John Hope Franklin left us with a warning. The most important was on education. In a 2000 telephone interview, I felt his then-85 years seethe over the line from his home in Durham, N.C. To him, the use of standardized tests in our public schools to measure academic ability had gone way too far. He said it reminded him of 1935, when he walked from his historically African-American Fisk University, to white Vanderbilt University to take a test for a graduate studies program at Harvard.
"The professor at Vanderbilt literally threw the SAT at me," said Franklin, the historian who died this week at 94. "He was such a poor, crude critter. When I walked out of the building, I passed a black janitor who told me that I was the first black person he ever saw even being allowed to sit in that building."
Franklin made it to Harvard, earning a master's in 1936 and a doctorate in 1941. He lent his historical perspective to Thurgood Marshall's legal team to help persuade the Supreme Court to outlaw segregated schools in 1954. But it gnawed on him that racial segregation was replaced by class stratification in underfunded public schools. The crude way out for policy makers is to throw tests at the children.
"Yes, you want to know if a student can add or subtract or read in a certain way," Franklin said. ". . . What is much more important to know than a test score is a student's family life, personal life, their socialization, and so forth to help you determine what their abilities are and might be. I think the tests are stacked against any group that has disadvantages. The tests come out of laboratories where people have had certain kinds of experiences, say at prep schools and elite colleges, and have had various kinds of activities and social groups that are not part of an underprivileged student's experience."
In 2005, Franklin elaborated on the lack of willingness to equalize education to the Trotter Group of African-American newspaper columnists. "It's amazing," he said. "I sat at a table with three of our university presidents not too long ago. I thought they might discuss scholarship and the future of academic life in this country or something like that. But they were talking about how to make it into Class A athletics. . . . I'm not opposed to that, but these three great talents, or talented three people in position of leadership, are concerned with these matters and not with certain other matters . . . to assist us in moving to the next level. As long as we are concerned, not with those matters, but with other matters which it seems to me are inconsequential, I despair for the country."
Franklin's despair was lessened with the election of the nation's first African-American president. The day after Franklin died, President Obama told a town hall that in No Child Left Behind a test "doesn't even measure progress." He said teacher accountability "doesn't mean just a single, high-stakes standardized test. It also means that we're working with teachers to . . . maintain discipline in a classroom, what's the best way to get kids excited about science. Giving them the time and the resources to improve."
On curriculum, Obama added, "Instead of it being designed around sparking people's creativity and their interest in science, it ends up just being, 'Here's the test, here's what you have to learn,' which, you know the average kid is already squirming enough in their seat. Now they're thinking, 'Well, this is completely dull. This is completely uninteresting.' And they get turned off from science or math or all these wonderful subjects that potentially they could be passionate about. So what we want to do is not completely eliminate standardized tests. . . . We just don't want it to be the only thing."
Somewhere, Franklin is smiling. He went from being the first black person to sit in a Vanderbilt office to seeing the first black person run the Oval Office. There is no standardized test to measure how the nation went from there to that.