Here’s a quiz. Who said “Public school high stakes standardized testing is a form of modern day slavery, and is designed to continue the proliferation of inequality in our society.”
That quote from August 2015 was the first line of a blog post written by NYC principal Jamaal Bowman.
As a veteran teacher and principal Bowman wants to warn us of the ways testing corrupts education and threatens the future of our students.
I’m now entering my 7th year as the founding principal of C.A.S.A. Middle School in the Bronx, and unfortunately, standardized testing continues to dominate the narrative. I say unfortunately because I believe standardized testing, especially the way it’s currently implemented, to be a major part of an oppressive form of education. And if we do not reverse course soon, the health and innovative spirit of our country will continue to suffer, while our economic and opportunity gaps fortify to the point of being irreversible.
Bowman tells a compelling story from his years as a classroom teacher when schools were superheated by No Child Left Behind to show improving test scores. Teachers were pressured to give non-fiction reading assignments solely because that’s what was on the tests. They were to give quizzes with multiple choice questions because that would give students practice for the state tests.
Curriculum narrowed and a teacher’s worth became tied up in test results. There was celebration with even marginal success, but dread if students slipped backward a level.
His school did not see “exponential gains,” but there was improvement. Still, Bowman says “we were totally a test prep school…the test controlled us.”
I feel for this description. It sounds like unintended consequences run amuck and the perfect case of policy makers on high seeing none of the implications of their policies on the ground.
But then his story pivots and my sympathy vaporizes.
Bowman turns his attention to those damned charter schools and how they were “crushing the state exams.” His reader should quickly see the point of his story is not that testing is bad, it’s that schools doing well on tests shouldn’t be held up to shame schools that aren’t.
He starts by giving charters credit for moving the needle.
These select charters were better at analyzing the exams then we were. They administered interim assessments and used data driven instruction where we didn’t. They worked longer hours and longer school years. Bottom line, they “got it done!” The country rejoiced at the results. There was proof that poor black and brown children could learn! It was time to celebrate and pour billions of dollars into charter schools all over the country. For many, charter schools were the answer they were looking for, and the future of public education.
Then, the truth came to light and charters were shown to be less than stellar.
He gives a flimsy example of one charter school that had really high test scores, but only 21% of them graduated from college. Isn’t that just awful? It proves charters aren’t all that and a dime sack.
Bowman’s intentions become immediately transparent from there. He marshals every cliche to discount the success of charters. Their lotteries screen kids out. Only savvy parents get their kids in charters. Charters have strict parental participation rules. And so on.
You think that’s bad, well….
They are privately funded, anti union, test prep factories with draconian behavioral policies. They have mostly white staff with mostly black and brown students who are not allowed to speak during breakfast, lunch, or hallway transitions. A student from a New Orleans charter school stated, “I hate going to school. It feels like prison.” Charters argue that their “learning” environment contributes to their good test results. Well of course it does. That’s the point. Oppressive assessments, lead to oppressive schools, and oppressed students.
It’s more than I can take. No serious person should insult readers this way. If my kids ever write a paper with arguments this weak, I hope their teacher’s use a big red pen to set them straight.
From there Bowman wanders. He gets all grandiloquent and rambles about multiple intelligences, progressive education, democracy, the Declaration of Independence, and some goofy statements so doltish I’m embarrassed for him, the college that educated him, and the hiring process that put him in a school.
“Parents are opting out [of standardized testing] because they love their children and they love America,” he writes. Stephen Cobert could do no better than that.
Not quite satisfied with that level of foolishness he adds this:
“America was born of horror for black people and that horror continues today for brown and poor people as well. Slavery, Jim Crow, redlining, crack cocaine, and now standardized testing were all sanctioned by the American government. All designed to destroy the mind body and souls of black and brown people; All within our so-called democracy.”
The phrase “I just can’t” was invented for moments just like this.
All of this bluster on his side and snark on mine covers one very important question: how are the children doing?
What happens to students who don’t pass these tests and never receive adequate interventions to catch them up?
What happens when grade after grade teachers practice a misguided form of love that hides low expectations in a blanket of false affirmations?
How would we stop these inequitable results from becoming invisible if we stop collecting the summative information that brings them to light?
This graphic below shows the results for black students at Cornerstone Academy, Bowman’s school. It tells me he has it all wrong. Nothing is more oppressive and aligned with Jim Crow than seeing these numbers and not thinking it’s a problem.