More Than a Number

Any conditions that compel the teacher to take note of failures rather than of healthy growth give false standards and result in distortion and perversion.

— John Dewey1

School failed me, and I failed the school. It bored me. The teachers behaved like Feldwebel (sergeants). I wanted to learn what I wanted to know, but they wanted me to learn for the exam.

— Albert Einstein2

It is widely recognized that children are curious creatures. Yet, something happens during schooling (a time when one might surmise that opportunities to discover or receive answers would be forthcoming to the questions of the learners) that turns learners off. Albert Einstein identified this as testing.

Moerthanascore_DVThe book More Than a Score: The New Uprising against High-stakes Testing (Haymarket Books, 2014), focuses on one particular aspect of testing: the use of standardized tests. The book has multiple authors and is edited by Jesse Hagopian, a history teacher and a prominent figure in the Seattle public schools boycott of high-stakes standardized testing.

Hagopian finds problems with such testing: “… what standardized tests measure above all is a student’s access to resources.” (p 15) Consequently, “… attaching high stakes to these exams only serves to exacerbate racial and class inequality.” (p. 15)

This would seem patently obvious to critical thinkers. The child with a stable homelife, good nutrition, and stimulating surroundings naturally enjoys an advantage over the child of a broken home, one who goes to bed hungry, and lacks intellectual stimulation. What kind of results would one expect from testing such unequal groups? Moreover, it is well known within social science circles that meaningful comparisons cannot be drawn when the variables in a situation are uncontrolled. Even if the comparisons were meaningful, is making such comparisons worthwhile? Or could the comparisons be harmful to learning?3

Hagopian identifies a need for authentic assessments “that reflect actual student knowledge and learning.” (p. 16)

Educator and activist Nancy-Carlsson-Paige points out, “Assessments are really for teachers—to help them understand children and to help them [the students] learn.” (p. 87) These assessments are formative, not meant for grading, but as guides for teachers to better facilitate learning.

Hagopian finds, “When a test becomes the goal of education, rather than one tool in service of it, meaningful learning ceases to exist, and education is replaced by what we call a ‘testucation.’” (p. 26)

Teacher Barbara Madeloni relates her principal once told her that learners should: “… realize this is not a democracy.” (p. 58) What is the message imparted by such a mindset?

More Than a Score is about teachers, students, parents, and even some administrators that oppose the testocracy for a variety of reasons: among them, it reduces students to a number; it is stressful for students; it is used against teachers as an unfair evaluation of their teaching efficacy; it reduces time that could be spent learning; it takes the fun out of learning; it discriminates against students of color and poor students…

Special education teacher Sarah Chambers holds that excessive testing is “child abuse.” (p. 113)

Teacher union leader Mary Cathyrn D. Ricker questions the priorities of the testocrats. “They could have decided to look through the lens of equity and side with the child, and protecting the child at all costs, and instead they chose to protect the test at all costs. (p. 93) Disappointingly, union leaders did not always have the backs of their rank-and-file members. (p. 129)

Although many of the testocrats were not trained pedagogues, they sought to impose their high-stakes testing and teacher evaluations without input from the stakeholders. Is this democracy? The corporate testing regime plays dirty: withholding money from school districts, divide-and-conquer tactics among teachers, scare tactics, “bullying teachers,” (p. 118, 208) “bullying students, (p. 120) threatening job dismissal, disinformation.

What reflects most tellingly on the testocrats was their own lack of accountability.

In fact, students and their teachers are currently the only people in our state being held “accountable” for our education system’s failures. Not RIDE [Rhode Island Department of Education], which is in charge of setting education policy; not our school district, which has failed to create the engaging learning communities we need; and certainly not our state’s elected officials, who have consistently underfunded schools and social services while cutting taxes for Rhode Island’s wealthiest citizens multiple times in the last decade. (p. 136)

Alexia Garcia, who graduated from high school in 2013, understands the struggle for education: “…you cannot just reason with business interests and the profit motive, you have to build a base of power to challenge them.” (p. 155)

This points to a key lesson from More Than a Score: that through solidarity, corporate profiteers can be defeated. Teachers banded together, students and parents joined with the teachers. Courageous administrators also joined. People boycotted and opted out of the tests.

*****
The standardized testing was being used to evaluate teachers as well as students. Few people like to be subjected to a forced evaluation. Yet More Than a Score does not call into question other topics equally significant such as grading students or rank-ordering students depending on their academic performance. This was beyond the scope of the book, but nary a mention leaves the book open to being viewed as self-serving for teachers or deficient in critical consideration of the wider effects of schooling upon learners. Nonetheless, it is clear that Hagopian is envisioning a progressivist mode of education, one starkly opposed to the neoliberal mode of education that puts teachers and learners under scrutiny and reduces them both to numbers.

More Than a Score provides perspectives from a gamut of the opposition to standardized testing and why people are opposed. It does not adamantly oppose all forms of testing, and this leads a reader to ponder what testing is “good” versus what testing is “bad” — and why. Despite this, More Than a Score makes a valuable addition to the reading list of teachers, students, parents, administrators, school board officials, as all these people, and anyone else who cares about the future, should be aware of what is transpiring within the halls of education and the boardrooms that conspire to impose a corporatist model of education.

Educator Phyllis Tashlik says, “… we want to present every student with the option of college. We want to know that we’ve gotten every kid to the level where they can survive college.” (p. 288)

What are the alternatives? Is homework, testing, and grading the only path to college? More Than a Score does promote the forgotten principle of learning through play (p. 208-210).4

*****
I became acquainted with a kind Korean physician who had brought his family to Canada so his children could escape the competition and stress of education in Korea. I experienced this a year later when teaching in Korea. While walking downtown late at night (I am talking about 1 am), I would often encounter students leaving their hogwons (cram schools). I then understood well the snoozing heads on desktops during regular school hours. In Korea it is pretty much all about the university entrance exams. In Japan it is very similar.

Finland, which shares with Japan and Korea a high regard for the teaching profession, is a leading light in the educational world. Finland de-emphasizes rigorous testing and, supposedly, outperforms the US on academic performance.5 Nonetheless, how much credence should be put on these competitions?

Albert Einstein is the poster persona of learning transcending the testing and grading schema of schooling. An interesting anecdote was Einstein’s response to a fad question about the speed of sound. Einstein responded, “[I do not] carry such information in my mind since it is readily available in books. …The value of a college education is not the learning of many facts but the training of the mind to think.”6 This is especially true nowadays, when most answers are readily searchable on computing devices.

How many parents would object if their child wound up to be the next Einstein?

  1. John Dewey, Moral Principles in Education (NY: Houghton Mifflin Co., 1909): 189. []
  2. Quoted in William Hermanns, Einstein and the Poet: In Search of the Cosmic Man (Branden Books, 2013): 8-9. []
  3. See Alfie Kohn, No Contest: The Case Against Competition (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co., 1986). Kohn in his survey of the literature on competition found that results conclusively favored cooperation over competition, the latter he found to be “inherently destructive.” []
  4. See Peter Gray, Free to Learn: Why Unleashing the Instinct to Play Will Make Our Children Happier, More Self-reliant, and Better Students for Life (NY: Bantam Books, 2013). See review. []
  5. See Christina Gros-Lohmar, “Finnish Education Chief: ‘We Created a School System Based on Equality’,” The Atlantic, 17 March 2014. []
  6. In Ronald W. Clark, The Life and Times of Albert Einstein (New York: Avon Books, 1971, 1984). []
Kim Petersen is a former co-editor of the Dissident Voice newsletter. He can be reached at: kimohp@gmail.com. Twitter: @kimpetersen. Read other articles by Kim.