by Citizen Stewart
Listen, I’m not trying to mess with a President who has damn near a 100% approval rating with black people. If I have beef with President Barack H. Obama I usually gripe to myself about it and realize my people won’t be with me.
That is, until now, when he seems to be conceding a monumentally important battle.
I am talking about standardized testing.
Let me say two things upfront for context:
First, as a kid I hated test taking in school. I did very poorly most of the time. Not because I was unintelligent but because I lost ground academically in the middle grades and missed learning the foundational knowledge needed to succeed later. After middle school everything after that was a frustrating struggle.
Second, unlike the growing chorus of anti-testing zealots, I appreciate the role testing plays in the communication loop between parent, teacher, community, and government. As someone who was left behind, undetected and underserved, I feel a strong need for third party verification of where my kids are in the performance continuum of all students.
So, when Obama announces a plan to address concerns about standardized testing, I’m listening with fear.
In a recent letter to parents my president asked this question: “If your kids had more free time at school, what would you want them to do with it?”
My short answer: learn all they can so they can go to college, get jobs, have families, afford healthcare, have good credit, and produce grandchildren who will live better than I have. It’s kinda my dream.
In moderation, I believe smart, strategic tests can help us measure our kids’ progress in school. As a parent, I want to know how my kids are doing, and I want their teachers to know that, too. As President, I want to hold all of us accountable for making sure every child, everywhere, is learning what he or she needs to be successful.
It’s classic Obama. Saying really smart stuff like that. It makes me nod in agreement like I’m listening to hip hop.
Now, here’s where he delivers red meat to the suburban anti-testing cabal – and I get concerned:
But when I look back on the great teachers who shaped my life, what I remember isn’t the way they prepared me to take a standardized test. What I remember is the way they taught me to believe in myself. To be curious about the world. To take charge of my own learning so that I could reach my full potential. They inspired me to open up a window into parts of the world I’d never thought of before.
See, we had really different teachers. Some of my teachers were nice enough people who affirmed me and worked hard to help me advance. Many were not. In the years where I lost ground it was clear the further I fell behind, the less interest there was in my success, potential, or humanity. Even a kid can pick up those cues.
To be fair, there are three ways the President says he wants to improve testing. He wants the test kids take to be good ones. He wants to ensure tests don’t take too much time away from instruction and learning. And, he wants to clarify the role of tests as one piece of information, at one point in times, not a live or die measure used to determine everything for kids and schools.
I’m good with all of those improvements. Given the national loathing of standardized testing by privileged parents, I understand how we have lost the political will to stand firm on the facts of testing. Now we must yield to the powerful, if not misguided, stereotypes and outright lies.
In truth there is a disconnect between what people say about standardized testing when they’re amped up as activists, and what I experience as a parent of kids in a Midwestern elementary school. I understand it’s the job of activists, when they hate something, to make the thing seem worse than smoking, bacon, and texting while driving combined. But two weeks ago my wife and I sat with our teachers for a conference and they walked us through various pieces of information to explain how our kids are doing. They started with the testing data, which gave us a tool to work with in the discussion. Our teachers are veterans, confident, and incredibly informative about our kids, the tests, and what we as parents should do to support our kids.
My head is in this stuff all the time because I write about it. But at our school, with my kids, I’m a civilian. My personal experience is a little different than the anti-testing parent activists and the teachers’ unions that support them. Where I live testing is already just one measure that our teachers use to help us understand how our kids are doing. My kids are not in a Gulag styled testing mill all day (though I am about to start a minor revolution if they don’t give our kids more than 8 minutes to eat lunch). They have art, music, recess, library time, and physical education. We don’t live in a dystopian testing hell.
I once was an elected member of a school board who took on the issue of over-testing. Our superintendent brought the board a spreadsheet of all the tests our students take. Boy, there were a lot of them. The interesting finding was that most of the tests were ones schools and teachers had acquired or developed themselves. Few were mandated. If we were over-testing it wasn’t because the Federal government demanded it. Local control did it.
So, my gentle message to the President is this: as you appease the ideological left and the reactionary right I hope you keep your eyes on the prize. I hope you realize both groups, unions and state bureaucrats, have a vested interest in obscuring any data that reveals immoral differences in student outcomes. No one really likes being held accountable for doing a good job, but promoting the general welfare means keeping government honest. I want proof.
Standardized testing is an important part of schooling. Yes, some parents are getting loud and pushy about ending testing, but they don’t have to worry their affluent kids will suffer. Some worry with good reason. We’ve learned to be vigilant about accountability and the need for objective data.
Though we don’t have a union or a surplus of skin privilege, I hope you’ll listen to us too.
For more information, see You can learn more in our new Testing Action Plan.