Several talented students from Minneapolis’ South High School set out to make a short movie (see video below) about standardized testing in public schools. Lucky for them our Twin Cities community is rich with experts in education.

First, they found Vichet Chhuon, an associate professor in the University of Minnesota’s College of Education and Human Development.

He offered them insight that frankly has left me dumbfounded.

He said “The American school system was designed to efficiently sort students, and so, testing is really a product of that, it really carries it out well.”

The first part of that rings true. Schools have sorted students for generations through residence-based enrollments, tracking, and teacher recommendations for special programs.

Testing has also had a role in student sorting, for example, many magnet schools and gifted programs have required top test scores for admission.

Chhuon might be hinting at that problem when he says “I think tests do a really good job of sorting out and helping to ensure people from certain cultural communities and students of color and, not just students of color but working class students don’t get the same kind of access and privilege that largely white middle class students receive.”

That was just his warm up.

What he said next really took the lid off.

“High stakes standardized testing is a form of child labor, in some ways, exploitative child labor because you’re using children to make profits for adults.”

Chhuon’s message: tests are a racist tool of oppression.

The students found another expert in Patricia Torres Ray, the Minnesota State Senator who has chaired the Senate education committee and led discussions on education policy.

“We’ve had many, many researchers and scientists who have come to talk about cultural bias in testing. Sometimes we ask a child to respond to a question as to what this object is, and sometimes children have not seen that object before,” she told the students.

Ray’s message: tests are culturally biased, so students of color cannot possibly pass them.

Then, there is Ray Aponte, South High’s principal.

He told the students testing was devised by efficiency czars and money changers.

“The State of Minnesota pays a lot of money to these corporations to perform tests and grade these tests so its big business; so, like anything else in business, money talks,” he said.

Aponte’s message: tests are the product of shady corporatists.

It’s sad that none of these well-educated people of color told these students the historic and systemic significance of student testing.

They make no mention of student assessment as part of the diagnostic process of teaching and learning.

None of them touch on why accountability is necessary. They don’t mention how states played games with data for years to hide the fact that they had not been serving children of color well. Before states were required to disaggregate testing data by race, and to intervene in chronically lagging schools, there was little interest in addressing longstanding inequality.

They might have mentioned the War on Poverty included accountability provisions out of fear that sending money to states earmarked for the most needy students needed to be connected to measures of progress.

They might have mentioned that most civil rights lawsuits against the state for everything from funding equity to integration have used test scores as evidence of system inequity.

They might have mentioned that 37 national civil rights organizations banded together during the reworking of No Child Left Behind to fight for annual testing. Because it matters.

This is what civil rights groups said about testing:

…high-quality, statewide annual assessments are needed. It is imperative that parents, teachers, school leaders, public officials, and the public have objective and unbiased information on how their students are performing. ESEA [federal education law] must continue to require annual, statewide assessments for all students (in grades 3-8 and at least once in high school) that are aligned with, and measure each student’s progress toward meeting, the state’s college and career-ready standards.

That’s a far cry from likening testing to “child labor.”

Chhuon has a Ph.d.

Aponte and Ray both have advanced college degrees.

They’re all people of color, and they’ve passed a few tests in their lives on their way to high positions, good pay, and awesome benefits.

It’s perplexing how from their perch they are willing to discount the ability of others like them to repeat their success.

Chris Stewart is the Chief Executive Officer of Education Post, a media project of the Results in Education Foundation. He is a lifelong activist and 20-year supporter of nonprofit and education-related causes. Stewart has served as the director of outreach and external affairs for Education Post, the executive director of the African American Leadership Forum (AALF), and an elected member of the Minneapolis Public Schools Board of Education.


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