – dismantling the public education system. A closer look suggests they might be right.

This is a subject that I have taken great interest in over many years. I have talked to countless educational professionals and have not found one who advocates high-stakes testing. In fact, it should be noted that the vast majority of standardized-testing experts and even the companies that produce them, do not advocate their use as a primary method of gauging educational success. In my experience, nearly all parents – especially those most engaged and involved in seeing that their child gets a quality education and schools are held accountable in providing it – loathe the tests. Students, even those who have excelled and prospered under the FCAT system, tell me almost without exception that it is an insulting premise to suggest that such a score is truly indicative of their academic merit.

The exams have come to define the way we teach. Rather than teaching what students need to learn, and then testing in a manner that measures whether they have, we teach based on what the test contains, compounding the problem of an already antiquated learning system. It seems certain that there is no way that we can reasonably expect to improve if we continue down this path, which we now have a large enough body of evidence to not only declare failure, but to confidently diagnose why it doesn't work.

So, why do lawmakers insist on not only continuing this process, but doubling down on it? I believe that there is a fairly well-coordinated effort by those who favor privatized education to dismantle the public education system, and that high-stakes standardized testing is seen as the perfect way to not only bring the system to its knees by tying one arm behind educators' backs, but then provide an engineered metric meant to justify radically reinventing education in a manner that will bring it in line with other class-divided privileges. It is no surprise that the same people who brought you a new FCAT, one that was shown in pre-testing to dramatically increase the number of failing and nearly-failing schools, are the same ones who promoted legislation making it easier to convert those institutions into charters.

It should also be no surprise that the loudest proponents of increasing standardized tests are now the same people advocating for the increased roll of private, for-profit institutions in publicly-financed education. I am not talking about parents who've had good experiences with their children at a charter school, or the talented teachers and committed principals who work in many of them. I'm not suggesting that there is not a roll for charter schools in our education system. I am, however, identifying an ideologically-driven movement with a clear agenda.

For many years, it has been the same policy groups and think tanks, along with their bought and paid for legislators that have told us education must be set on such a path. They've prescribed vouchers, charters and various ways to hamstring public schools, and are now moving on to ways in which to remove them from the system. At first, vouchers might seem like a viable plan. Their origins are actually rooted in altruistic intentions. But they've come to be looked at as a tool to de-fund struggling schools, putting a boot on their neck that they're too weak to break free of.

There's an inherent flaw in the way public schools in the U.S. are funded. Their relationship to property taxes already ensures that more prosperous neighborhoods will have more resources in their schools. Therefore, schools in the most economically-depressed areas already operate at significant disadvantages. To punish them for performing poorly by taking away funding, punishing teachers for working there by tying half of the evaluations to performance on a standardized test, and then allowing parents to opt out of the district and take their student's share of funding with them, will only put nails in their coffin.

To some people, this might sound like a good thing. But at a time when there is little appetite in increasing our public investments in anything not involving long-range ballistic missiles, and great appetite for further slashing government revenues (read taxes), there will likely be less, not more, total resources available. The idea that there is going to be a brighter, better and shinier institution for every child is a pipe dream. This road leads toward an increasingly feudalistic society, where education is evermore a privilege of the gilded class.

We have come to a fork in the American road. One idea is to take a page from a previous playbook that resulted in historic prosperity. To invest in a vital and educated workforce, regain our edge in science and technology, and to empower a new middle class of consumers that can fuel domestic growth. This requires policies like higher revenues (read taxes) and incentivizing investments that make such an outcome more likely. There is a competing idea that suggests America must become more like the rest of the world in order to compete with it. That our growing gap in prosperity simply means more of us must recalibrate our expectations, accept lower wages, more “personal responsibility” and sacrifice quality of life issues like clean water and air in order to become “competitive.”

In this kind of world, we won't need as many engineers, inventors, mathematicians, biologists, etc. They'll continue to come (more cheaply) from places like India and South Korea. We'll need more strong backs with low brows, conditioned to expect and even desire little more than some fast food and reality TV as respite from the warehouses and big box stores, and even the call centers and dirty factories when standards once more get low enough to be “competitive” with the third world nations that have sucked those occupations from our shores.

Yes, it's no surprise that the same people advocating high-stakes testing are the same ones who are pushing a 25 percent top-tax bracket, defend the hedge fund loophole, rail on the “death tax” and tell us that global warming is a hoax, and that we should drill, baby drill. In a feudal society, education is a privilege of wealth, and once the same ivory towers can fence off the primary education system and create an even larger barrier to moving up the social ladder than already exists at the collegiate level, it will be all the easier ensure a social order that accepts such inequality. The children of the privileged will continue to go to the best schools and they'll continue to extract wealth from the economy on Wall Street and in board rooms and executive suites all over the country. The last thing they need is a dissident population of well-educated self thinkers who've been left behind. Skull and Bones forever, I suppose.

Dennis Maley is a featured columnist and editor for The Bradenton Times. His column appears every Thursday and Sunday on our site and in our free Weekly Recap and Sunday Edition (click here to subscribe). An archive of Dennis' columns is available here. He can be reached at

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